Wednesday, December 5, 2012

And now Arafat as Hamlet's father's ghost

Was Yasser Arafat "poisoned in the garden for his estate"?  What's sure is that his ghost still stalks the Middle East. Thus Omar Dajani in FP:
The decision to exhume Arafat's remains, almost eight years after his demise, is itself illuminating. Why, many have asked, wasn't it done earlier, when potential evidence of wrongdoing remained fresh? Although it is tempting to suspect a conspiracy, the reality likely hews closer to Hamlet than Julius Caesar. Just after Arafat's death in 2004, a negotiated settlement of the conflict remained a tantalizing prospect: Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a new Palestinian-Israeli agreement on movement and access was concluded later the same year, and Palestinians returned to the polls in 2006 for the first time in a decade. While many Palestinians suspected from the start that Arafat died from unnatural causes, their leadership, like the court of Denmark in Hamlet, preferred not to be confronted with potentially unpleasant facts about the late patriarch's death. Why inflame the situation just as tempers were cooling? Why risk souring relations with Israel and the United States when progress was close at hand? Wasn't it possible, after all, that Arafat had been the obstacle to peace all along?

Egypt's ElBaradei as "Westernized and Hamlet-like"

Thus spake The Associated Press, at the beginning of the "constitutional" crisis now convulsing Egypt almost exactly as it did one year ago:
The grouping seems to represent a newly assertive political foray for the former chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. Mr. El Baradei returned to Egypt in the year before Mr. Mubarak's fall, speaking out against his rule, and was influential with many of the youth groups that launched the anti-Mubarak revolution.
But since Mr. Mubarak's fall, he has been criticized by some as too Westernized, elite and Hamlet-like, reluctant to fully assert himself as an opposition leader.

Friday, November 9, 2012

More on the dabke Henry V

Another preview piece here, with a beautiful photo:

Oualid Khelifi writes:
 Unique both in substance and style, the piece unwinds its twists and turns through a sleek coalescence between Palestinian folk hoof (‘dabke’), contemporary dance and accompanying visuals. It is all the more atmospheric when the cast moves to traditional local music wed to beats of Dave Randall, an artist from British electronic bands Faithless and Slovo, who has composed exclusive material for Al-Zaytouna. Shakespearian chorus does not dominate the lines either; the performance also boasts some verses of Palestinian poetry by virtuoso Mahmoud Darwich.
 More about the company on its web site.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Conference panel on Arab Shakespeare in Canada

A call for papers, due Dec 15, for the Canadian Society of Renaissance Studies. 

Among other thematic sessions:
5.  "Arabic Shakespeare"

The recent stagings of Shakespeare in Arabic in the UK and the Middle East would suggest that the Arabization of Shakespeare is a recent phenomenon. But this is not the case at all. This session aims to look at various ways Shakespeare has been, and continues to be, read or staged in the Arabic-speaking world. The topics are open, and the following are presented only for the purpose of generating ideas:
  • Shakespeare's plays translated: how, why, what alterations?
  • The Sonnets in translation
  • Shakespeare as intertext
  • Shakespeare in Middle Eastern historical context
Please send your proposal (of not more than 500 words) to the organizer of this session: Joseph Khoury (
 And here's the fine print:
I write to call your attention to an upcoming deadline of Dec. 15, 2012 for proposals for the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies to be held at the University of Victoria 1-3 June 2013.  The CSRS invites proposals in English or in French on any Renaissance topic in a variety of disciplines : literature, history, philosophy, music, art history, medicine, cultural studies to the Program Director, Gary Kuchar, (

All proposals must be submitted no later than December 15, 2012.  Papers must not exceed 20 minutes in delivery. All participants must be members of the CSRS. To renew or apply for membership, please contact Margaret Reeves, Department of Critical Studies (English), 351A Fine Arts Bldg., University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, B.C. V1V 1V7 (
 I hope someone will take this opportunity to grapple with Kamal Abu Dib's new translation of the sonnets!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Could Arafat dance? A dabke Henry V

Another Arab Shakespeare show in London: a Palestinian dabke dance adaptation of Henry V.  Yes, you heard that right.  This time by a Britain-based company, not one brought in for a festival.
The UK-based Palestinian dabke theatre group Al Zaytouna will present its new production entitled Unto the Breach, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V set in modern-day Palestine. The show, directed by Ahmed Masoud and co-directed by Hadjer Nacer, will be performed in London in November 2012. Al Zaytouna board member Souraya Qabbani gave the following interview ahead of the full production's debut.
 Read the Palestine Chronicle interview here.

