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Sabour’s Night Traveler in Cairo

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For this new production, director Mahmoud Fouad Sedky conceived a marvelous new visual concept for the play. Instead of building a train interior on the stage, as has always been done in the past, he created and actual full-sized wooden train carried in the large open plaza in front of Cairo’s leading experimental theatre, the Hanager. The audience thus was seated as actual passengers in this train, with the characters moving among them. The effectiveness of this ingenious arrangement was increased by the director’s design of the car, which was not laid out in a straight line, but had a small flat acting area in the center of the car, with the sections on either side tilted slightly upward, so that the audience all had something like a conventional raked view of the central area. Most of the action took place in this area, but the entire interior was clearly part of the setting.   The effectiveness of these arrangements was increased by a continually shifting play of lights which both provided atmosphere to the evolving scenes and contributed to the illusion that the train was actually moving.

Night Traveler stage. Photo: Marvin Carlson.

The ingenious staging alone would have made this a unique and memorable production, but the three actors were as outstanding as the visual setting in which they performed. Highest honors go to Alaa Quqa as the mercurial but always menacing ticket agent, whose constant shifts in tonality, slipping into different registers, and manipulation of his hefty body, reminded me of the great American actor Zero Mostel. He well deserved the Best Acting Award which this performance gained him at the National Theatre Festival earlier this year. Mustafa Hamza, whose small and slender body contrasted nicely with the conductor’s bulk, was a perfect foil—cringing, confused, desperate to accommodate at any cost. The narrator, Jihad Abu Al-Enein, moved nicely from a neutral authoritative voice to another frightened and cowed observer, attempting to hide among the audience as the conductor grew in power and violence.

Exterior of Night Traveler stage. Photo: Marvin Carlson.

Even a modest production of Sabour’s play has a powerful resonance in the Arab world today, but this imaginative and beautifully acted production, with its immersive absorption of the audience, marked a truly outstanding experience in the contemporary Egyptian theatre.

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