Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Early reviews of the Tunisian Macbeth

The surtitles caused problems, but the show seems to have been effective at least in stimulating people's emotions, if not in teaching them anything very new about Tunisia or Shakespeare. The big achievement - scenographically as well as politically - seems to have been the commentary on the "puppet" nature of Ben Ali's regime: a puppet to Bourghiba, to his wife, to the authoritarian structure of events demanding a dictator to come and fill the space.

Ibrahim Darwish's long column (in Arabic) focuses on the dis/similarities between Shakespeare's Macbeth (motivated by ambition and some idea of masculinity) and the Tunisian Ben Ali; he also highlights the production's critique of the original sins of the Bourghiba regime, conveyed through inter-scene documentary footage (including discussion of Ibn Khaldun), the voice of the narrator, and the puppet show.

A kind but ambivalent blog review by Miriam Gillinson (also here) faults the show for trying to overload on ideas, but somehow settles on the cliche of praising the "simple" and "raw" (not to mention "pulsing" and "throbbing") qualities of African-produced theatre. I think the song she refers to at the end is Abu Qasim al-Shabbi's poem, "If a people one day wanted life" (multiple translations and discussion here), which has played such an important part in the Arab uprisings:
But then the production veers off again, now focusing on the strange power that Bourguiba still holds over his predecessor, Ben Ali. This has promise – after all, the idea of regal ghosts haunting their successors has a rich, Shakespearean twang to it. There’s a wonderfully weird scene, in which a larger than life model of Bourguiba taunts Ben Ali, mocking his achievements. But this idea is sustained only for a few minutes before the show scampers off again, eagerly in pursuit of other ideas.
The most effective scenes are the seemingly slight ones – the simple scenes that, almost incidentally, throb with immediate meaning. There are a number of wrenching songs that say far more about Tunisia and its trapped citizens than the rest of the show put together. The style of singing – the same singing you hear calling people to prayer at mosques – pulses with revealing contradictions. That searing wailing sounds pained but resilient, too.  It’s a little bit ugly but there’s also a raw beauty and power to the music, which screams out on behalf of all those citizens who have neither the strength or means to make themselves heard.
Another reviewer's experience provokes a diatribe against subtitles:
Throughout, the giant screen at the back keeps up a running subtitle commentary in rather disjointed English. It is more confusing than enlightening and muddles the effect of all of the hard work by the actors. The screen is so big that reading full sentences really gives your eyes a work-out and there are parts where they flash by so fast it is a struggle to keep up. Why choose to base a production on such a well-known Shakespeare, if you then feel you have to provide a word-for-word translation to keep people up to speed?
For more on the show, including pictures of the interesting puppet sequence, see director Lotfi Achour's Facebook page, particularly this album.  And there's still time to catch it in Newcastle (and respond to my discussion questions)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

T. Rashid on London theatre's "Arab Turn"

"Once, Shakespeare’s Arabs were ciphers for his voice – like countless Middle Eastern politicians, those Arabs were puppets at an Englishman’s mercy. But at the World Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare himself became a cipher for Arab voices." Thus muses Tanjil Rashid at The White Review site - fortunately complicating the parallel structure as soon as he has proposed it.

Moving beyond Shakespeare, Tanjil asks what I take to be the main question (military overtones and all): "Why does British theatre now have its sights set on the Arab world?"  The answer is both obvious and fascinating, yielding an endless series of individual artists' and organizers' reasons, preoccupations, collaborations, stories. I take his grand conclusion to be overblown, but the prospect of less "crusty" cultural exchanges is always a nice one.

Oh and I'm looking forward to the podcast mentioned in the author note; it was fortuitous that Tanjil and I were able to meet up in Cairo last month, in the leafy garden of the Dutch Institute library no less, to record that.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"A Naughty World": Syria - Shakespeare on... Wikileaks

My jet-lagged friend Elias alerted me early yesterday morning that the latest batch of Wikileaks Syria emails includes some correspondence with one Lamis Ismail Omar, an intimate friend of Bashar al-Asad who's completing a PhD at Durham University in the UK.  She's in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures: Translation and Linguistics.
Dissertation topic: "The Translation of Metaphor in Shakespeare's Drama from English into Arabic."
Dissertation advisors: Daniel Newman, Paul Starkey, David Cowling.
And forgive me but: she's very hot, for a Shakespeare studies grad student!