 I would have thought of Arafat as more a King Lear figure, but here he is transparently allegorized as Henry V.  That takes some dance steps indeed:
Q- Although King Henry V, at one point in the original play, comes to the humble realisation that he is but a man; he is nevertheless the person responsible for rallying his men to victory. How does that reconcile with your show, given that: a- Yasser Arafat, who in the director's words is "the great figurehead of the Palestinian struggle", has died before managing to lead his people to liberty; and b- The Arab Spring, which you cite as among the inspirations for the show, had been sparked without any outstanding movement leaders?
Whilst the launch of Unto the Breach coincides with the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, and there are parallels between our depiction of the Chairman and that of the late Palestinian leader, the show is not a historical account of his life. It does, however reflect on the value of a figurehead such as Arafat, in uniting people behind a common cause, enabling them to stand up for their rights and to stake their claim for sovereignty on a world stage. The show recognises this value but also acknowledges that the Palestinians have not yet achieved their objectives, and so the Chairman in our production dies without securing the liberty that he craved for his people. The achievement of victory is thus far less clear-cut in Unto the Breach than it is in Shakespeare’s Henry V. 
In the show, the Chairman’s death leaves the Palestinians without a leader, and so the onus is on them to once again rise up and claim their rights.  The idea that this is possible – that people can bring about change if they unite and call for it with a common voice - flowed strongly from the Arab Spring, and inspired us to create the show.  Although we recognise that any such struggle is fraught with difficulties, it is this idea of hope that continues to drive us forwards.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Bedouin Shakespeare Company" brings Hamlet to UAE

The (UAE) National profiles a young Shakespeare troupe about to bring Hamlet to Abu Dhabi.One might ask, with Hamlet: "How chances it they travel?" In this case, it may be that both "in reputation and profit" (cf. Hamlet 2.2.294) the UAE is an excellent bet.
No word on whether the Bedouin company hopes to localize the play, but they do claim some local Abu Dhabi "roots," if that term can be used of this professedly nomadic enterprise:
The Bedouin Shakespeare Company, which flew into Abu Dhabi last week in preparation for a three-week tour of the UAE, was founded by Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer, both 23, who came to live in the Emirates with their parents in 1999 and 2000 respectively.
Edward's father was working for the UAE Central Bank, Mark's was an IT consultant for the police force, and they met and became friends at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.
After school, Edward trained at Drama Studio London, during which time he played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet and Proteus in a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, while Mark graduated from the university of Lincoln in 2011 with a BA Hons in drama. Also part of the company of seven is Laura Corbett, another British expatriate who moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 9 and joined the British School after her family transferred to Abu Dhabi.
The company's name, says Edward, partly reflects its roots in Abu Dhabi. "It has Arabic ties, of course - nomadic, the desert, the traveller - and we are a homeless theatre company, nomadically travelling and performing around the UAE".
They hope to engage Emirati students with the play, with special performances at Zayed University and UAE university in Al Ain.
 Read the whole article on The National's site. The company's home (online at least) is here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Shakespeare job at AUC

Job posting possibly of interest: The American University in Cairo (actually now about 40km outside Cairo) is recruiting a scholar of Renaissance or Early Modern literature.
"Applicants are invited for a position in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Rank: Open. Area of specialization: Shakespeare/Renaissance with an orientation in early modern studies, global studies and/or literary theory strongly preferred. The candidate must be prepared for extensive interaction with a diverse literature faculty. Responsibilities include the teaching of humanities courses in the University’s Core Curriculum, introduction to literature and survey of British literature. The teaching load is normally nine credits per semester, including courses in the MA Program."
Details at;jsessionid=46B72C6159DF6439160588CB9092CC3E?JOBID=35292

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mikhail Naimy on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare

 I'm reading the early (collected 1923), mordant book of literary-critical essays Al-Ghirbal (The Sieve) by Mikhail Naimy (ميخائيل نعيمة). Trained in Nazareth, Poltava, and Seattle, Naimy is a fascinating case study of the place of modern Arabic literature in the currents of world literature.
Here he's interesting on the subject of "What is Art" and the role of the critic.  In the opening essay he seems to accept, without any fuss, that standards of beauty and goodness (unlike Tolstoy he doesn't worry about distinguishing the two) are conventional, even subjective: critics will differ, and there are no fixed rules a reader could apply for himself, or why would we need critics at all? Yet he holds that a sincere and careful critic's judgments are somehow true nonetheless. And valuable for society. He draws an analogy to the metallurgist or geologist who, while he cannot create gold or diamonds "in the sense that God creates things out of nothing," does point them out where they were unknown before, "and thereby 'creates' them for whomever was ignorant of their value before."
From chemistry and value, inevitably, to Shakespeare. Here's a quick translation:
[The critic performs] a creative work when he lifts the veil, in a work he is writing about, on a jewel no one has noticed before. Perhaps even the author himself.  I've frequently asked myself: Did Shakespeare know, when he penned his plays and poems, that they would be eternal? Or did he compose them to satisfy some need of the moment, believing they would die with him? I am among those who hold the latter opinion. Therefore the critics who "discovered" Shakespeare after his death deserve the same acclaim as Shakespeare himself. But for them, there would be no Shakespeare. I believe that the spirit can follow and seize all the turns and subtleties of a great spirit, following its path and capturing its inspirations, climbing with it and stumbling with it, is a great spirit as well.
I'm about to teach a Global Shakespeares class where our opening unit deals with what I termed (to the dismay of someone on the university-wide Curriculum Committee) "the Shakespeare Brand."  Cultural studies has spent the past few decades, nearly half a century, criticizing not Shakespeare but the widespread civic religion of Bardolatry (as exemplified by Harold Bloom and public school systems) as conventional, based on cultural prejudice, not to say Eurocentric or even colonialist.  Two generations of my elders and betters have engaged in this deconstruction with the joy of children jumping on beds and tearing apart fluffy feather pillows.  Yet Shakespeare's special status in academia AND public culture has not withered; if anything, it has thrived.
It's fun to look back at earlier critics who have no problem with the cultural constructedness of the value of Shakespeare, or anything else. For Naimy, it's self-evident that a later critic posthumously "created" Shakespeare's greatness. Not only self-evident, but kind of wonderful, since now we have this cultural treasure and before we didn't. Acknowledging this doesn't make Shakespeare less great, just lets the critic bask in reflected glory.
As a young Arab critic's hic sum, this appropriation of Shakespeare is both audacious and effective.

East West Orchestra - Hamlet (Version Arabe)

I can't say I care so much for the one musical number I've heard from the 2006 album Hamlet: Version Arabe, by the East West Orchestra.
But isn't the cover art nice?
Track listing here.

Full video for Ashtar's Richard II

I forgot whether I mentioned this before: For a limited time (a few months only, expiring this fall), you can see (and perhaps figure out how to download?) a full video recording of Ashtar Theatre's Richard II through this link:
A few of the other plays from the Globe-to-Globe festival are available there as well. 
The Space is a cool semi-governmental initiative launched around the Olympics, through a partnership of (among others?) the England Arts Council and the BBC.
They've also got part of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Manhattan Shakespeare Project goes to Ramallah

I'm copying this entire posting from Youssef Rakha's blog.  Anyone want to write about this project?  The whole process -- the Ramallah drama students, the Manhattanites, the documentarian observing them, the Shakespeare element -- seem ripe for an article. And has anyone seen this international Midsummer Night's Dream they refer to? See boldfaced bits below. -ML

Send 3 female artists to Ramallah to document the lives of 9 young Palestinian actors and how they use Shakespeare to bridge gaps in their communities.
Manhattan Shakespeare Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Manhattan Shakespeare Project must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

We have received a $1000 travel grant from Columbia University! We are very excited! Thank you so much to those to have contributed so far. We are on our way!

Shakespeare For A New World; The Palestinian Voice
Manhattan Shakespeare Project goes global!
Help send three women (two teaching artists and a documentary film director) to Ramallah to document the lives of 9 young Palestinian actors and how they use Shakespeare to bridge gaps in their communities.

Their Story
They are 9 young Palestinian actors and students at the Drama Academy Ramallah. They have lived through curfews, checkpoints, tanks, barricades, raids, arrests, isolation, and marginalization. And they have chosen to be actors. They have chosen to funnel their passion and energy into the arts; into creating a voice that is louder than the authority of occupation. They have chosen to cultivate the imagery of what can be different; to fuel the imagination to dream beyond the restrictions of occupation, and make possible what seems today impossible and unimaginable: to envision peace and the paths past violence.

Our Story
Since 2010, Manhattan Shakespeare Project – Manhattan’s All-Female Shakespeare Company has been dedicated to fostering the growth of the female artist and using Shakespeare as an educational tool to empower and reach diverse communities, especially those marginalized as a result of socio-economic status and geographic location.
In November 2011 we had the amazing opportunity to perform with the very passionate and talented students from the Drama Academy Ramallah in an international “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare. Since then we have been putting together a project that would send three women artists to Palestine to work with the DAR students in an exchange program to create a way of creating theatre. We want to answer the question “How can artists from wildly different backgrounds, cultures, and languages create theatre together, bridge diverse communities, and teach each other and audiences how to grow and live in harmony?”

