Rare Hebrew Production of Egyptian Play Offers Perspective Israelis Aren't Used To

'Sa’dun Almajnoon,' a production of the Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa, depicts the 1967 war as the watershed between hope and sanity, and madness and despair.

Yotam Kushnir in 'Sa’dun Almajnoon.'
Nofar Moshe

Even after almost four decades of peace between Israel and Egypt, it’s rare to see an Egyptian play staged here. “Sa’dun Almajnoon” (“Crazy Sa’dun”), a production of the Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa, is an exception to the rule. Still, it took almost a quarter of a century to reach Israel; it was written in 1992 by Lenin El-Ramly, a very popular Egyptian playwright who is still active today. The play, which holds a mirror up to the face of Egyptian society, deals in part with the place of Israel in the Egyptian consciousness (the core of its plot takes place before June 1967).

There are many reasons and excuses for the theatrical alienation between the two countries. Responsibility for this state of affairs does not rest solely with Israeli theater personnel. In any event, this is a welcome opportunity to become acquainted with an Egyptian stage play, even if it’s a case of too little and too late.

What we get is an enthusiastic, rather endearing performance by a group of young graduates of the Kibbutzim College School of Theater Arts. The director is Yigal Ezrati, the director and moving force of the Jaffa theater, which describes itself as “a stage for Arab-Hebrew culture.” This is a student production that was “adopted” by the Jaffa institution. Israeli theaters like to adopt productions of theater school graduates, in part to lay their hands on future talent and in part because they can make use of production and direction values that have already been put into practice and proved themselves in a theater school show.

The advantages are clear, though it must be said that some schools are more adventurous than others in terms of repertoire, and sometimes also in directorial decisions, as these are not limited by the conventions of the repertoire theater. There’s nothing like student energy to breathe life into an evening at the theater and overcome all its deficiencies and lacks. On the other hand, that same energy sometimes expresses itself in exaggeration, overacting, skittishness and sheer loudness.

In this specific case, because the plot unfolds in Egypt, the production somewhat recalled (intentionally or not) the “Arab movie” (almost always Egyptian) that was a popular Friday afternoon fixture in the 1970s on Israel’s only television channel at the time. Contributing to this feeling was the set, rife with orientalism – wood lattices and gables – designed by Zohar Elmaliach and Nofar Drezner; the hyper-energy of the actors; and even something in the direction.

Yoel Rozenkier as an influential Egyptian, Mashi Elbar as his wife in 1992 and the girlfriend-lover of the play’s protagonist in 1967, and Avia Spitzer as his mother are all very praiseworthy (as are Eran Lachman and Amit Weinberg in small parts). Interesting, by the way, that as far as one can make out from the names, there isn’t one Arab actor in the play.

Comic and emotional

Against this background, there are standout performances by Kfir Livneh Amram in the role of the protagonist’s brother, who is arrested and interrogated after the 1967 war on suspicion of listening to criticism of the Egyptian regime at the time and has been suffering from the shock ever since; and Moshiko Sasson as the son, in 1992, of the protagonist’s 1967 girlfriend-lover.

Still, the whole play stands, runs and flies by the stage presence of the actor who plays the protagonist, Sa’dun, who is hospitalized in an institution for the mentally ill before 1967 and released in 1992, though he’s convinced that only two months have gone by. I admired the ability of the actor who plays the part to be comic and emotional at the same time, all the while riveted by what I can only term “naturalism,” trying to understand the reality that has beset him and take control of it.

The actor seemed to me to be fresh, young, original, but also very familiar. When I realized who he reminded me of – the resemblance in all respects is remarkable, though this does not detract in the least from his qualities. I looked at the program and discovered that his name is Yotam Kushnir. Yes, the son of veteran actor Avi Kushnir.

But the core of this play is its plot. The situation of a lunatic character whose family creates “lunatic” surroundings in which his madness would be normal is not new in the modern theater. Pirandello’s “Enrico IV” is one example; Durrenmatt’s “The Physicists” is another.

What’s splendid in El-Ramly’s play is the contrast between Egypt before the 1967 war – with Nasser and the Free Officers trying to establish secular socialism and pan-Arabism, amid prevailing hope (with which Sa’dun continues to live) – and that of the poverty and routine, if not despair, of 1992, after Egypt’s defeat in 1967, its victory in 1973 and the peace treaty with Israel.

The price of lunacy

Initially, Sa’dun’s family tries, for the sake of domestic harmony and also in the wake of family complications, to keep Sa’dun in the “May 1967 bubble,” until he insists on going out into the street, upon which he discovers what has changed since he went mad, and decides well, I won’t tell you what. Go and see the play for yourselves. I will say only that, as in another current production of the Arab-Hebrew Theater, “The Admission,” the price for the actions and lunacies of the parents’ generation is paid, with interest, by the children’s generation.

What is particularly illuminating about this play and its production for an Israeli viewer, is the perception of the 1967 war, from which deterioration began and the hope for a better future was transformed into a sense of defeat. After all, this can be told from the Israeli side as well. In 1967, Israel began to realize messianic dreams of megalomania. Some segments of the population continue to live in madness to this day, while the surrounding society creates for these mental unfortunates an illusion of sanity, so that no one will be forced to awaken and come to terms with their situation.