Thursday, March 26, 2009

Al-Bassam's RIII plays in the Gulf

Sulayman Al-Bassam speaks to The National (Abu Dhabi) ahead of the UAE performance of Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.

Some nice bits:

I think one of the good things about the piece is that you don’t need to
know Shakespeare to appreciate it. I think a lot of people in the Arab world
have never come across Richard III,” says al Bassam.

Really? It would be interesting to ask an audience member who has never heard the plot of Shakespeare's Richard III what s/he got out of Al-Bassam's play. I think it would lose a lot of its depth without the York/Lancaster background.

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy is hardly the first reimagining of Shakespeare’s
popular play. The Elizabethan tale of unbridled power lust has been set in Nazi
Germany, in a crime-ridden American ghetto and even rendered in Japanese
animation, or manga, as a graphic novel. This, however, is the first time that
Richard III speaks in Arabic while in the contemporary Arabian Gulf, and al
Bassam worked with a number of writers and a poet who specialises in Bedouin
verse to get the cadence of the English adapted into Arabic. He says his focus
was capturing the rhythm, if not the word-by-word translation, of Shakespearean

The claims for the novelty and cultural representativeness of this adaptation have been scaled down over the past two years, I'm glad to report.

Because of its bilingual presentation, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy can seem
at times to be two plays in one. “For the Arab audiences, they are much more
tuned into the comedy of the piece and there is a quite comic element. So
the satirical elements come out a lot more clearly when we play to Arab
audiences,” says al Bassam. “Some of the western audiences, because of their
unfamiliarity with the culture that is being presented, they are a little
bit shy of laughing.”

This is a great point. They're shy (and so they should be! Isn't this hesitation before laughing at stereotypes of the other exactly what our post-Saidian culturally sensitive university teaching strives to inculcate?), and they can't always distinguish what's meant as satire from what's meant as straight documentary presentation of cultural facts. Which is not their fault. But it's a fact.

Hard not to feel that Sulayman has gotten a lot savvier about the way the same piece plays to different audiences. Well, 35 performances in nine (or is it more?) countries would do that for you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Call for Papers - Arab Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011

Rafik Darragi and I are co-convening this seminar at the next WSC. Co-conspirators welcome. Prague should be lovely... Please send a 250-word abstract by August 1, 2009 to
9th World Shakespeare Congress
Prague, July 17-21, 2011

Seminar: Shakespeare on the Arab Stage

In many Arab countries, top directors and playwrights have appropriated Shakespearean characters and/or plots to produce original theatrical works. Their plays range from parody and pastiche to metatheatrical reflection, political satire, and even tragedy. Such work is now gaining prominence in the West as well as in the Arab world. For instance, an Iraqi dramatist’s adaptation of Hamlet received a rehearsed reading at the 8th World Shakespeare Congress in 2006. The same year, an “Arab” version of Richard III was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, later touring to several European countries and the United States.
Building on the enthusiasm and questions sparked by the Arab Shakespeare panel at the previous World Shakespere Congress (Brisbane, 2006), this seminar will explore the diverse dramatic adaptations of Shakespeare that have flourished in the Arab world in recent years. Participants are invited to:
  • Analyze one or more Arab/ic productions or adaptations of Shakespeare plays (19th- or 20th-century or contemporary).
  • Consider the production and/or reception contexts of one or more Arab/ic Shakespeare appropriations.
  • Contribute to a discussion that aims to develop a typology or map of Arab Shakespeare appropriation more broadly. Given the perfectly naturalized status of Shakespeare’s plays in some Arab theatre cultures and their “foreigner” status in others, what generalizations about “Arab” Shakespeare should be made or avoided?
  • Help pinpoint some relevant paradigms for theorizing this young but growing sub-field of Shakespeare studies. In particular: is “intercultural appropriation” a fruitful theoretical approach at all?
Until recently, scholars of “worldwide Shakespeare appropriation” have known little about such work. For decades, the Arab world went largely unnoticed in the numerous edited volumes on “intercultural” or “foreign” Shakespeare; Arab scholars at international Shakespeare conferences were a rare sight. When scholars in the West did bring “Arab Shakespeare” to their colleagues’ attention, they presented it almost as a novelty. (Sometimes they did not hesitate to draw easy laughs by invoking the old joke that Shakespeare was really a crypto-Arab, “Shaykh Zubayr.”) Only in the past few years has this situation begun to change, with well-received studies on and productions of Arabic Shakespeare-related plays. This seminar will celebrate that change and build on it, asking what the study of Arab Shakespeare can bring to the study of international Shakespeare appropriation more broadly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hamlet Without Hamlet planned in Iraq