By the time I've gotten to look into it, the press in several languages is alleging that Lamis is Asad's lover, citing the extremely affectionate tone of their email and the large portrait of him on her wall in Durham.  Durham university is scrambling to deny any formal links with Asad or knowledge that he or his pariah regime (but she enrolled in 2006!) paid Lamis Ismail Omar's tuition. Wikileaks' copy of Lamis' fourth-year-student review is down (probably from excess traffic) and a search for Lamis Ismail's profile on LinkedIn, with what seems to be her correct dissertation title, mysteriously re-routes to another profile named Janah Rahman.  No further information to be gleaned from In a more recent photo she looks more grad-studenty, or perhaps just harried by the press.

Newspapers have republished some of the 800 emails released by Wikileaks. The messages are mostly in English, with a lot of Arabic mixed in.  In some cases they're downright romantic, quoting Nizar Qabbani poems about roses etc.; elsewhere, Lamis shares worries about her mother's health.  Others reveal a shared interest (between Lamis and Bashar, who writes as in some subtleties of the English language: metaphors, catchphrases, stock expressions, lexical nuances. She coaches him on stock expressions to use in upcoming meetings. They share an iPhone app for idioms, and she sends him a very long writeup (with sample quotes from books by scholars such as Steven Heydemann who are of course critical of his regime) of the issues involved in translating certain politically loaded terms such as "revisionist."  As a translation professional she seems really smart. You can read a few more of the emails here  [update - does Lamis have a son??] and see Al-Akhbar's analysis of the whole cache.

[Update, which casts more light on how things work in academia than anything else. Wikileaks is back up. In her review, Lamis' committee writes:
As usual, the quality of her work is very high. She is currently working on the revisions of chapters submitted this session, as well as on a sample analysis of metaphors in her corpus (Shakespearean plays and their Arabic translations). Professor Newman has no doubt that Lamis will be able successfully to complete her PhD by 2012, and that her dissertation will make a significant contribution to her field of study; he adds only that it is imperative she does not lose momentum during her stay in Syria.
If she has other projects going on besides grad school, such as, e.g., translating Bashar's speeches or performing any other services in Syria's Ministry of Presidential Affairs (!), her advisors do not mention it and probably don't know or care.]

I should say that Arabic Shakespeare translations have been a staple topic for dissertations by Arab students doing PhDs in the UK (and, to a lesser but still important extent, in the US).  I catalog over a dozen such dissertations in the intro to my book.  Many of them are excellent, though some are unduly nitpicky (asserting the grad student's superiority over an Arab translation tradition portrayed as backward). None so far has been published as a monograph, perhaps because the students leave with their PhDs and go on to publish and teach in the Arab world, so English-language academic publications may be less important.  A dissertation on "The Translation of Metaphor in Shakespeare's Drama from English into Arabic" seems plausible, even potentially trendy.  I don't understand when and how Durham University is supposed to have intuited that Lamis Ismail was being sponsored by the Syrian regime, or why it's necessarily a scandal that she's due to graduate in September.  (If she's having an affair with Bashar, that's a scandal of a very different scale and kind.)

Finally: the sig quote that wraps up most of Lamis' emails is, you might say, weirdly a propos of the Wikileaks phenomenon:
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
It comes from The Merchant of Venice 5.1- albeit in the Willy Wonka version rather than Portia's.  In Shakespeare it's a "naughty world" -- which seems apter still.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

