Rather than being an art form, in Cairo street theatre is really the status quo. The city’s inhabitants transform its streets into the venue for a never-ending epic of disgruntled drivers, inexorable customers, operatic ambulant merchants and lascivious rebuffed Romeos, the audience made up of balcony-dwellers, coffee shop patrons and lost tourists. Both fitting and ironic then, that the Goethe Institute and Austrian Cultural Forum brought tea to China in the form of its street theatre festival held Downtown on Saturday afternoon.
Sponsored by the European Commission, the first Egyptian-European Street Theatre Festival brought together theatre troupes from Germany, Egypt and Austria who braved inferno-like temperatures to put on performance theatre, pantomime and story telling. The festival was also taken to Alexandria, Assiut and Minya.
The faded and pedestrianised old world glory of Alfi Street was an appropriate stage for the proceedings, each side of the narrow street lined with grimy painted shop facades and beautiful, towering, apartment buildings from whose statuesque heights curious onlookers periodically emerged onto balconies. At street level the scene at first resembled a scaled down political demonstration a la egyptienne, with flocks of policemen clad in their dazzling summer whites arranged in rows at either end of the street, while their plain-clothed brethren milled in and out of the small crowd to the music of their crackling walkie-talkies. In addition a group of young men dressed in green t-shirts had been mobilised to act as a mobile human cordon around the festival’s acts, separating them from the crowd – again reminiscent of the plain-clothed spectres omnipresent at protests. Their presence seemed entirely contrary to the aim of the festival, restricting the ability of the acts to interact with spectators and vice versa. It in any case only served to enervate the crowd every time they found themselves trampled on by it.
After opening pleasantries by the organisers, the predominantly male crowd was suddenly confronted with a vision of three Germans on giant stilts wearing whirling dervish outfits who span down the street to the soundtrack of something vaguely Sufi. As the unfortunate green cordon struggled to keep up with them, tempers fraying, the crowd watched enthralled, now staring open-mouthed, now beating a hasty retreat as a stilt-man or woman suddenly lunged at them playfully. At one point the stilt-woman approached a startled bearded man in a prayer cap and coyly took him by the hand, before the two danced together, the man blowing her kisses to the claps of the delighted crowd. Death-defying high leg kicks from one of the stilt-men provoked gasps and exclamations.
These elevated antics gave way to the far soberer Du und Nichts Panotomimentheater from Austria, who unintentionally demonstrated how an Egyptian audience are capable of putting on a far more entertaining show then the planned event. For fifteen minutes three men painted white head to toe and dressed in safari type clothes walked silently and painfully slowly down the street stopping periodically to theatrically examine something visible only to themselves on the ground, all to the accompaniment of what sounded like Chillout Classics Volume 7. After one particularly lengthy episode of ground-staring an elderly Nubian woman in sunglasses suddenly burst through the green cordon in a blaze of pink and green and proceeded to perform a rhythmic shoulder-shaking jig to the roar of the crowd. As the three men continued to look into the middle-distance, as impervious to her presence as statutes, she extracted money notes which she flung at the men before shimmying off. Her impromptu show entirely destroyed the inexplicable and self-conscious solemnity of the strange performance and, in the process, made it ten times better.
Egypt’s first contribution to the festival was by raconteur Ramadan Khater who mesmerised the crowd with humorous stories and folk tales of the Beni Hilal tribe to the accompaniment of rababa and tabla. He recounted the story of a petty fraudster who goes to the house of a beneficent and wealthy old man and asks him to interpret a dream: in it he had seen a well which, he discovered as he went down, was incredibly deep. The fraudster went on to say ‘I went down and down and down’ for a week – during which time he was of course fed and watered by his generous host. After a week of this mantra he eventually arrived at the bottom of the well where, he told his despairing host, he discovered a strange looking rock around which he tied a rope in anticipation of dragging it up and up and up – but was interrupted by the old man who said to him knowingly, ‘you spent a week going down the well without a rock, how long are you going to spend coming up? It’s better if you stay down there.’
As the shadows lengthened the Zebra Steltzentheater stilts came back out, this time in the form of what resembled arachnid aliens and a beautiful creature from the deep. The monsters’ tentacle-like arms and bulging eyes sent some people scattering disaster movie-style, as the creatures battled it out to win the heart of the mermaid who herself watched from her promontory underneath that other venue for romantic conquest, Alfi Street’s New Arizona Super Night Club. The festival closed with the excellent Egyptian Wel ya Wel puppet theatre who put on an el leyla el kebeera type spectacle featuring singing donkeys and a little boy with an eating disorder. Children, parents and policemen watched transfixed and laughing as the audience were instructed to eat breakfast so that they can do their sums and dazzle everyone during sports lessons.
The success of this festival demonstrates that street theatre – with its emphasis on audience participation – works perfectly in the Cairene context where everything is already turned into a Roman Colosseum type spectacle anyway. One can only wonder however – given the security presence on Saturday and in light of the their suspicion of any organised masses – whether if the street theatre idea took off, the authorities would be willing to turn over control of the streets for even a purpose as innocuous as this.
Originally published in al Ahram Weekly