Monadhil Daood, who plays Catesby in Al-Bassam's Richard III, confirmed to me that he plans to direct an adaptation of the play Hamlit bila hamlit (“Hamlet without Hamlet”) at the Iraqi National Theatre in the coming months.
The 1992 absurdist Hamlet spin-off, by Kirkuk-born poet-playwright Khaz'al al-Majidi (b. 1951), opens with news of Hamlet’s death by shipwreck on his way from Wittenberg to his father’s funeral. (Full text here: Directed at the Iraqi National Theatre in 1997 by Naji 'abd al-Amir, Hamlit bila hamlit continues to be produced throughout the Arab world. Michel Cerda and Haytham Abderrazak directed it in Paris in 2007. Monadhil Daood says his version, which will be the inaugural play for his Baghdad Theatre Company, will adapt al-Majidi's script quite a lot and will incorporate aspects of ta'ziya (Shi'a passion plays for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn). Incidentally, Daood's doctoral dissertation on ta'ziya theatre, written in Arabic and defended in Moscow in the late 1990s, is available through interlibrary loan.
Updates on the Iraqi National Theatre available here.

2015 update: you can now find Khazal Almajidi's website and his Facebook page. He's based in the Netherlands. As far as I can tell, Hamlet Without Hamlet hasn't been translated into any European language.

Review of Al-Bassam's R3 in DC

I'm happy to report that our Arab Shakespeare panel last week went very well, thanks to the gracious moderating of Kristin Johnsen-Neshati and the wry presence of Michael Kahn of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre. ("Shakespeare's culture is foreign to me, too, as an American, even though I may speak his language. I've always thought it would be liberating not to be bound by his language...") Good attendance and interesting questions, too.

That night, the WaPo reviewer had mixed impressions of the show.
He's not wrong...
Since I last saw the show (Stratford 2007), Sulayman has made a major change in a key character, the US ambassador/General Richmond. He has fused the two (hard power in the Middle East is no longer even nominally separate from soft power, it seems) and brought in Nigel Barratt (the creepy Arms Dealer from his Al-Hamlet Summit) to play the resulting US official. Then in the last few days before the Kennedy Center opening (I am told), he rejiggered Mr. Richmond 180 degrees, from a sleazy Arms Dealer-type operator into a total incompetent schlub of an apparatchik: bathrobe&slippers, coffee mug, vaguely phrased Evangelical convictions expressed in a sloppy drawl. The idea of the bumbling occupier (not malicious, just high-handedly clueless) was nice, but the product wasn't quite fully cooked when I saw it. Barratt's acting seemed parodic: way too broad for the Kennedy Center audience, one as finely attuned to political semiotics as any you'd find in Damascus. It had none of the subtlety of Fayez Kazak's Richard or Monadhil Daoud's Catesby. I think they will surely tone it down for the BAM performance in June.

Meanwhile, the trail of journalists and documentarians around Sulayman continues to grow. At a post-show reception I met someone making a documentary film about him. (There have been others.) "Ah, hello. So you're my competition!" he said when I introduced myself as an academic who has written on Al-Bassam. (Hmmm.) And have I already posted the link to this segment on PBS' NewsHour? (Part of their very extensive coverage of the festival.)

Kuwaiti Theater Director Finds Modern Inspiration in Shakespeare
In the second of a series of reports on the Arabesque arts festival at the Kennedy
Center, Jeffrey Brown talks to Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam, whose company is presenting a Shakespeare play with a twist, "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy."

Transcript and streaming video here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ideas of beauty

Off the Shakespeare topic, but some more from the festival: an exhibit of wedding dresses from various Arab countries (some lent by the wives of Gulf-country ambassadors!)...

...and a wonderful exhibit called Cinema by an artist called Youssef Nabil, exploring his love affair with Egyptian movies. These are photos of friends and starlets silk-screened onto body pillows! (There were other photos on the walls, all very striking work.)

In general the exhibits at the festival (too bad it closes today!) were remarkable.
Posted by Picasa

Al-Markaz Kinidii

The Arabesque festival was amazing. I mean that in the most positive sense. Can you believe that this is the bookstore of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC?
Posted by Picasa