The Project
In September 2012 (yes, only 2 months away, yikes!) we will spend two weeks in Palestine at the Drama Academy Ramallah teaching a series of workshops on Shakespeare Text & Performance, Viewpoints, and movement. During that time we will be collaborating with the DAR students to create an ensemble-based original devised theatre piece incorporating Palestinian youth songs, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (both in English and Arabic), and movement which will tell their story of what it means to be an artist in Palestine. This piece will then be presented to the public in Ramallah.
This original theatre piece will then be presented at The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, and for one week the DAR students will mentor Jenin high school students through the theatre creating process. This will result in another original piece which will be publicly performed in Jenin.
This whole process will be filmed and a documentary of these 9 Palestinian artists will be created, sharing the work, methodology, and stories of these students with an audience beyond the Palestinian borders. The film and methodology will be used for educational outreach to symposiums across the US, and made available worldwide to students to create collaborative theatre pieces and mentor new students and communities.
How You Can Help
Your donation goes directly to funding Phase One of “Shakespeare For A New World; The Palestinian Voice”, which includes transportation, housing, and pre-production of the documentary:
3 Round-trip plane tickets from New York to Tel Aviv: $3,600
Lodging for 21 nights for 3 artists: $3,000
Food for 21 days for 3 artists: $2,200
Film Equipment: $1,500
Editing Equipment: $200
Artists’ Stipend: $4,500
We thank you so much for you time, consideration, and generosity in helping make this project a reality. Every dollar helps, is greatly appreciated, and gets us one step closer to helping the world communities talk to each other.

Spread the Word!
Even spreading the word about our campaign goes a long way to help. Like us on Facebook. Do the Tweety thing. We’ve made it easy as pie. (mmm, pie…) You can share right from the Facebook/Twitter buttons below, but here are some pre-made tweets to save you some precious keystrokes!
  • Support @manhattanshakes as they create a bridge to communities in Palestine through theatre!

  • Send 3 NY female teaching artists to Drama Academy Ramallah, Palestine. Help build a bridge between communities!

  • 2 teaching artists and a documentary director. 9 Palestinian drama students. Help @manhattanshakes bridge the gap.
For more information about Manhattan Shakespeare Project please visit our website:
Also Find This Campaign On:

  1. Facebook
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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.

Friday, June 22, 2012

If you are in London (Tunisian Macbeth)

Don't you love this headline from the Fulham Chronicle?
The Tunisian Scottish Play comes to Riverside

Here's the blurb:

A TUNISIAN version of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth is coming to Riverside Studios next month.
The Bard’s malevolent tyrant and his wife are reincarnated as the equally diabolical modern day duo Leila and Zine Ben Ali. Combining Shakespeare’s original text with film and reportage, the production looks at the way Arab leaders use, possess and perpetuate power.
The production will run at the studios from Wednesday, July 4 to Saturday, July 7 as part of The World Shakespeare Festival.
  • What? Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History
  • Where? Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
  • When? Wednesday, July 4 to Saturday, July 7
  • Cost? £17.50-£22.50
  • Call: 020 8237 1111
Equally diabolical?  Arab leaders in general?  Never mind; go see the show and tell me what you think.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Egypt's unhappy many

"Once More Unto the Breach" is the headline of Sarah Topol's wonderful analysis piece from Cairo, written before the latest developments in Egyptian politics (like the dissolution of the parliament) but already capturing the sense of disillusionment and self-reproach among the activists who helped propel -- and then allowed the military council to squander - the Egyptian revolution.
Alas: despite the Henry V-quoting heading, much of the rest of the mood in the piece is hardly Shakespearean.
"We fucked up a lot," one leading activist tells Topol. "We're always fucking up. Since day one, it's all a series of being fucked over by our own decisions. Since March 2011, it's downhill all the way from there."
More hand-writing abotu current Egyptian politics, for the next week or so at least, on my other blog.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Is Shakespeare, after all, a Palestinian?

