Make way for the King

Tut Ankh Amon is the best known Egyptian Pharaoh and his name is recognised worldwide. Tut Ankh Amon — actually born Tut Ankh Aten, because he was the son of the revolutionary Akhen Aten who introduced monotheistic worship — did not live long enough to make a mark on 18th-Dynasty history; he owes his fame, rather, to his tomb, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.

Published on 4 Nov 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

Under him polytheism was restored, the Pharaoh married his half-sister Ankhesen Amon, daughter of Akhen Aten and Nefertiti, he was crowned at the age of nine. Too young to lead the country, deferred to strong advisors: the Visier Ay and General Horemheb, who between themselves were struggling for leadership. Foreign policy was in crisis with recurrent conflicts especially with Nubians, yet it is believed that during Tut Ankh Amon’s reign, peace was restored between the two countries. Due to lack of evidence and proper documentation, many elements of Tut Ankh Amon’s life remain uncertain, and the cause of his death at the age of 18 or 19 is still vague.

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Tut Ankh Amon — The Musical premiered in Austria in 2008. The English-language version of the musical was performed at the Cairo Opera House (25-28 October) and Alexandria Opera House (26-27 October) this week. The performance is based on music composed by Gerald Gratzer, the well-known composer and arranger of film, television and radio advertisement scores (a graduate of the High School for Music and Art and the Jazz Konservatorium in Vienna). It is filled with light elements from jazz, pop and rock with a view to creating a catchy Broadway- style production echoing the 1970s to the 1990s. The group came with most of the orchestral work already recorded (with full percussion and woodwind tracks). A small group of additional musicians from the Cairo Opera Orchestra playing strings and brass was conducted by Herwig Gratzer. The dance scenes were supported by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. The light tunes and beautiful melodies typical of the musical genre proved culturally unrelated to Tut Ankh Amon or Egypt.

According to the programme notes, ” Tut Ankh Amon — The Musical looks behind the golden mask and brings forward his childhood years, his coronation at the age of nine followed by his difficult regency, which was overshadowed by struggles for power, as well as his love for Ankhesen Amon. It is astonishing how the story of this Egyptian King reflects the topicality of profound human themes such as power, love and the quest for the meaning of life.” Yet the actual production did not have sufficient dramaturgical depth. On the other hand, the creators of the musical, from the book writers Sissi Gruber and Niki Neuspiel to the writer of the lyrics Birgit Nawrata and the director Dean Welterlen freely interpreted the Tut Ankh Amon story, setting it against the backdrop of scenographic representations from ancient Egypt but using modern music; overall, they delivered an artistically shallow representation of ancient times. Most but not all costume designs by Uschi Heinzl and some elements of the set by Eduard Neversal were possibly the only aspects connecting the musical to the times of the Pharaoh.

The freedom of interpretation with which the facts are mixed and matched is obvious once history is considered. The musical includes presentations of the conflict with Nubian King Kashta (who presumably wanted to gain power in Upper Egypt through pushing his daughter into the royal line of Thebes), an event that took place 600 years after the reign of Tut Ankh Amon (around BC 750) during the 25th Dynasty. The ancient history of Nubia tells us about advanced cultures, hence King Kashta’s primitive clothing — as it was presented in the Austrian musical — is in no way faithful to reality. The loose interpretation of facts was also obvious in other details such as the scenes with scribes noting the action on stage. The presence of scribes is fully justified, but justifiably raises eyebrows is that they are women. The character of Ofir, the Pharaoh’s civil servant, an educated supporter and helper to the Pharaoh, especially in administrative matters, carried many comic elements; the role was filled with situational gags which took away from the nobility of the character and turned the scribe into a sort of court jester.

Aside from the historical and situational drawbacks, the fable does not lack for interesting performances: Jasper Tiden (Tut Ankh Amon), a Swedish singer holding a diploma in music theatre with an impressive all- Europe repertoire; Franziska Schuster (Ankhesen Amon), a versatile German artist with vast experience as singer, saxophonist and clarinetist; Kerstin Ibald (Taia and Saamiya), a German actress and singer; Drew Sarich (General Horemheb), a graduate of the Boston Conservatoire with a degree in musical theatre and directing; and Andre Baver (Ay), who received his vocal training at the Carl Maria von Weber Academy in Frankfurt. Last but not least, we should mention Martin Berger, an Austrian by birth, well-known for participating in several musical productions: his stage presence is captivating once we accept the comic approach to the character of Ofir. No doubt the singers and the actors demonstrated their professionalism, stage awareness and control over voice and movement yet their roles would have been strengthened had the musical had more of a dramaturgical backbone.

Among the stronger aspects of the show are several visual effects, including laser projections and a captivating underwater scene. In spite of all the questions we might have regarding the choice of music and songs, we must raise our chapeaux to the sound engineers, whose impeccable work allowed every musical element to surface in a perfectly balanced manner.

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