Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Re-Opening, Cairo: After 6 years of restoration, Al-Azbakiya National Theatre is back to life

To the rhythm of Egypt’s folk music and tanoura dance, the National Theatre in Al-Azbakiya district in downtown Cairo resumed welcoming visitors after six years of closure for restoration.

The theatre from outside after restoration

Thousands of journalists, TV presenters, photographers, artists, actors and actresses flocked to the theatre to participate in the ceremony announcing the re-opening of the National Theatre.

Upon the invitation of Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab opened the theatre and toured around the several halls and sections to inspect the work after completion. He also visited the theatre’s art museum, where old photos of the theatre are put on show, as well as the lecture hall, the library and the information centre.

A group of ministers, including Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou, Minister of Youth Khaled Abdel Aziz, Cairo Governor Galal El-Said and Minister of Local Development Adel Labib, as well as top governmental officials, escorted the Prime Minister in his tour.

The main stage of the theatre
During the ceremony, Mahlab told the attendees that Egypt has now a very important vision for culture and art, as it is the country’s “soft power”. He said Egyptian artists have always been sending important messages to the world along the span of the nation’s history. 

Minsiter of Culture Asfour pointed out that the construction of the National Theatre coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and today its re-opening coincides with the digging of the new Suez Canal path.

Asfour added that the National Theatre was the first theatre to be built in the Al-Azbakiya Gardens in Cairo. Its history dates back to the 15th century when the gardens served as the pleasure grounds for Mameluke Cairo, a leisure zone that contained lavish palaces around a central lake. When the French expedition led by Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the gardens became the site of a theatre, built to entertain the French army troops.

The second floor of the theatre after restoration
When Mohamed Ali Pasha became Egypt’s khedive, he filled in the lake. During the later reign of Khedive Ismail, a theatre once again appeared on the site, at first a small venue on the southern side of the gardens, used to stage performances by the famous Comedie Française during the celebrations that marked the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

In 1885, the theatre, known as the Al-Azbakiya Theatre, hosted its first performances by an Egyptian theatre group. By 1935, the National Egyptian Group had been formed under the leadership of poet Khalil Motran, but was disbanded in 1942 as a result of its anti-British performances. Following the 1952 Revolution, the Al-Azbakiya Theatre became the National Theatre. In early 2000, the theatre was officially put on Egypt’s Heritage List for its unique architectural style and its more than 100-year-old edifice.

During the opening ceremony, Mahlab and Asfour awarded 24 actors who started their career in the theatre for their efforts. Actors Hussein Fahmi, Ezzat Al-Alayli, Mahmoud Yassin, Samiha Ayoub, Rashwan Tawfik, Soheir Al-Morshedi and Mahmoud Al-Hedini were among the honourees.

The restoration work of the theatre started in 2008, immediately after the whole building was gutted by fire as an electrical short circuit had triggered an explosion in the air-conditioning system. The whole building was then devastated by the blaze.

The entrance hall of the theatre
The main hall was sodden with the water of fire extinguishers, the main stage’s curtain had been totally destroyed, and the red velvet of the seats had been charred, as had the building as a whole. The wooden backdrops had gone up in flames, and the dome of the main auditorium, or George Abyad Theatre, named after the celebrated Lebanese actor, had a large hole in it, made by firefighters as they struggled to contain the blaze.

Today the theatre is back to its original authentic look. The restoration work had been carried out according to the latest technology and had been assisted by old documents of the theatre provided by the Ministry of Antiquities and photographs of plays taken in its heyday during the early 20th century.

Ahmed Fouda, the engineer in charge of the restoration project, explained that returning the theatre to its original look was a great challenge as it contains unique collections of antique sets, artefacts and paintings.

Mohamed Abu Saida, head of the Cultural Development Fund at the ministry, pointed out that the fire in 2008 had a severe impact on the one-storey administrative building neighbouring the theatre. “The building was ramshackle,” he said, adding that the committee in charge of restoration had decided that converting it into a museum to display the theatre’s treasured collection of photographs of old plays would be the best way to save it for future generations. “This required the consolidation of the building, the construction of another floor on top of the first one, and covering the original facade with a new glass one,” Abu Saida said.

The ceiling of the stage
He went on to say that this design aimed to reflect the original building on the new one’s mirror glass facade, in order to provide visitors with a new view of the old edifice. He added that the design was in line with the development plan of the surroundings carried out by the National Organisation for Urban Harmony. 

According to this plan, the original entrance of the National Theatre on Al-Gomhouriya Street became the new main entrance and the existing one on Al-Ataba Square is closed. A “cultural path” was formed joining the National, Puppet and Taliaa Theatres, containing an open-air theatre, a music kiosk and the water fountain that was removed several years ago.

The theatre consists of two auditoriums, the main one bearing the name of Lebanese actor George Abyad and the small one named after famous Egyptian actor and director Abdel-Rehim Al-Zorkani. The complex also has a hall for rehearsals, a smaller building for actors’ dressing rooms, an administrative building, a youth theatre and spaces for the Puppet and Taliaa Theatres.

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