Perhaps you've seen my exchange with Gaza-based English professor Refaat Alareer on the idea of Hamlet as a "regular Palestinian guy." Now we can broaden the identification to Shakespeare himself.
Eschewing any hint of the "Shaykh Zubayr" nonsense,  Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi lays it out:
It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare is a Palestinian. And when I say "is" I do mean "is", not "was". The man might have been born in Stratford-upon-Avon four centuries ago, but he is alive and well today in Aida refugee camp, not far from the church of the nativity in Bethlehem. Shakespeare scholars may dispute this. But the reason I say this with such conviction (and even dare, sometimes, to believe it) is that, reading his plays, I have a sense of familiarity that can only come from compatriots.
When I think, too, of what Shakespeare writes about, I become totally convinced by his Palestinian-ness, preposterous though this might seem at first glance. There are not a lot of places where the absolute elasticity of mankind is more visible then in the Palestinian territories. In the span of one day, you might find himself reading a book in the morning, then in the afternoon be involved in what feels like a full-scale war; by dinner you and your wife have a lengthy discussion about the quality of that book, and just before you slip into bed there is still time to witness another round of violence before you tuck the children into bed. This mad reality blends everything – injustice with humour, anger with grace, compassion with clairvoyance, comedy with tragedy. For me this is the essence of Shakespeare's writing; and the essence, too, of being Palestinian.
Read the rest: it's great.  There's some cultural generalizing all right, "blazing sun" and "rhythms of the Quran" and all that... but artists, unlike academics, are allowed such thinking. 

It strikes me that the kind of identification Zuabi is performing works in the opposite direction from Prof. Alareer's.  Whereas the teacher aims to get his students to care about Shakespeare by bringing it closer to their lives (a domesticating or appropriation move, in the best sense), the director wants to get Brits to rethink what they "know" about the Palestinians, appropriating the great cultural hero of Western drama to do it. (I'm just guessing "elasticity" is not top on the list of qualities most Brits, even Guardian readers, tend to ascribe to Palestinians.)
Zuabi's is a classic national-liberationist or recently postcolonial appropriation of Shakespeare.  (My book, in a different way, makes the same move: using something my Anglo-American intended readers think they know to defamiliarize and reorient what they know about "Arab culture.")  Check out the toxic reader comments under Zuabi's post, and you can see why this sort of possibly neurotic-seeming self-identificatory move might still be necessary.  The comments also highlight that Zuabi's appropriation works in yet another opposite direction from one like Sulayman Al-Bassam's Al-Hamlet Summit: one reader absurdly (he thinks) quips: "Hard to imagine Hamlet with a suicide belt, somehow" (he obviously didn't see this one).  The difference is that Al-Bassam's show reoriented how some Brits saw Shakespeare, not how they saw contemporary Arab realities.

Zuabi is currently directing Comedy of Errors at the RSC. I won't get to see it, but you should. (It might be interesting to compare his production to the Afghan one in London. Hey you grad students out there!)

 Many thanks to Amahl Bishara for the link.

Saffron Walkling on the UK Shakesfests; Globe-to-Globe video now available

Saffron Walkling has republished her apt and generous reflections on the three Arab Shakespeare productions that were part of Globe-to-Globe.  Originally on her personal blog, the piece is now on the BloggingShakespeare site, a good resource for materials on all the plays. She writes, in part:

Because all three productions were taking part in the World Shakespeare Festival in one week, their combined effect has prompted me to think about what the word Arabic conjures up for me, how diversely Shakespeare can be appropriated, translated and presented, and how the World Shakespeare Festival is trading in/constructing images of the Arab speaking world for its audiences. The latter is not necessarily as ethically dubious as it sounds, and I will attempt to unpack why a little later, but it is important to note that at least two of these productions were commissioned by the festival organisers.

Which reminds me that I spoke to Deborah Shaw about this issue in Stratford; she gave an eloquent defense of the RSC's non-Orientalist, non-condescending motives.  I need to write up that interview soon.  I also complained to Monadhil Daood and his cast, after watching Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, that the bombs were too loud. They responded unanimously: "Well, you should hear what it's really like in Baghdad! They're much louder!"  So chalk one up for embodied presence, I guess.

Want to see the shows for yourself? Monadhil's previously hard-to-reach RJ in Baghdad (for which one had to take a train to Stratford-upon-Avon) is doing a short run at Lift at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, West London: June 28-30
And full video of the Globe productions, including Cymbeline and Richard II, is viewable online at least through October, thanks to the English Arts Council.
While it isn't quite "live, free, and on demand" as their web site promises (how could it be live?), it is amazingly cool to have these shows available for re-viewing and for those, including of course the original audiences back home in South Sudan or Palestine, who couldn't come to the Globe.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Another "Hamlet" protest sign - Syria last spring - in Arabic this time

Just found this too, from Syria. Over a year old: Dera'a, April 2011. Reported here. The sign with two lines of black text right in the middle says "Imma an takuun aw la takuun."  Written in Arabic, in case you were wondering whether only Anglophones use this line. 

