Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BAM Presents The Speaker's Progress, 10/6-8

Go see this, y'all! Go on the night when my friend (and Paris Review poetry editor) Robyn Creswell is doing the post-show talkback. Here's Al-Bassam's latest (I hope!) synopsis:

A condemned 1960s staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night has become the focal point for political resistance blogs and underground social network movements. The state, eager to suppress this dangerous mixture of nostalgia and dissent, commissions The Speaker, a once-radical theater producer now turned regime apologist, to mount a forensic reconstruction and public denunciation of the work. As The Speaker and his group of nonacting volunteers delve deeper into the "reconstruction" they find themselves increasingly engaged with the material they are supposed to be condemning. They soon discover-in the act of performance and the growing participation of their audience-a solidarity that transforms the gathering itself into an unequivocal act of defiance towards the state.

The Speaker's Progress is the final part of writer, director, and performer Sulayman Al- Bassam's Arab Shakespeare Trilogy; the second, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, was presented at BAM's Muslim Voices festival (Spring 2009). Created along with a core team of actors and artists from across the Arab world and Europe, this unique body of work charts a decade of Arab and Western political and social upheaval following the events of 9/11 to the current leaps for reform made by millions across the region.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saadi Youssef poem: Elsinore, Hamlet's Castle

Elsinore, Hamlet's castle
The trench with green water
is criss-crossed by twigs and birds,
by the shoes of tourists
and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors . . . 
I cross it too
feeling the moat's wooden boards,
soft, and water-logged.
Like blood within blood,
the castle resides within itself.
But now you will not caress a wooden board
or a stone, you will not enter history
to enjoy the paintings exhibited in the hall
while you listen to the
swashing sea.
Now you will withdraw into yourself
like a snail into its shell.
You will listen to footfalls in a distant night.
To stifled breath, to the staircase
rising toward the questions.
So,  then, beware!
Translated by Sargon Boulus. Reprinted from Banipal No 15/16.  With thanks to the Arabic Literature (in English Translation) blog.

ٍSee also Youssef's very long poem "Hamlet's Balcony" - شرفة هاملت - (in Arabic).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Adonis' translation of Hamlet - produced in Baalbek, 1967

Does anyone know anything about this production?  I was just working on a reference book entry on Arabic Hamlet and came across some remarkable photos from it in an an old article by Suheil Bushrui (Middle East Forum, Spring 1971, pp. 54-64).

The production is mentioned on the festival web site (click on 1967), but no detail or photo is given.  Here's what I know.
Translation: Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said)
Director: Mounir Abu Dibs (the legendary Ba'albek Festival founder - more here)
Production: Ba'albek Theatre Troupe
Locations: Byblos, Deir al-Kamar, and Ba'albek
Date: 1967 -- apparently at that year's Ba'albek summer festival? Right after the 1967 war??

Cast: will post more as I find out.  For now all I know is that Michel Naba'a played Hamlet. Choreographer/dancer Georgette Gebara did the choreography and played the Player Queen in the play-within-a-play.

Apparently the show enjoyed a very involved audience, as this joke repeated online testifies:
Years ago, a performance of Hamlet in Arabic took place in Byblos with Michel Naba'a in the lead role (Directed by Mounir Abou Debs in Arabic). During the scene when the Ghost appears and advises Hamlet on what to do, as he is leaving, he says to Hamlet in Arabic "LA TANSANI YA HAMLET". [Don't forget me, Hamlet.] Hamlet shrieks out "ANSAAK????". [Forget you???] Whereupon, the audience joined in : "Da KALAAM??".

(Here is "Ansaak, Da Kalaam?" [Forget you? What an idea!], the Umm Kulthum song the joke is referring to.)

But it seems not to have been new in 1967, but rather (and this would make much more sense, both war-wise and Shakespeare-quadricentennial-wise) in 1964 or earlier.  A Mounir Abou Debs adaptation of Hamlet is mentioned as early as 1963 in a UNESCO report, as an example of the televised drama in Arabic that was raising the overall cultural level of Lebanese TV programming.

Another UNESCO report, this one a book-length 1981 study by Joseph Abu Rizk titled La Politique Culturelle au Liban, cites the production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (among a long list of other prestigious works) as evidence of "le niveau atteint par le theatre [libanais]." (67-68).

