Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nehad Selaiha rereads my dissertation...

Hamlet galore: Nehad Selaiha enjoys a Hamletian feast at the Creativity Centre

Of all the foreign dramas translated into Arabic, including Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet has been the most influential since the 1950s. Not only has its language, particularly Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and phrases like "The time is out of joint" or "Frailty, thy name is woman", found its way into the rhetoric of political writers and intellectuals and even in the daily speech of the educated, it has also haunted the imagination of playwrights, directors and actors, appearing in different guises to address different needs at different historical moments. Echoes of Hamlet abound in many of the best dramas produced in the 1960s, and at least three tragedies, Alfred Farag's Sulayman Al-Halabi and Al-Zeir Salem and Salah Abdel Sabour's The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj, modeled their heroes on the Prince of Denmark, giving them more or less the same moral/political/ existential dilemmas. While the play itself has not received many 'textually unadulterated' productions -- the most famous and memorable being Sayed Bedeir's at the Opera house in 1964/65, starring the late, great Karam Metawi', and Mohamed Subhi's 1978 one, in which he also played the title role -- it has inspired a spade of stage adaptations, original plays and what can be best described as ironic, inter-textual engagements.

In her extensively researched, well informed and deeply insightful doctoral dissertation on the appropriation of Hamlet by Arab culture between 1952 and 2002 (entitled Hamlet's Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama, soon to be published in book form), American scholar Margaret Litvin demonstrates that the different Arab Hamlet-appropriations since the 1952 Egyptian revolution 'fall into 4 main phases' that 'have corresponded to the prevailing political moods in the region'. The first phase (1952-64) was one of 'euphoric pride after the 1952 revolution', and in it 'Arab dramatists' preoccupations with Hamlet were focused on [achieving literary and theatrical] international standards'. The second phase (1964-67) was one of 'soul-searching and impatience for progress' and 'Hamlet's incorporation into Arab political drama' then took the form of what Litvin calls (in the manuscript of her thesis, which she has graciously sent me, and from which all the above quotations and the ones that follow are taken): a '"Hamletization" of the Arab Muslim political hero'. 'Such Hamletization,' she goes on to say, 'was an easy way for Arab playwrights to emulate (and borrow) Hamlet's complexity of characterization and to obtain the moral and political standing it conferred. Thus the critical demand for deep, complex, yet politically topical characters encouraged serious dramatists to weave strands of Hamlet in their heroes -- in turn linking the character of Hamlet with the theme of earthly justice in the audience's imagination' (Litvin, pp, 12, 13. 82).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Abu Hamlet and Najm are Alive

A report on a conventional/unconventional Syrian playlet in the (Abu Dhabi) National

Haven't seen it -- sounds kind of reminiscent of Moroccan playwright Nabyl Lahlou's "Ophelie N'Est Pas Morte" (1968)... but maybe funnier?

Recently, an empty shop under renovation in downtown Cairo became an impromptu theatre for an unusual performance. An audience of about 12 people sat on mismatched chairs. A few well-placed scarves and portraits of Shakespeare and the Syrian satirical writer Mohammed al Maghout formed the backdrop. Two identical young men suddenly appeared and began reciting overlapping Shakespeare monologues in Arabic.

The Malas twins, Ahmed and Mohammed, are 26-year-old actors and playwrights. Their play Melodrama, originally performed in their bedroom in Damascus, has become an underground sensation in Syria. During a visit to Cairo, they organised three performances.

In the play, Shakespeare quickly devolves into an argument between the two characters, the grey-haired Abu Hamlet (played by Mohammed) and the boisterous young Nejm, or “Star” (played by Ahmed). They are aspiring actors living in shared quarters who spend their time recounting disappointments, venting frustrations and indulging in fantasies about making it big. As their names suggest, the characters represent different generations of the Syrian acting community – the older committed to the theatre, and the younger enamoured with television and cinema.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Khalil Mutran salutes Shaykh Salama Higazi

Click on photo to enlarge and read poem.
From Volume I of Khalil Mutran's diwan (4 vols, 1949), first published 1908. See last two stanzas for Mutran's admiration of Higazi's dramatic art... and desire to transcend it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Call for Materials - Arab Shakespeare Performance

The curators of the MIT Shakespeare Electronic Archive (http://web.mit.edu/shakespeare/, directed by Peter S. Donaldson, Professor of Literature at MIT) have expressed interest in developing an online database of Arab/ic Shakespeare performance. The site would be modeled on and linked to its recently launched site on Shakespeare Performance in Asia (SPIA, http://web.mit.edu/shakespeare/asia/) The Shakespeare Electronic Archive is also developing new archives in Brazil, India and other areas.

