Shakespeare tragedy goes East

Shakespeare in Arabic? It sounds, to say the least, a bit odd. Yet in the hands of the restless young Arab stage director and writer Sulayman Al-Bassam, who appears to be well attuned to the pulse of classical works of European culture, as well as the physicality of his own culture’s art, the combination is stimulating. Indeed, rave reviews and the mere fact that the Royal Shakespeare Company – which commissioned an adaptation (not a translation) of «Richard III» in Arabic – has placed its trust in the artist are ample testimony to this. In Athens, «Richard III – An Arab Tragedy» will be staged at the Pallas Theater tonight and tomorrow within the context of the Attiki Cultural Society’s third spring festival, organized in collaboration with the Elliniki Theamaton production company. Kathimerini spoke with Al-Bassam prior to his Athens shows, discussing his take on the great bard. Why Shakespeare in Arabic? «Because they say that Shakespeare’s work is fundamentally English, fundamentally Western, fundamentally many things,» said the director. «If there is one fundamental thing about it, it is its universality. Obviously Shakespeare’s prose arises from a particular culture, but essentially it expresses something global. Therefore, I use Shakespeare’s play not only in order to explore the Arab way of thinking, but the Western one as well. In this adaptation, the action has been moved to the Gulf and it features Arab actors as well as one English-speaking character. Live Arab music also plays an important part in the production. Generally, throughout this journey, I have felt as though I am exploring anew my own culture and Shakespeare.» At the age of 24, 11 years ago, Al-Bassam formed the Zaoum theater ensemble together with a group of actor friends. «Almost all of them were Europeans. You see, back then, I was mostly exploring Western, postmodern society,» says Al-Bassam. «Everything changed in 2001. I went back to Kuwait, then we had 9/11, and I became preoccupied with East-West issues. I felt that my work had to live up to these changes, to play a role in this cross-cultural dialogue that is still taking place and which has a good deal of craziness about it.» Does he feel that the Arab world and Islam were misunderstood in the West following 9/11? «Let’s just say that 9/11 revealed the depth of accumulated misunderstandings. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Only the gulf between the two just widened even further, as both sides constantly take extreme points of view.» Amid all this «craziness,» Al-Bassam founded the Arab department of the Zaoum Theater in Kuwait, calling it the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theater. The Tokyo Festival then commissioned him to take on a production in Arabic. It marked the start of a redefinition of the classics from an Arab perspective, or at least from an Arab and Western point of view. «It was when I began making adaptations,» explained the director. «I explored new ways of defining these texts and, ultimately, it was a way that led me to new works. At the same time, I did some work on several of them on a clearly Arabic, Islamic basis. The objective is always the same: to create a dialogue on a cross-cultural level.» Al-Bassam tried to initiate this dialogue with «Breaking the Ice,» a production bringing together Kuwaiti, Iraqi, British and American actors, which premiered in June 2003 in Kuwait, as the war in Iraq raged on. According to Al-Bassam, this play «was the first direct Arab reaction to the war. It came from the commission of a non-governmental organization in Kuwait for a play on the bonds that bind the people of Kuwait with the people of Iraq. It played for three nights and then, in September, it was staged in Cairo to a large Arabic audience, receiving a mixed reception. Some did not like the idea of a play with Western actors, while others thought it was propaganda to have Kuwaitis and Iraqis on stage together, or disliked that we worked with Americans or thought we had been funded by the CIA. The usual conspiracy theories.» One of the figures Al-Bassam had in mind when working on «Richard III – An Arab Tragedy» was Saddam Hussein – the original title of his treatment for the play was «Richard of Baghdad.» «I did not develop this idea too far partly because I felt that if I became too specific and created a symbol of Saddam, I would become simplistic. Anyway, a play such as this also examines the West’s strategy. It has to do with global politics set against the backdrop of the Gulf.» A Kuwaiti artist Sulayman Al-Bassam was born in Kuwait in 1972. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh and in 1996 founded the Zaoum Theater in London. In 2002, he opened the Kuwaiti branch of the company. Al-Bassam’s work has been published in various languages, while his method has become a subject of research at universities in the USA and the Middle East. His production as a writer and as a director include: «The Mirror For Princes: Kalila Wa Dimna,» «The Al-Hamlet Summit» (which toured internationally and received, among others, first prize at the festival for Experimental Theater in Edinburgh, the award for best production and best director at Cairo’s experimental theater festival and the State Art Prize in Kuwait), «Trading Kuwait,» «Melting the Ice,» «The Arab League,» «Hamlet in Kuwait,» «The 60 Watt Macbeth» and «The Game Show.» He is one of the co-founders of Culture Project, an initiative for the development of the arts in Kuwait.