If you're in Lebanon at the moment (though you probably have other things on your mind), you might be able to find more info and/or some photos of the Hamlet production somewhere in here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mohamed Sobhi's Hamlet - video now online

The Global Shakespeares web archive has put up QuickTime video of Mohamed Sobhi's Hamlet, a landmark production first staged at the Art Studio Theatre in 1971 and then reprised and filmed for television in 1976-7.  Filming was directed by Nur al-Demerdash.  The full-length video is here - it runs over two hours.  Helpfully, they've posted some excerpts too -- individual scenes that are more convenient to use in class.

I should say, "landmark" does not mean it's great theatre. Critic Hani Shukrallah memorably summed it up in a 2001 column about Sobhi on the occasion of the latter's controversial (and awful) Ramadan mini-series dramatizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 
Meanwhile, we are supposed to look forward to Egyptian "character actor" Mohamed Sobhi performing no less than 14 roles in a TV serial dramatising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which apparently has had millions spent on it and is to be broadcast in many parts of our glorious Arab nation. The casting is apt. Sobhi is symptomatic of "the state of the nation" -- or is it civilisation? Several years ago I had to suffer through a Hamlet performed by this man, hailed as one of our great actors. I'm no drama critic, but even I could recognise that Sobhi's acting skills seem to lie precisely in "saw[ing] the air too much with... [his] hands" and "tear[ing] a passion to tatters." Little wonder, perhaps, that he is so well admired; tearing a passion to tatters seems to be a particular predilection of "our civilisation" these days.

Later I'll try to comment on particular scenes, either here or in the metadata on the Global Shakespeares web site.  Meanwhile, I just wanted to tell the story of how I obtained this video.

Sobhi has, in case you didn't notice from the quote above (he played all the parts in his own miniseries!), a certain sense of his own importance. And Egyptian society has rewarded this attitude with all kinds of celebrity and adulation. When I made a trip to Cairo in 2007 while working on my book, a theatre scholar friend managed to find me Sobhi's cell phone number.  Someone else tried to give me Sobhi's number too, but it was incorrect.  Anyway I called and made an appointment to meet and talk about his Hamlet.  But he wasn't in Cairo.  He had built himself a studio complex way out in the desert along the Cairo-Alexandria road.  He had called it Sonbol City for the Arts, after a character in one of his films. Okay.  I hired a car-and-driver and made the trek.  It was about an hour and a half.

Sonbol City included film editing facilities, a swimming pool, health club, various meeting rooms, etc. But it was a pretty surreal - sprawling and empty, except for Sobhi himself, who was editing his latest Ramadan series, attended by a skeleton staff of a couple of dozen people. I don't know if it has filled up since then.
 I don't know if you can see the images of Sobhi in these photos - they were everywhere.
 Along with comedy/tragedy masks and vignettes from his films, etc., including from the period of his collaboration with Egyptian playwright Lenin El-Ramly (the two split up quite a while ago).
 Plaster casts of the greatest Egyptian entertainers: that's Umm Kulthum second from right with the sunglasses.
 And on the walls, stylized portraits of Sobhi in his most famous roles...
 ...including Hamlet.  (You can see in the film... he looked a little better than this.)
Anyway, I waited for a while and then the man himself came out to talk with me. He was tired and unshaven, in the middle of that Ramadan serial. But he gave me a great interview - we talked for over an hour, discussing many details of his Hamlet production -- of which, at that point, I had only read reviews.  Most reviewers had focused on the play's opening scene: it starts with the epilogue, Hamlet's funeral. Sobhi said he did this in order to make the audience think: "I didn't want them to sit there wondering what would happen, but asking themselves why it had to happen."  When I remarked that this sounded like a Brechtian desire, he said: "No, it wasn't Brechtian or anything."  Finally I asked if he could share a recording.  Yes, he said.  There was an old videotape.  It was from the 1970s.  It was film but then had been converted to VHS.  He didn't have it with him.  Could I meet him in Cairo in two days?
I could, but stupidly I somehow spent the whole day calling the incorrect cell phone number.  When I finally called  the right one towards evening, it was too late -- he was already back at Sonbol.  But he had taken the VHS tape with him.  Could I come pick it up?
Fortunately, the driver remembered the location and was able to go without me.  He picked up the tape and brought it back to Cairo.  Then he nearly refused to accept money, so thrilled was he to be able to meet the great actor in person, to actually shake Mohamed Sobhi's hand. Back in the US, I had it converted to a DVD, and now the good people at Global Shakespeares have posted it online for your delectation.  Enjoy!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Jihadist Hamlet": Western commentators catch up to Hamlet's political dimensions