The Asia site is still in development, so it is too early to know exactly what a proposed Arab World companion site might include. Participants can expect to have significant input into the design. That said, here are some possibilities (all would be indexed and searchable):

  • video clips from contemporary or older productions of Shakespeare plays and adaptations (and complete videos of selected productions)
  • brief summaries of significant Shakespeare productions and adaptations
  • a database of reviews (in both Arabic and English)
  • interviews with directors and actors, both young and more established, who have engaged seriously with Shakespeare
  • script excerpts of unpublished Shakespeare adaptations and important out-of-print Shakespeare translations
  • a bibliography of important scholarly work on Arab Shakespeare and Arab theatre more generally (in Arabic and English, with hyperlinks when articles are available online)
Please contact me through this blog (arabshakespeare [at] gmail.com) if you would like to be involved in the pilot stage of this project. Please also contact me if you are able to share any materials (e.g., full video recordings or clips) that would be useful in constructing a small demonstration site to solicit grant support for the project. Of course, interested scholars and MIT Shakespeare Project staff will work to obtain formal permission from the authors/directors before anything is published online.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Early Arabic Shakespeare translations

This week I figured out which French translation was used by Tanyus Abdu, author of the first published Arabic Hamlet. (Hint: pick up John Pemble's very entertaining Shakespeare Goes to Paris (2005). Then spend three days at Widener comparing half a dozen 18th and 19th-c French translations.)

It's amazing no one has bothered to trace this before. It's common knowledge that the early Arabic adapters/translators of Shakespeare were mainly Syrian-Lebanese immigrants to Egypt who knew French better than English and had absorbed the neo-classical aesthetics of French theatre. It's even known that the earliest Arabic versions of Shakespeare were translated not from English but from French. (No surprise there -- same thing happened in Russian, in Spanish, probably in plenty of other languages. Paris, capital of the 19th century, etc., etc.)

But... doesn't this matter? Every critic and scholar I've seen notes the French mediation, then proceeds as though it never happened. They spill ink deploring or defending the "distortions" introduced by early adapters, especially Abdu and Mutran -- without considering which of these distortions (like Abdu's much-mocked happy ending!) were already present in their French sources. What a waste. Stop seeing it as a simple two-way exchange between Shakespeare and his Arab translator, and the literary argument about textual fidelity falls apart; even the Bourdieusian sociological argument (adaptation to the needs of Cairo's emerging middle-class commercial theatre audience, then pursuit of autonomous aesthetic standards, etc.) can be made in a considerably more complicated and fruitful way.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Brooklyn June 11

Brooklyn June 11 was a lot of fun. The audience was pretty big, and full of people who asked smart questions and seemed really to like the show. So did NYT's Ben Brantley. (And wrote a really perceptive review, I thought.)

Here is also my backgrounder, written in a big hurry at the Asia Society's request. Most of this will be news to no one who reads this blog. Except maybe this nugget:

In 1935, Egypt’s future president Gamal Abdel Nasser starred in a production of
Julius Caesar put on at his Cairo high school. He played Caesar as a liberating
nationalist hero who defeated Great Britain.
It's true! Check Georges Vaucher or Joel Gordon or any good Nasser biography.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Al-Bassam hits New York

Theatre preview capsule by Ben Brantley (NYT 6/5/09)
Winters of discontent occur in even the sunniest climes. The Kuwaiti-born director SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM has relocated Shakespeare’s demonic Richard III to the Middle East, and this bloodiest of monarchs apparently feels gleefully at home in his new surroundings. Part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas” festival, “RICHARD III: AN ARAB TRAGEDY,” which opens Tuesday at the Harvey Theater, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 2007 Complete Works Festival. It has now arrived in the States (stopping off at the Kennedy Center in Washington this year) with its message of the utterly contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s tale of a country raped and paralyzed by a charismatic sociopath. Mr. Bassam has written that “Richard III” has always fascinated him more as history than tragedy. The emphasis in his production, set in an unnamed Gulf emirate, is accordingly less on the psychology than the society of the crookback who would be king (who first appears under the name of Emir Gloucester, if you please). He is, Mr. Bassam says, “the twisted child of a demented history.” Arab music and ritual infuse this “Richard III,” which is performed in Arabic with English titles and seems guaranteed to summon images of the reign of Saddam Hussein and its chaotic aftermath. Tuesday through Friday, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (718) 636-4100, bam.org; $25 to $45.
[Will I see BB at the show? Will be sure to keep you posted. -ML]

Village Voice previews Al-Bassam's RIII

Al-Bassam's Richard III: An Arab Tragedy will be at BAM in New York next week. Check out this brief piece by Alexis Sokolsky in their summer theatre preview. (I'm quoted!)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My review of CIFET

Just out in the new PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art

War Stories, Language Games, and Struggle for Recognition
Located on the Nile Corniche, the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel reveals only a picture-window slice of Cairo. Guests of this year's Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre (CIFET) entered a security fortress: concrete barriers, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and handbag searches. Inside, the cappuccinos were perfect; the sunset, through a double filter of pollution and tinted glass, looked magical. Some visitors wondered if this wasn't too sumptuous a place for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to lodge the foreign guests it had invited for the festival's accompanying three-day seminar on "Challenges Facing the Independent Theatre and Threats to Its Survival." Having lived for a year (2001-2002) as a student in a rooftop flat in downtown Cairo, listening to a constant din of mosque loudspeakers and taxi horns, I appreciated the change of scene that came with being an invited seminar...