Heading back to Cairo, briefly

I'll be in Cairo briefly June 15-23.
Just found this image from Feb 5, 2011 - from the demonstrations in Tahrir that "toppled," as the phrase goes, the dictator Hosni Mubarak. With the bitter wisdom of hindsight we might erase that "toppled" and write in: "allowed the Armed Forces to self-interestedly remove."  The poor girl in this photo - what kind of country will she grow up in?
[Update - image has vanished from Transterra Media web site... this is just a Google cache thumbnail; anyone know how to get it back?]

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Shakespeare in Kabul"

Outside the Arab/ic focus of this blog, but subject to a similar cultural tug-of-war (and I don't mean anything to do with Islam), is the story of "Shakespeare in Kabul."

In the bookshop of the National Theatre in London two weeks ago I saw a book by this title; alongside a photo of a gorgeous Afghan actress silently painting her eyelashes are the names of the authors, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar. In self-consciously dramatic prose (with section headings like "Exposition" and "Climax"), the book tells the story of an Afghan production of Love's Labour's Lost directed by French actress and Peter Brooks Mahabharata alumna Corinne Jaber.  It has been well received, with good distribution and very warm reviews so far.  (Preview it here - and do download the "annex.")

I had a chance to meet Mr. Landrigan during Jaber's brief residency at my university last spring. He showed up to her events wearing a pakol (Afghan hat - think Ahmad Shah Masood) and kept interrupting the conversation, waxing nostalgic about the rehearsal photos, generally taking rhetorical ownership of a production in which his actual role seems to have been limited to helping adapt the script.

Later he went to Ms. Jaber's hotel. He was, apparently, trying to persuade her to collaborate on the book. She refused, but somehow he enlisted Qais Akbar Omar (whom I haven't met and whose story I don't know), who I believe was the production's assistant director.  Their finished book carries a self-serving postscript acknowledging Jaber's non-cooperation and "wishing her well."

Anyone else want to exploit Afghan Shakespeare for reputational gain? Take a number!

As Corinne Jaber's follow-up show, a Comedy of Errors in Dari developed for London's Globe-to-Globe festival, prepares to take the stage later this month, the Globe's web site is touting the Afghan company's work as "a theatrical miracle."  Meanwhile, I was just forwarded (by two separate friends) a query from an academic listserv asking which theatre- and Mideast-related journals might want to review Shakespeare in Kabul. Well hidden (edited to sound bites) but still findable in all this promo are the voices that are really refreshing to hear -- not so much Ms. Jaber's, though she is a very warm, resourceful, and ferociously articulate artist -- but those of the women and men who took a certain reputational risk to act in these shows.They don't make it sound so miraculous. This from the interview with actor Nabi Tanha reprinted in the online appendix to the Haus volume:
1. How did participating in the play affect your life?
Normal. Nothing special.
2. Had you heard of Shakespeare before deciding to take part in the staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost?
Of course. When I was in Kabul University, Faculty of Fine Arts, we did many plays by Shakespeare. But the ones I remember very well, and which we rehearsed for weeks, were Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Apart from Shakespeare’s plays, we did other plays by other playwrights too, such as Prometheus Bound by a Greek playwright, Aeschylus, and some plays by M. Gorki and Brecht, who I believe is a German playwright. Beckett was another playwright whose plays we worked on.
The female actors had pretty similar things to say, depending what generation they were from. As with every theatre project, the youngest participants were the ones whose lives were changed most.  But almost everyone was pretty matter-of-fact, avoiding the chance to pontificate in response to silly questions like "What impact do you think staging Shakespeare in Afghanistan might have on the relationship between two cultures?" (What two cultures?)

Want more info before you make up your mind about the shows, the book, and the project? The Christian Science Monitor's 2005 review of LLL is here. The Economist called it "magic." You can find links to more press coverage of that production here (scroll all the way down), under a puffy interview with Shakespeare appropriation scholar Irena Makaryk.  Disregard the tone set by her university's PR department: Makaryk has published a thoughtful article wondering, among other things, whose cultural agenda/s the Kabul production served: Makaryk, Irena R. “'Brief candle'? Shakespeare in Afghanistan.” Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation, Performance 6 (21) / 7 (22) (2010): 81-113.
And an interesting piece by my colleague Bill Carroll draws on interviews with Jaber to analyze directorial choices such as what to do about the "masque of Muscovites" (!) and why foreigners, but NOT the Afghan participants, would tend to read the young lords' ascetic vows as Taliban-like. See Carroll, William. "Love's Labour's Lost in Afghanistan," Shakespeare Bulletin, 2010.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bra tops in the London chill (Cymbeline)

