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Witches of Salem, witches of Cairo

Over the past three weeks, Al-Talia Theater has been showing “The Salem Witches,” Egyptian theater director Gamal Yaquot’s adaption of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Although Yaquot’s version adds little to the original, possible analogies can be easily drawn with local events over the past nine months.

Written by Miller in 1952, “The Crucible” is set in Salem toward the end of the 17th century. The town is plagued by an epidemic that kills children, which the locals believe is the result of witchcraft. A series of public trials begin, and as the events unfold, the audiences realize the complex motives of various characters.

“The Salem Witches” opens with the young protagonist Abigail Williams, played by Samar Allam, performing a ritualistic dance among 11 girls in the middle of a forest near the town. Audience members are not told the reason behind the ritual. Still, a sense of unease is evoked with the withered steel trees, gloomy set design and eerie voodoo-doll-like dance moves. Soon, the town’s children fall sick one after the other, including Abigail’s own cousin Betty, the daughter of Reverend Parris.

In Salem, the townspeople believe a rumor that their children have fallen sick because of an act of witchcraft induced by Tituba, the reverend’s housekeeper. A court is appointed to follow on the case and Abigail is named as a court official. Many of the town’s women are accused, including Elizabeth Proctor, who had fired Abigail for sleeping with her husband, John, when she served in their house. She is put in jail, along with 400 women awaiting their trial on the charges of practicing witchcraft and worshipping the devil.

The trials last for months, during which more people are summoned, including John, who resists Abigail’s attempts to seduce him in the forest in return for saving his wife. In the end Abigail escapes with the reverend’s money and John is hanged.

When Miller wrote “The Crucible” in the 1950s, he was critiquing the American government and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist trials; how fear, mistrust and conspiracy theories spread; and how easy it was to accuse and try people without evidence. Performing the play at Al-Talia Theater in 2011 resonates with the current situation in Egypt, where a single rumor spreads easily to become fact, defaming and dividing people, and when social ills of intolerance come to the surface with the persisting security void.

In “The Salem Witches,” none of the town’s residents stopped to think twice about the accusations. They simply bought into Abigail’s story about witchcraft, blaming all their problems on a supernatural force, something out of their hands – or what seems like the equivalent of the contemporary foreign hand. The court in Salem also pressured the detainees to sign their names in the “Devil’s book,” confessing crimes they never committed, condemning themselves to the public forever, to spare their lives. Otherwise, they’d be hanged.

“The Crucible” has been repeatedly performed around the world at times of political upheaval. Its success at Al-Talia was due to the universality of its topic rather than a strong adaptation or performance. Playing Abigail, Allam focused on the seductive side of the character and overlooked other important traits like cunningness, intelligence and jealousy that enriches her character. Most actors gave average performances, although their projection and articulation were good. It was like a reciting session where soulless characters stood on stage, repeating lines without feeling them.

Ramy al-Tambary’s portrayal of John Proctor, however, stood out. His performance was heartfelt, and powerfully reflected the suffering of those unfortunate souls, squashed under the brutal feet of injustice.

The set design at Al-Talia was fine but not creative; but paired with a good light scheme, it became appealing to spectators. The choreography was also satisfactory, but some of the dancers seemed like they had starch for dinner; there was a severe lack of flexibility and feel of the music. Some were even completely off-beat and looked lost on stage. It seems that choreographer Atef Awad may have lost his touch. The music served the dramatic build-up well, but again, it was nothing special.

Overall, “The Salem Witches” came off as a middling attempt at reviving one of the classics of modern times. Nothing new was added in terms of value and performance. This has unfortunately been characteristic of the Egyptian theatrical scene over the last three decades. The quality of performances has been deteriorating tremendously, and the small rescue attempts – mainly at the American University in Cairo, National, and Al-Talia theaters – don’t seem enough to put an end to theater’s slow death.

“The Salem Witches” will be shown in Zaki Tolaimat Hall at Al-Talia Theater until 31 October. The show starts at 9:30 pm. 

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