I have been lucky (I use the term loosely) enough to arrive on my year abroad in time for the ten-day Cairo Festival of Experimental Theatre. Far from Oxford’s bubble-wrapped student productions, Cairo takes the Middle East’s theatrical answer to the Eurovision Song Contest to a whole new level.
Hailing from as faraway as Latvia or Brazil, the productions constituted a surreal cocktail from interpretative Sudanese line dancing to Shakespeare in Nigeria. Moreover, the governing body, taking things a little too literally perhaps, exhibited an ‘experimental’ level of organisational incompetence that would make even the OUDS committee blush.
There was always the possibility that the venue may have been changed without warning, the show may not start on time (if at all), or the theatre may not even exist.
Yet, armed with nothing but that proverbial pinch of salt and an invulnerable sense of humour I set off, like a wanderer in the night, in search of theatrical treasure.
When I struck gold it was often for the wrong reasons. I soon came to learn that comedy was, if unintentionally, high on the agenda. I saw an utterly bizarre show called Frog’s Wing, where a combination of Casio keyboard kitsch, a temperamental technical producer and three graceless Sudanese men dressed as birds, resulted in a hilarious show performed at times in absolute darkness to a pre-recorded string section accompaniment.
My experience with Shakespeare has been equally painful. Had it not been for three very carefully placed English sentences I would have had absolutely no idea that I was even watching Julius Caesar. The rest of the pale skinned and fair-haired members of the audience were, having foolishly trusted the word of the festival schedule, expecting a Russian play about the beginning of the world.
It doesn’t get better I’m afraid. Turning up to see Romeo and Juliet at a small theatre inside the National Opera House compound, I walked in on the final death scene hopelessly clutching a ticket that said it wasn’t to start for another ten minutes. The bows were good though.
However, despite the absurdity, I have many happy memories. An exhausting hour searching for The Tale of the Deadly Butterfly (at a nonexistent theatre) resulted in a wonderful evening: I was taught to play Backgammon (well, I might add) in a local Egyptian coffeehouse.
If theatre in Cairo has taught me anything it is to appreciate the unexpected. For that I am extremely grateful.