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Two Plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker: The Love of the Nightingale at the Women and Memory Forum and Our Country’s Good at the AUC (1998)

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Basiouny had taken her project to the Centre hoping for moral and financial support. Of the former, she got plenty; but the Centre, which suffers from a chronic shortage of funds and is already sponsoring research for a feminist production by Caroline Khalil, another young director, could not take on the project. El-Sadda and her partners, however, did not leave Basiouny in the lurch and decided to organize an evening for her at the Centre and invite to it feminists, critics, and prospective sponsors to discuss ways of funding and launching the project. It was up to Basiouny to convince her audience of the potential value of her planned production and of her competence as director.

She did both admirably, giving a thorough-and detailed description of the proposed work, with costume and set sketches, production tables, rehearsal schedules and background research. She also treated us to a succinct analysis of the play’s structure, pointing out its technical merits, powerful dramatic images, and ironical manipulation of different levels of language and modes of speech to expose the power hierarchies and the gender biases underlying human interaction. What impressed me most was Basiouny’s perceptive awareness of the play’s innate theatricality. She dwelt with relish on Scene 5, which takes place in an Athenian theatre and weaves in scenes from Euripides’ Hippolytus which form a crucial dramatic thread and a shattering, ironical prophecy; she equally appreciated the stunning use of gigantic puppets (not unlike the ones Peter Schumann used for his Bread and Puppet Theatre in the sixties) in the Bacchae carnival scene in which Philomele stages, with their help, in front of her sister, among the revelers and acrobats, a mute, brutal reenactment of her rape and mutilation.

It was obvious that Basiouny, though a keen feminist, had treated the play as a work of art, not as a feminist tract. If we coughed up the money for the production, she concluded, or persuaded others to do so, she would give us, she promised, an enjoyable and entertaining piece of theatre. I believed her. The two scenes that were read from the Arabic version of the play proved Basiouny to be a competent and sensitive translator. The audience was moved by Philomele’s suffering, shocked to laughter by the coarseness of Niobe’s ribald comments on the rape of her mistress, and enraged by the brutality of Tereus. That evening, Basiouny gave us a tantalizing taste of what she and her troupe, Sabeel, have been cooking and are ready to serve provided someone foots the bill. I hope that someone turns up soon before the Nightingale project gets stale and we lose a production which not only addresses an issue of great urgency for women, but promises also to address it beautifully.

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