Searching for Shaikh al-Zubair

It is the East study session, The Globe, 11 February 2012

The Globe’s multi-language complete works Shakespeare festival, Globe To Globe, is being accompanied by a series of three study days that examine the cultural context of some of the productions.

The first of them looked at Shakespeare and the Middle East. It included a talk by director Sulayman al-Bassam and a practical workshop with Khayaal Theatre Company.

An introduction on the history of Shakespeare performance in the region highlighted that Shakespeare had arrived in the Middle East relatively late, with performances only dating back to the late nineteenth century. Besides the usual Hamlets and Romeo & Juliets, it appears that Othello was a popular text.

But despite coming late to this part of the world, Shakespeare’s plays have proved to be an extremely useful resource.

Translation of foreign works, particularly Shakespeare, was traditionally used as way of getting round censorship.

And as Sulayman al-Bassam outlined in his contribution, Shakespeare performance in the Middle East still serves agendas other than the purely artistic.

The Arab trilogy

His Sabab theatre company has produced a trilogy of Arab Shakespeare plays: The Al-Hamlet Summit, which sees the action taking place within a ruling family in crisis; Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, which transfers the action to the Middle East, and The Speaker’s Progress, which uses a production of Twelfth Night in a fictional dictatorship to investigate the relationship between creativity and oppression.

This obviously involved a considerable amount of rewriting and adaptation to the extent that the plays constitute new texts and are published as such.

Some adjustments to an Islamic context were also made. For instance, the murder of Clarence in Richard III involved him being drowned in ablution water rather than wine.

Sulayman had some fascinating stories to tell about the company’s experiences of working in the region. But he also regretted that the majority of the performances took place outside the Arab world.

It was strange to hear someone talking about recent dealings with government censors. One red-pen-wielding bureaucrat questioned why in a particular scene Hamlet was not centre stage – an anecdote that suggests that some censors are in fact frustrated theatre directors.

Audience reactions can also be extreme. Sabab’s Richard III was performed in the Emirates to an audience consisting of 200 princesses. Their visceral responses to the drama (clapping at odd moments, leaving the auditorium to discuss the action and then returning) were prompted by onstage events that reflected their own recent family histories.

Actors are familiar with stage fright. But when in 2008 the Sabab company heard at the last moment that their performance in Damascus was going to be attended by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, first night nerves transformed into genuine terror at displeasing the country’s autocrat.

There was relief when Bashar al-Assad responded to some of the political comment in the play by leading the applause. However, a forgotten detail in the production proved problematic.

Towards the end of Richard III a list of battle dead is read out. This adaptation replaced this with a list of recent assassination victims, which unfortunately included the name of a Lebanese journalist widely thought to have been killed by the Syrian secret service.

Bashar al-Assad’s face turned to thunder when the name was read out. He rose from his seat and left – a sequence of events familiar to anyone who has seen another of Shakespeare’s plays.

What was ostensibly a production of Richard III had turned weirdly into a real-life enactment of a key scene from Hamlet, with the Syrian president in the role of Claudius being “frighted with false fire”.

All this raises some interesting points.

Subversive political Shakespeare is an upside of bardolatory

Sulayman described Shakespeare as a ‘Trojan horse’ and a ‘mask’. The process of bardolatory transformed Shakespeare in the UK from writer to state-sanctioned demi-god. This in turn made Shakespeare into a high-status global brand, just like the Mont Blanc pens and Maybach cars with which autocratic elites like to surround themselves.

Royal endorsement in the UK is taken to indicate the brand’s innate conservatism, so that Shakespeare is avidly consumed by the world’s 1% as sign of their cultivation. For instance, the RSC theatre season is listed by Debretts as part of the ‘social season’ of high society.

But little do these elites realise that Shakespeare can, in the right hands and with a little tweaking, be rendered incredibly subversive, as Bashar al-Assad discovered to his dismay.

While bardolatory is rightly criticised for warping our perception of Shakespeare, the unassailable brand status it has afforded to the plays provides useful cover for theatre-makers with something subversive to say.

Can adaptations like this be described as appropriations?

The responses to Sulayman’s work have been intense and the envy of western theatre-makers who struggle to engage with their secure and comfortable audiences.

Shakespeare lived in an autocratic police state and had to deal with government censors.

Therefore, the cultural distance the works have to travel from 16th/17th century England to modern Britain is in some ways greater than the distance they travel to the contemporary Middle East.

Looked at another way, western productions and adaptations that try to shoehorn political meaning into the plays, for example the recent NT Hamlet that had surveillance cameras looking down onto the stage, are appropriating the plays from their original setting every bit as much as Middle Eastern productions. The latter perhaps represent continuity of setting rather than radical translocation.

The term ‘appropriation’ implies that Shakespeare is the property of our culture and that he is merely loaned out to other cultures. We should either credit all productions as being equally valid or describe all contemporary Shakespeare as appropriations of one sort or another.

The Globe to Globe festival reminds us that the violent world Shakespeare portrayed is immediately recognisable by many people as their own modern world. UK audiences today look on the history plays as quaint historical works about a long-forgotten past, with the occasional faint echo of relevance to events in far-flung places. Now Shakespeare is coming back at us from those far-flung places.

Practical session

The afternoon was taken up with a series of practical exercises in which we playfully explored the many ways in which Shakespeare neatly dovetails into Arabic culture.

Very much a storytelling culture, the Arab world also values rhythm and metre in language, which made Shakespeare prized.

However, given that Shakespeare drew on existing stories for his plays, it is difficult to say whether Arabic responses have been to Shakespeare’s individuality as a dramatist or to the sources on which he drew.

Arabic storytelling has stock characters such as Fools and djinns that parallel such characters as Feste and Puck, as well as the standard characters of romantic stories such as Romeo & Juliet.

The practical exercises and games introduced us to these themes and culminated in the group recreating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with one side using Shakespeare quotes to protest and another to assert state authority. This assumed a detailed and accessible knowledge of Shakespeare, which was a bit thin on the ground, but was fun nonetheless.

By the end of the day, we understood why many in the Arab world, like the Germans and Klingons, regard Shaikh al-Zubair as one of their own.

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