In a Counterpunch piece with the bizarrely alluring subtitle "Anders Breivik, Amy Winehouse, Hamlet and Tahrir Square," commentator Caroline Rooney (who holds some sort of academic position in Kent, with the enviable title of "RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow") finds some striking similarities between the character of Hamlet and that of the contemporary militant Islamist jihadist. Her point in making this perhaps "odd" or "to some, discordant" claim is to humanize the jihadist, to show that far from being some kind of brainwashed automaton with a very shallow subjectivity quite unlike our own, can quite possibly be a deep character, on par with the quintessential deep character of western civilization.  Excellent observation!  (And I make a very similar point in my book...)
One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance.  In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.
The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.
 You can see where this is going, and it's praiseworthy.  Not only as a reconsideration of violent Islamism (highly salutary) but, I would argue, as a reconsideration of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  It's only a few years ago (starting, say, about 10 years ago?  Around September of 2001 perhaps?) that Anglo-American critics, led by figures such as Linda Charnes and Margreta de Grazia, have begun to write about the political dimensions in Hamlet, which had been long obvious to critics and audiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Arab worldAnd now, since our times have gotten far enough "out of joint," also to us.
Rooney takes this mirroring as her explicit subject:
While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.
From here it gets rather weird, though: it turns out the Crusader is just the Jihadist in a funhouse mirror. 
In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.
 I'm not saying she's wrong, just a bit too breathy perhaps.
Anders and Amy [Winehouse] may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism.

Still, nice to see Hamlet taking his rightful place in that conversation.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Call for papers - journal issue on "Global Shakespeares"

A special issue of Shakespeare: Journal of the British Shakespeare Association
on "Global Shakespeare"
Deadline: September 30, 2011

Editor: Alexander Huang, acyhuang@gwu.edu

The Arab world is not yet represented in this issue!

He invites two types of submissions:
• Research article: criticism (5,000-8,000 words)
• Short performance reviews (1,000-2,000 words)
Full CFP available here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eating your politics: dates for Ramadan

From one site that collects Shakespeare quotations related to various foods:
The Winter's Tale, IV, 3:
CLOWN: I cannot do't without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice,--what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. She hath made me four and twenty nose-gays for the shearers, three-man-song-men all, and very good ones; but they are most of them means and bases; but one puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to horn-pipes. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?--none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o' the sun.
Sounds like the shopping list for an iftar feast, doesn't it?  (Never mind about the puritan.) What got me curious about Shakespeare and dates in the first place was a prior curiosity about the Cairo dried fruit market. Every year at Ramadan, merchants name their wares after politicians and other celebrities, both to attract customers and to show off their sense of humor.  So I wanted to see what they were calling them this year.  Disconcertingly, no individual names seem to have emerged - the principle of "the revolution" has not yet produced any actually plausible leaders.  Still, it's nice to see the post-Mubarak spirit finding its way into the market, according to this article published on July 26:

   One brand of dates is called ‘Revolution’, another ‘Martyrs’, a third “January 25” and a fourth ‘Freedom’.
   “All the brands are expensive, because they stand for something special,” [one customer] told the Egyptian Mail in an interview. 
This year, as Ramadan approaches, dates have assumed proud revolutionary names, which show that this revolution, for which people were longing for decades, has developed a commercial flavour. The most expensive dates on the markets, the above-mentioned ‘Revolution’, sell for LE15 ($2.50) per kilo. 
The cheapest dates are called ‘Tora Prisoners’, reflecting the popular anger at scores of former officials and ministers who are now in Tora Prison in southern Cairo. 
But none of the brands is named after the former president, who is hospitalised in Sharm el-Sheikh, or his wife and his two sons, although the latter are indeed Tora prisoners.
Well, Egyptians can have very short memories sometimes - at least that's what the Date Market Index suggests. In 2009, Gulf News reports, the most succulent and expensive dates were named after President Obama