More in
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art - Volume 31, Number 2, May 2009 (PAJ 92), pp. 65-71
Volume 31, Number 2, May 2009 (PAJ 92) The MIT Press. 20th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre , Cairo, Egypt, October 10-20, 2008.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Al-Bassam's RIII plays in the Gulf

Sulayman Al-Bassam speaks to The National (Abu Dhabi) ahead of the UAE performance of Richard III: An Arab Tragedy. http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090319/ART/799109576/1042/SPORT

Some nice bits:

I think one of the good things about the piece is that you don’t need to
know Shakespeare to appreciate it. I think a lot of people in the Arab world
have never come across Richard III,” says al Bassam.

Really? It would be interesting to ask an audience member who has never heard the plot of Shakespeare's Richard III what s/he got out of Al-Bassam's play. I think it would lose a lot of its depth without the York/Lancaster background.

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy is hardly the first reimagining of Shakespeare’s
popular play. The Elizabethan tale of unbridled power lust has been set in Nazi
Germany, in a crime-ridden American ghetto and even rendered in Japanese
animation, or manga, as a graphic novel. This, however, is the first time that
Richard III speaks in Arabic while in the contemporary Arabian Gulf, and al
Bassam worked with a number of writers and a poet who specialises in Bedouin
verse to get the cadence of the English adapted into Arabic. He says his focus
was capturing the rhythm, if not the word-by-word translation, of Shakespearean

The claims for the novelty and cultural representativeness of this adaptation have been scaled down over the past two years, I'm glad to report.

Because of its bilingual presentation, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy can seem
at times to be two plays in one. “For the Arab audiences, they are much more
tuned into the comedy of the piece and there is a quite comic element. So
the satirical elements come out a lot more clearly when we play to Arab
audiences,” says al Bassam. “Some of the western audiences, because of their
unfamiliarity with the culture that is being presented, they are a little
bit shy of laughing.”

This is a great point. They're shy (and so they should be! Isn't this hesitation before laughing at stereotypes of the other exactly what our post-Saidian culturally sensitive university teaching strives to inculcate?), and they can't always distinguish what's meant as satire from what's meant as straight documentary presentation of cultural facts. Which is not their fault. But it's a fact.

Hard not to feel that Sulayman has gotten a lot savvier about the way the same piece plays to different audiences. Well, 35 performances in nine (or is it more?) countries would do that for you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Call for Papers - Arab Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011

Rafik Darragi and I are co-convening this seminar at the next WSC. Co-conspirators welcome. Prague should be lovely... Please send a 250-word abstract by August 1, 2009 to mlitvin@bu.edu.
9th World Shakespeare Congress
Prague, July 17-21, 2011

Seminar: Shakespeare on the Arab Stage

In many Arab countries, top directors and playwrights have appropriated Shakespearean characters and/or plots to produce original theatrical works. Their plays range from parody and pastiche to metatheatrical reflection, political satire, and even tragedy. Such work is now gaining prominence in the West as well as in the Arab world. For instance, an Iraqi dramatist’s adaptation of Hamlet received a rehearsed reading at the 8th World Shakespeare Congress in 2006. The same year, an “Arab” version of Richard III was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, later touring to several European countries and the United States.
Building on the enthusiasm and questions sparked by the Arab Shakespeare panel at the previous World Shakespere Congress (Brisbane, 2006), this seminar will explore the diverse dramatic adaptations of Shakespeare that have flourished in the Arab world in recent years. Participants are invited to:
  • Analyze one or more Arab/ic productions or adaptations of Shakespeare plays (19th- or 20th-century or contemporary).
  • Consider the production and/or reception contexts of one or more Arab/ic Shakespeare appropriations.
  • Contribute to a discussion that aims to develop a typology or map of Arab Shakespeare appropriation more broadly. Given the perfectly naturalized status of Shakespeare’s plays in some Arab theatre cultures and their “foreigner” status in others, what generalizations about “Arab” Shakespeare should be made or avoided?
  • Help pinpoint some relevant paradigms for theorizing this young but growing sub-field of Shakespeare studies. In particular: is “intercultural appropriation” a fruitful theoretical approach at all?
Until recently, scholars of “worldwide Shakespeare appropriation” have known little about such work. For decades, the Arab world went largely unnoticed in the numerous edited volumes on “intercultural” or “foreign” Shakespeare; Arab scholars at international Shakespeare conferences were a rare sight. When scholars in the West did bring “Arab Shakespeare” to their colleagues’ attention, they presented it almost as a novelty. (Sometimes they did not hesitate to draw easy laughs by invoking the old joke that Shakespeare was really a crypto-Arab, “Shaykh Zubayr.”) Only in the past few years has this situation begun to change, with well-received studies on and productions of Arabic Shakespeare-related plays. This seminar will celebrate that change and build on it, asking what the study of Arab Shakespeare can bring to the study of international Shakespeare appropriation more broadly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hamlet Without Hamlet planned in Iraq