English-language Iraqi Shakespeare in... Oregon

This from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
An Iraqi Shakespeare troupe from the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS) is in Oregon performing and holding talkbacks with audiences. This group has spent the past few days at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is performing in their Green Showseries this week.
On Monday, July 9, at 7:30pm, AUIS students will be in Portland and perform a few scenes then hold a Q&A on the Morrison Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. The event is FREE and open to the public.
The troupe consists of 10 student actors at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, who started an appreciation-type club, and ended up doing an English-language Shakespeare production in a public theatre, the first ever of its kind in Iraq. They are a mix of North and South, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd--representing extremely different communities in an astoundingly diverse nation. (AUIS program website)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Arab Review on R&J in Baghdad

The Arab Review's deputy editor Moreas Madani calls the show "subversive and thought-provoking," finding a gracious way to apologize for those stereotypes Monadhil Daood's that multi-generational allegory does NOT subvert:
A thought-provoking and subversive performance, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad provides a glimpse of life in post-war Iraq, though it is perhaps a pity that the Baghdad of the play is portrayed as little more than a violent backwater, rather than the diverse and culturally rich city that has endured despite nine years of conflict. What is clear is that Daood has intentionally painted such a bleak portrait of Baghdad, using the devastation of this “living nightmare” as a blank canvas from which to begin the task of rebuilding a city and a nation...

If you're in London or Newcastle: Tunisian Macbeth

I was flirting with buying a last-minute plane ticket to go see the Tunisia-themed Macbeth adaptation, but looks like it won't happen. So I'd love to hear from friends and colleagues who are going to get to see it in London this weekend or Newcastle next weekend. Specifically, some things I'd love to know, besides general questions of scenography/performance/multimedia use/etc:
  • how does the show reinforce/challenge the expectation of the folks in Stratford&London who commissioned it?  (I take these expectations to be: Shakespeare is Global, all you participating companies are local.)
  • how does it corroborate or play with British preconceptions about the "Arab Spring"? Is it generally optimistic/pessimistic? How does it show the causes of the uprising?  the role of the West in it?
  • how rich is the engagement with Shakespeare? is it just a pretext (Laila=Lady M, something you see in media accounts all the time) or do the adapters work to find interesting equivalents for the witches, ghosts, orphans, other plot or character details?
  • as a show partly funded by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, i.e. by an Islamist-leaning government its directors don't very much like, how does it address the question of transition - is there a Macduff? - is there peace and closure at the end? or darkness and censorship? or...?
  • what kind of language games are played? Is there significance to any code-switching between fuSHa and 3ammiyya, or integration of English or French?
  • how is Tunisian culture portrayed or not portrayed?
  • how does the show speak differently to different audiences, with their different levels/types of background knowledge and different interests (Shakespeare buffs, political junkies, expats, etc.)?  Is it possible to get a range of reactions from non-Arab Londoners, Arabs in London, Tunisians in London, eventually (if it ever tours there) Tunisians back home?  Who laughs at which jokes?
  • how are documentary sources (e.g., news footage?) integrated into the play? What's their function?
I will happily credit and post here as guest articles any responses I receive by email or as comments to the blog.  Thanks much!

Monday, July 2, 2012

"A Graduate of Trouble" (Zuabi, cast as the Palestinian director)

I'm getting curious again about Amir Nizar Zuabi's Comedy of Errors, which I haven't seen, although it has been playing all spring and summer.
Sylvia Morris (on her The Shakespeare Blog) found it "unnecessarily violent," and the Guardian's reviewer found it "startling":
The most startling feature of The Comedy of Errors, directed by the Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi, is its emphasis on the play's cruelty. Ephesus is clearly a police state in which a captured merchant is subjected to water torture, bodies are unceremoniously dumped in canals, and the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio arrive in a crate as illegal immigrants; even domestic relationships are tinged with violence. I wish the verse had more room to breathe, but Zuabi pushes the action along at a great rate and, in Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes as the twin servants, boasts two of the best Dromios I have seen: the former all quivering apprehension, the latter brimming with goofy charm.
The "younger generation," meanwhile, called the show "the RSC at its best: funny, professional and original, and it made Shakespeare modern and understandable."
Unlike the other Arab items in the "World" Shakespeare Festival, this one is not billed by national origin (e.g., it is not performed in Arabic, nor localized to anyplace in the Middle East), but Zuabi's Palestinian background is very much at stake in the expectations and actual direction of his show.  Here is the RSC's promotional "mini-documentary."  (Is it because tickets cost so much now that theatre companies feel they have to give risk-averse buyers so much info up front? Or is this because everyone has a phone that wants to research everything before experiencing it?)