Quite a change from 2001-2, when I last lived in Egypt.  At that time, Ramadan was in November-December, date prices were very high, and Al-Ahram Weekly had this report:
There are six kinds of dates to be found at the market: Sakouti, Baladi, Gandillah, Gargoudah, Malikani and Bartamouda. Others, Nashed says, are given names by their sellers who often draw on current events or famous people. As the attack against America and the war in Afghanistan are today's main topics of conversation, "Osama Bin Laden is the king of the market," one merchant told Al-Ahram Weekly. According to this seller, the price of a kilo of Bin Laden has reached LE16 [at that time about $4.50] within the market and LE20 outside. And what about Bush? "He has no place in the market," was the final and decisive answer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

شكسبير في التحرير (Shakespeare in Tahrir)

You knew it was coming, but here it is. As the post-"revolutionary" (I still think it was largely a military coup) situation in Egypt becomes more intense, with a tug-of-war between the military and the protesters, between secular-state and Islamist protesters, and between different branches of Islamists (traditionalists vs. neo-fundamentalists) -- as all this heats up, could Hamlet be far from the conversation?

Tweeted about three weeks ago at http://yfrog.com/kil04ngj

Spacey's Richard III to come to the Gulf

Ok, but this is interesting.  From an interview with "UAE-born social entrepreneur Badr Jafar" on the occasion of the release of the charity single song "Bokra" (Tomorrow), produced with Quincy Jones:
I also feel that we need to further develop theater in the Middle East, which is why I recently launched the Middle East Theater Academy with famous actor Kevin Spacey who has dedicated a lot of his life to working with children and nurturing their creative talents with theater. We already conducted a number of workshops in the UAE and Qatar and will bring the first major production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to the Gulf later this year, with Kevin Spacey himself playing Richard III.
Presumably (and accurately) this puts Sulayman Al-Bassam's RIII in the category of "minor production."  Still, if someone is on site, it would be interesting to compare the UAE reception of the two shows.

Spacey again - art imitates life imitates art

From a Sydney Morning Herald interview with Kevin Spacey, on playing Richard III:
But in the meantime, it is Shakespeare's king who absorbs his attention, in a production that carries fresh relevance in the light of the revolutionary Arab protests.
''It's interesting looking at these dictators around the world,'' Spacey says, ''[and seeing] how their idea of what a king looks like is very much based on English monarchy.''

Huffy "expert" on Shakespeare and Middle East tyrants

Forgot to blog about this HuffPost column when Google alerted me to it a couple of weeks ago.  Who is this (self-anointed?) "expert" Shai Baitel, and why do his dyspeptic ruminations on Kevin Spacey as Richard III (under the pompous title "Power and Downfall -- Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants") merit placement as political analysis?  Ah, but this is the magic of invoking Shakespeare to discuss contemporary politics.  Any hint of today's political violence adds the spice of perceived relevance to a simple run-through of an old history play.
But can Shakespeare's Richard III, in Mendes's thoughtful interpretation and irresistibly brought to life by Spacey, compare to the ilk of the rulers of Iran, to Bashar al-Assad, to Hassan Nasrallah, to Muammar Gaddafi?
And referring to Shakespeare's plays automatically gives depth to otherwise incoherent ponderings on the Middle East.
But unlike Richard III our Middle Eastern despots have a larger arsenal at their hands: they are a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. He did not hesitate to kill, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III's opinion or argued with him went to prison -- at best -- or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.

Is Asian Shakespeare "worthy"?

What the hell does this mean?  From an Edinburgh Fringe Festival preview in the New Statesman:
The International Festival is exploring links between east and west, hence a Chinese Hamlet, a Korean Lear and a new stab in Arabic at One Thousand and One Nights. Yet it need not be that worthy. Under Stephen Earnhart, a Japanese company has adapted Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (20-24 August). Buy me a drink and I'll tell you what I know: that he is, at least, an excellent novelist.
Would be interested in any reports on Tim Supple's 1001 Nights (with text adaptation help from Hanan al-Shaykh!), if anyone gets to see it.