Monadhil Daood, who plays Catesby in Al-Bassam's Richard III, confirmed to me that he plans to direct an adaptation of the play Hamlit bila hamlit (“Hamlet without Hamlet”) at the Iraqi National Theatre in the coming months.
The 1992 absurdist Hamlet spin-off, by Kirkuk-born poet-playwright Khaz'al al-Majidi (b. 1951), opens with news of Hamlet’s death by shipwreck on his way from Wittenberg to his father’s funeral. (Full text here: http://www.masraheon.com/294.htm) Directed at the Iraqi National Theatre in 1997 by Naji 'abd al-Amir, Hamlit bila hamlit continues to be produced throughout the Arab world. Michel Cerda and Haytham Abderrazak directed it in Paris in 2007. Monadhil Daood says his version, which will be the inaugural play for his Baghdad Theatre Company, will adapt al-Majidi's script quite a lot and will incorporate aspects of ta'ziya (Shi'a passion plays for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn). Incidentally, Daood's doctoral dissertation on ta'ziya theatre, written in Arabic and defended in Moscow in the late 1990s, is available through interlibrary loan.
Updates on the Iraqi National Theatre available here.

2015 update: you can now find Khazal Almajidi's website and his Facebook page. He's based in the Netherlands. As far as I can tell, Hamlet Without Hamlet hasn't been translated into any European language.

Review of Al-Bassam's R3 in DC

I'm happy to report that our Arab Shakespeare panel last week went very well, thanks to the gracious moderating of Kristin Johnsen-Neshati and the wry presence of Michael Kahn of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre. ("Shakespeare's culture is foreign to me, too, as an American, even though I may speak his language. I've always thought it would be liberating not to be bound by his language...") Good attendance and interesting questions, too.

That night, the WaPo reviewer had mixed impressions of the show.
He's not wrong...
Since I last saw the show (Stratford 2007), Sulayman has made a major change in a key character, the US ambassador/General Richmond. He has fused the two (hard power in the Middle East is no longer even nominally separate from soft power, it seems) and brought in Nigel Barratt (the creepy Arms Dealer from his Al-Hamlet Summit) to play the resulting US official. Then in the last few days before the Kennedy Center opening (I am told), he rejiggered Mr. Richmond 180 degrees, from a sleazy Arms Dealer-type operator into a total incompetent schlub of an apparatchik: bathrobe&slippers, coffee mug, vaguely phrased Evangelical convictions expressed in a sloppy drawl. The idea of the bumbling occupier (not malicious, just high-handedly clueless) was nice, but the product wasn't quite fully cooked when I saw it. Barratt's acting seemed parodic: way too broad for the Kennedy Center audience, one as finely attuned to political semiotics as any you'd find in Damascus. It had none of the subtlety of Fayez Kazak's Richard or Monadhil Daoud's Catesby. I think they will surely tone it down for the BAM performance in June.

Meanwhile, the trail of journalists and documentarians around Sulayman continues to grow. At a post-show reception I met someone making a documentary film about him. (There have been others.) "Ah, hello. So you're my competition!" he said when I introduced myself as an academic who has written on Al-Bassam. (Hmmm.) And have I already posted the link to this segment on PBS' NewsHour? (Part of their very extensive coverage of the festival.)

Kuwaiti Theater Director Finds Modern Inspiration in Shakespeare
In the second of a series of reports on the Arabesque arts festival at the Kennedy
Center, Jeffrey Brown talks to Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam, whose company is presenting a Shakespeare play with a twist, "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy."

Transcript and streaming video here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ideas of beauty

Off the Shakespeare topic, but some more from the festival: an exhibit of wedding dresses from various Arab countries (some lent by the wives of Gulf-country ambassadors!)...

...and a wonderful exhibit called Cinema by an artist called Youssef Nabil, exploring his love affair with Egyptian movies. These are photos of friends and starlets silk-screened onto body pillows! (There were other photos on the walls, all very striking work.)

In general the exhibits at the festival (too bad it closes today!) were remarkable.
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Al-Markaz Kinidii

The Arabesque festival was amazing. I mean that in the most positive sense. Can you believe that this is the bookstore of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC?
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