After mentioning the requisite linguistic issues, this very supportive review by Yeganeh Torbati quotes co-director Derik Uya Alfred on a different aspect of cultural exchange:

While Juba reaches springtime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, an unseasonable London chill had audience members sitting in the open-air theatre wrapped in coats, scarves, and blankets.
Actors ran around on stage barefoot, the women often wearing skirts and bra tops, never betraying even a shiver.
"It was a very big challenge, that weather," Alfred said. "If you change the costume, if you put something under it you will be destroying the culture. We told them, 'Don't feel the cold. Just feel warm and send that warmth to the people in the auditorium and they will also feel that warmth."

 To counteract the depersonalizing connotations of the phrase "ran around on stage," you can get to know the company here.

I did find it striking how certain things were intentionally NOT localized to South Sudan (the knighting ceremony for Belarius & sons: "I dub thee" etc.) but the costumes were.  In many cases they seemed designed not to convey character (except for the khaki-shorts imperial police uniform) but to showcase local traditions: not only the bras & beads but things like the doctor/soothsayer's animal headdress. The production synopsis promises:
Costume that distinguishes between north and south Sudanese gestures at the history of empire and the struggle for nationhood on equal terms.
It quotes Alfred again:
We have brought in and bought a lot of costumes from different tribes that we have to celebrate the cultural diversity of southern Sudan. People in London are going to see something very different.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

M.M. Badawi RIP

I didn't realize that the groundbreaking scholar Muhammad Mustafa Badawi had died last month until a few minutes ago when, searching for his contact info to share with a documentary producer interested in Shakespeare translation, I looked him up online. Allah yarhamhu.

Long interested in the topic of "Shakespeare and the Arabs" (on which he gave a much-quoted lecture on the occasion of the quadricentennial in 1964, later published in Cairo Studies in English, 1964/65), Badawi turned late in life to translating Shakespeare's plays. I have several of his texts at home: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello (partial text online), and I believe he's also done a Macbeth and maybe a Richard III.  You can find these at the National Center for Translation bookstore at the Opera complex in Cairo.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some Arabic press on Ashtar's Richard II

Look at this wonderful review from The Guardian's Lyn Gardner. So I can only hope the play will come soon to a theatre near you. See it in Oxford tonight if you can.  (The Oxford site also has a Flickr slideshow.)

The play is good anywhere. It has clearly found an admiring niche here in Britain. But the primary (though not the only) audiences for Ashtar's Richard II, I would argue, are Palestinian and Arab audiences.  So what did the Arab papers think of it?  The Jericho reviews were very strong, but in London most couldn't get past the symbolism of it coming to London.

A richly informative report on the earlier show in Jericho is reprinted in the Iraq-based online cultural magazine Alefyaa. The reviewer quotes from Ghassan Zaqtan's very gracious translator's note, as well as from the program note:
وجاء في كتيب وزع قبل العرض ليل الاربعاء “ريتشارد الثاني احدى مسرحيات شكسبير التي تدور احداثها حول السلطة والسياسة وتملؤها الدسائس والخيانات كتبها شكسبير عام 1595 وتدور احداثها حول سقوط عائلة مالكة بريطانية وظهور عائلة مالكة جديدة بمساعدة لوردات البلاط… حكاية مثيرة تظهر لنا ما معنى ان يكون المرء ملكا وكيف تفسد القوة المطلقة صاحبها في نهاية الامر.
According to the flyer handed out Wednesday night before the show: "Richard II is one of the Shakespeare plays whose action turns on power and politics; it is filled with plots and betrayals. Written in 1595, it revolves around the fall of a British ruling family and the rise of a new ruling family with the help of the lords of the royal court... an interesting story that reveals to us what it means for a person to be a king, and how absolute power ultimately corrupts its holder.
The report also quotes interviews with several actors, including Jordan-based Sami al-Mutawasi, who came from Jordan to star as Richard. Al-Mutawasi notes the cast members' broad international experience and draws connections from the play's plot to recent political events not only in the west but, to his surprise, in the Arab world:
واضاف “كل عمل مسرحي يوجد فيه رسالة سياسية قوية… والاحداث السياسية تتشابه عند الشعوب. وكما ان هذه المسرحية تشبة اشياء كثيرة في الغرب صادفت ان تشابه اشياء كثيرة تحدث الان معنا وهي مراة لواقعنا.”

