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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Review: Love and Revenge an electrifying production

The golden era of Egyptian cinema is celebrated with an audio-visual performance to bring generations together

Electric oud player Mehdi Haddab. Courtesy Celia Bommin
Electric oud player Mehdi Haddab. Courtesy Celia Bommin

You’d have been hard-pressed to find a more joyous crowd in London on Friday than the one that gathered at Rich Mix in Shoreditch to watch the London debut of Love and Revenge.

From the first electrified notes struck by Rayess Bek, a Lebanese-born rapper and musician, this was a swirling, shaking tour of the 1940s golden age of Egyptian cinema, set to a very modern beat.

Skilful video collages by Randa Mirza (La Mirza) of scenes of Cairo’s Studio Misr moved an audience that encompassed teens to some who had watched the films on their first release.

This open door to a bygone era of Egypt was a fitting event for the annual Shubbak Festival’s eclectic programme, which strives to offer a window on contemporary Arabic culture by celebrating the region’s seductive silver screen against live remixes of classic songs.

The set revisits the popular songs of stars such as Samia Gamal, Tahi Carioca and singing idols Leila Mourad and Farid El Attrache. It evokes an age of glamour, mystique and intrigue; where strong men and women are attracted to each other, where the sepia-tinged nostalgia of the black-and-white years segue into the technicolour promises of the 1960s.

With Bek performing like a concert pianist at his deck of electronic wizardry, Mirza choreographing the visuals, Julien Perraudeau on keyboards and the electric oud of Mehdi Haddab filling out the incredible live sound, the group seemed to be having as much fun playing as the audience were watching.

The crowd was moved through a tableau of nostalgia, awe and the occasional shock. As black-and-white images of a dancer’s unfurling arms cut to an Arabian “Bond girl” running down a beach in a bikini, the audience unified in gasps and cheers.

Love and Revenge is the title of a 1944 film which provides some of the visuals for this breathtaking collage, but is also a wider commentary on the priorities of life. Each scene chosen is as carefully managed as a gallery show, and the interaction with the thumping beats and live performed music is intricately composed.

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The hunger of young audiences to see a vision of the past which doesn’t necessarily conform to what we are told of history comes into play at events such as these. As Bek observed himself, the sexism of the 1940s and 1950s was the procession of beauties in bikinis; that has now changed.

“At that time sexism was about seeing a woman in a bikini, because that was the fantasy that men had, and today in the Arabic world sexism is a veiled woman. So the question is what is the form of today’s sexism... we are raising it in a very light way, a very funny way, because I don’t think we have answers to these questions,” he told The National last week.

The different reactions to the set they play has struck the band in the past. “When we play in the Arab world, the youngest generation, they don’t know those songs, they are not aware that those songs were huge hits in the Arab world, so they rediscover Asmahan [the actress in the original 1944 film Love and Revenge], all those great, great musicians and artists with our show,” Bek said.

“And when we play in Europe, people have the idea that those songs are brand new; I mean they know it’s remixes, but they have the feeling that is was recorded yesterday with some effects on the voice, and that’s very interesting, to see people dancing along to a song that was written in the 1940s.”

The powerful stares of strong and beautiful Egyptian women such as Gamal sent trembles through the mixed audience as the stars of the silver screen reach out to a new, mediated crowd of fans. Their eyes scorn lovers, many with extravagant and wonderful moustaches, and they observe us curiously and disdainfully across history and time through huge puffs of cigarette smoke.

After Bek’s casual invitation to the packed house to dance on stage for the show’s final number, a whirling mass of exuberant concertgoers joined the four-piece in bringing this jubilant event to a close. “The crowd was amazing,” Bek said.

The two-week-long Shubbak Festival wraps up on July 16.