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.

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.

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