Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare on Palestine on Fox News

Here's a totally unreadable piece on the Fox News web site by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center published in the runup to Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the United Nations.  Cooper recycles all the old cliches - "backed by Iran," "they teach their children to hate," etc. As though it were a matter of Palestinians recognizing Israelis' rights! Of course no such screed would be complete without an appeal to Shakespeare (the only universally agreed-upon scripture we've got on this planet) to buttress the opinionator's authority.  In this case, he invokes both Julius Caesar and Hamlet.
In Shakespeare’s words, “The fault lies not in our stars, but ourselves.” The Palestinians might as well be relying on astrology rather than looking in their cracked national mirror.
Despite their attempted charade at “unity” by Fatah and the Hamas a few months ago, the Palestinians (like Hamlet) are fatally unable to make up their minds. There are two Palestinian presidents, two prime ministers, and a legislature that neither meets nor passes laws.
As it happens, the context is interesting. Julius Caesar and Hamlet were written one after the other, and what is striking (as I learned from David Bromwich in his excellent Yale seminar on "Political Shakespeare") is the similarity between the two plays. The sulky insurgents Brutus and Hamlet, at varying speeds, both "make up their minds" to - hello, Rabbi Cooper! - take up arms against a corrupt, unaccountable, increasingly arrogant autocrat.  Here's the speech spoken by Cassius in Julius Caesar 1.2:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Both plays, alas, end with the death of the hero and various other corpses littering the stage as well.  So I'm not endorsing that approach. I just want to point out that the general intellectual laziness of rote-Zionist discourse extends to its sloppy citation of Shakespeare.

Al-Bassam's "Speaker's Progress" in Beirut

Sympathetic review of The Speaker's Progress in The Daily Star suggests that the overall design works but there are still some surtitle glitches to be ironed out.  I'm not surprised, since Sulayman Al-Bassam, a compulsive editor and re-editor, was probably tinkering with the script until ten minutes before the curtain went up.
...the surtitles are projected above and to the back of the stage. This is a problem as one cannot possibly simultaneously read the translation and observe the on-stage action. Forsaking either diminishes the viewer’s experience of the performance, because the strength, wit and entertainment of this play definitely lie in its combination of text, acting and set design.
The envoys commence the performance nervously, on a stage surrounded by bureaucratic apparatus and presided over by The Speaker and a censor who sounds an alarm whenever dialogue is improvised or the action drifts from its state-sanctioned course.
A meter stick is amusingly employed to ensure that the official 90-centimeter distance is maintained between male and female players at all times.
As the play progresses, the spirit of the theater begins to take over. Digressions from the approved performance increase in regularity. The set, lighting and costumes evolve from bleak greys, whites and blacks to colorful oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually the cry rises, in English, “Defect!”
While the momentum is building, alas, the surtitles are falling apart. As they lapse several lines behind the onstage dialogue, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand who is saying what, especially when there are more than two members of the 10-man cast engaged in conversation. It becomes frustrating.
Meanwhile the progressively absurdist nature of what’s happening beneath the translation also grows challenging to follow.
Ironically, Beirut may be a less welcoming audience for this show than Boston and New York (coming up next month!).  In Lebanon, from what I gathered last May, no one wants to hear too much about the Arab Spring.  Further, Al-Bassam doesn't get any "exoticity discount" (do you know what I mean?) for directing a show in Arabic.  And he has discovered before (with an ill-fated musical Tartuffe adaptation that was cleverly intended for Gulfi audiences who were summering in Lebanon but that ended up playing instead for sophisticated Beirutis, who were underwhelmed) that it can be a tough market to gauge.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Tempest performed in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem... English, by a British company called Jericho House Theatre.

The Independent's coverage reproduces the familiar trope of third-world and especially non-Anglophone audiences as Shakespearean "groundlings."
True there were no mobile phones, a few of which trilled during the performance, in Shakespeare's time. But close your eyes and you could just about imagine that the children sucking ice lollies running up and down the steps of the Aida refugee camp's open-air auditorium, were behaving much as the Globe's younger groundlings would have done four centuries ago.

Is this Prospero in the photo above, dressed as an English colonial gentleman? The Independent (which covers the performance as an event, not a show) does not say.  But it seems the director, unsurprisingly, has some political ideas about the play and its relevance to the situation in Aida:
For Jonathan Holmes, The Tempest has a particular relevance to the Middle East. He is careful not to suggest any exact parallels. But without repeating a fashionable "post-colonial" reading of Caliban as the rebellious, and Ariel as the more collaborative victim of exploiters from outside, he believes the play, set somewhere between Western Europe and the Levant, "becomes a contest for territory between people of different cultures, and between people of the same culture. Shakespeare uses this to explore different systems and ideas of political resistance."
Aida camp is literally right under Israel's separation wall. I haven't visited, but my good friends Amahl and Nidal made a very cool documentary about it.  You can hear them on NPR, too -- click here and scroll down to July 7.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Titus Andronicus and 9/11

This is not about the Arab world per se, but... there's a fine article by Nick Schifrin in Foreign Policy about revenge-seeking and its consequences. Framed with David Scott Kastan on Titus Andronicus.  Nicely titled "Reading Shakespeare in Kandahar."  (Thanks to my friend Justin for sharing.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Not all the world is a stage...

The sign reads: "A Living Egypt is Not a Play"
(In Arabic the two expressions, "living Egypt" and "theatre play," differ by just one letter.)

Tahrir graffiti

Among many, many, graffiti in Tahrir today. Most were in Arabic and were much more specific. But still, here's the "to be or not to be" thing. Look at the very top in the center.
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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Tunisian-themed Macbeth

Thanks to my friend Scott Newstock for alerting me to this Tunisian-themed Macbeth added to the roster of the global Shakespeare festival on the occasion of the 2012 Olympics:
Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History – Artistes, Producteurs, Associes from Tunisia combine Shakespeare with film and reportage (LIFT at London's Riverside Studios, Northern Stage – in Arabic with English surtitles).
There are not a lot of Arabic productions of Macbeth, for whatever reason, and even fewer adaptations. (Low prestige? High censorship?)  But the time may be ripe for a production keyed to ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abdine Ben Ali and his widely reviled wife Leila.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Shakespeare After 9/11" issue of Shakespeare Yearbook finally out

A lot of events, some very sad, intervened to delay this issue.  But at least the heroic editors got it out in time for the tenth anniversary!
I have an article in here about Sulayman Al-Bassam, complete critical history of his work up to and including the Richard III project.