Listen to David Farr (around 0:26): "I wanted to find another artist to add color, ... contribution. I was obviously interested in finding a director who had a very particular emotional and political contribution to bring, something that would be different from me.  I had seen the work of Amir Nizar Zuabi..." In the explanation that follows he uses the word "obviously" at least once more: a Palestinian director has a very strong connection to the idea of exile and not being on one's own land, and the play is all about exile etc etc.  So the selection of Zuabi itself functions as a reading of the play.
And Zuabi (around 0:58) steps right into the role for which he is cast:
"Coming from where I come, of course the whole thing of being illegal somewhere has a very strong echo."
Then at 1:22:
I'm a graduate of trouble back home. [Nice line!]  And of course our political strife, which can become very very horrible at times, is also very very funny. ... That sense of making the comedy real -- you know, they're running for their lives, they're not running to be funny -- makes a lot of sense to me.
And then he trots out his line about how Shakespeare is actually a Palestinian (already discussed on this blog), which is really a universality claim.

One should try to do justice to the other underlying claims here.
The idea of cutting Shakespeare through a Palestinian prism to restore the "anxiety" and thus the "humanity" under the shopworn slapstick of a play like Comedy of Errors: an interesting, plausible, appealing idea.  Not very kind to the Palestinian perhaps (he is objectified as nothing more than the embodiment of a point of view) -- might it be more humane not to use a real person for that but only a notional Palestinian, or perhaps any human being who has read some Edward Said?  Why couldn't David Farr have done it himself?  But it can make for fine theatre.  Not so different from Anthony Tatlow's theory of how an "intercultural sign" is a familiar sign refracted through the culture of the other to make it speak again: to make Shakespeare vivid by alienating/exiling his text from some terrain that has grown too familiar.
All this, self-reflexively enough, occurs on the very subject of shipwrecks and washing up on strange shores.  (The play is billed as part of "Shakespeare's Shipwreck Trilogy" -- a nice grouping! -- under the tagline "What Country, Friends, is This?"  David Farr directs The Tempest and Twelfth Night.
Back to Zuabi: his cultural politics are as sophisticated as anyone's (and see his nice quote in here.)  A politically-minded presentist interpretation of an over-the-top early Shakespeare comedy is obviously ("obviously") what he was hired to do. But it may also be the realization of a personal artistic vision.  And although working with the RSC must be an amazing career opportunity, let's not exaggerate: the RSC quite possibly gains more cred from bringing him on than he gains from the experience.  Zuabi has done high-profile projects before, and with more artistic liberty (e.g., in casting).  Notably, he directed Palestinian actor Makram Khoury in al-Hakawati Theatre's adaptation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's intensely private and poetic late composition Jidariyya (Mural): it toured internationally in 2008. (The Guardian review of the Edinburgh festival performance, the obverse of their Comedy of Errors review (different reviewer) reveals a mismatch between audience and play -- apparently the poetry had too much "room to breathe."  It's a question of communities of interpretation.  See, e.g., the reviewer's mock-generous allowance that Darwish's death -- which was grieved by poetry lovers on four continents! -- "prompted candlelit vigils throughout Ramallah".)
From the photos and the generation gap in the reviews, it also seems like Zuabi puts on a somewhat more rollicking Shakespeare production than these heavy background political concerns would lead one to expect.
Okay, so I am loath to believe that any Comedy of Errors, no matter how interesting, could be worth a red-eye to London and a train ride to Stratford.  But doesn't it sound like I need to interview Zuabi now? As part of my sub-specialization in intercultural 35-year-old wunderkinds?  Will try to make it happen.

"This is the culture, like bazaar"

From the RSC's behind-the-scenes chat with Monadhil Daood, director of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad: Couldn't have said it better.