Writing the only real review I found so far, on the BBC Arabic site, Anwar Hamid praises the show's "splendid" performances, noting the cast's "confident" movement on stage and the rapt enthusiasm of even non-Arabic-speaking groundlings. All he finds to take issue with (and this is a fairly typical cultural fetish) are some cast members' pronunciation errors in classical Arabic: "because language, gramatically and phonetically, is the most important element of theatrical performance": 

مأخذي الوحيد كان على تكرر الأخطاء النحوية على لسان ممثلين رئيسيين، وهو شيء مؤسف، فاللغة، نحويا وصوتيا (فونيتيكيا)، هي أهم أركان الأداء المسرحي. حتى يكون الأداء مؤثرا يجب أن تكون المعارف النحوية للمثلين المسرحيين على مستوى عال، وكذلك يجب أن يكونوا متمكنين من مهارات النطق الأساسية: المخارج الواضحة للحروف والتلون الدرامي للصوت.

More PRE-view coverage is here (Shorouk), here (reprint of a BBC piece in which several actors are interviewed, invoking the cultural arrival marked by playing Shakespeare in fuSHa, and director Connall Morrison is interviewed, invoking the Arab Spring), here (Al-Youm 7), here (Fatah - there's also one on WAFA), and here (reprinted from, apparently more interested in the composition of the cast and the event of the festival, with Palestinian Ambassador to London Dr. Manuel Hassassian and the Palestinian charge d'affaires in attendance, than in the show itself).

Also in Shorouk, from the "Mommy how come they get to go and we don't" department, this plangent piece bemoans the "demoralizing Egyptian absence from the World Shakespeare Festival": "This absence ... notably contradicts the history of Egyptian cultural preoccupation with the works of Shakespeare..."  Ramses Awad's book is used for background on the commemoration of the tercentennial of Shakespeare's death in 1916:
واللافت أن هذا الغياب المسرحي المصري عن مهرجان شكسبير العالمي، يأتي وكأنه مضاد لتاريخ اهتمامات ثقافية مصرية بأعمال شكسبير حتى أن الجامعة المصرية احتفلت في عام 1916 بمرور 300 عام على وفاته بتظاهرة ثقافية بالغة التميز بمعايير ذلك الزمان.
 A sad al-Ahram preview makes the same point: at this "international cultural event," Egypt will not be represented, though Palestine and Iraq will. Al-Afaq and El-Gornal note it too.

Something rotten

In Syria, meanwhile, recent Higher Academy of Dramatic Arts acting program graduate `Arwa al-`Arabi عروة العربي has directed what seems, according to this review in Al-Akhbar (also reprinted on the Iraq-based web magazine and maybe elsewhere), to have been a really awful production of Hamlet.  Mustafa al-Khani starred. Produced by the Ministry of Culture's Department of Theatre and Music, it opened at the Hamra theatre in downtown Damascus. 
Does the young Syrian intelligentsia really have nothing better to do??  Last February (is it possible?) the same young director seems to have put on a funny J.B. Priestley play. The text of his Hamlet was edited by none other than Dr. Riad Ismat, who himself directed a "contemporary" Hamlet in 1973, and who is now Bashar al-Asad's minister of culture. 

After a catalog of the new production's shortcomings (and alas it fell short only in quality, not length), the reviewer concludes:
كل ذلك، أضاع بوصلة المشاهد عن مقولة العرض التي أراد العربي إيصالها إلى جمهوره: جميعنا الآن نعيش صراعات وحالات ارتياب وتأمل مثل هاملت في بلاد تحوّل فيها الموت والقتل إلى وجبة يومية.
All this has ruined the show's chance to get across the play's message, which al-Arabi had wanted to communicate to the audience: we are all now living through power struggles and amid doubts and hopes, like Hamlet, in a country where death and killing are daily fare.
Rehearsals began this past February. For a glowing announcement in the government newspaper Tishreen, see here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Three days, three plays: on allegory

I have been privileged, for the first time in my life, to see three Arabic Shakespeare plays in three nights. All came from places lately known in the UK more as political hotspots than as theatre centers: South Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine. Each took a different approach to the question of Shakespeare and national allegory. All were great fun to watch, in completely different ways and for different reasons. (Incidentally no one else is analytically lumping them together as "the Arabic plays" at the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe-to-Globe; only I'm doing that, mainly for the simple logistical reason of seeing them back to back. There will also be a Tunisian Macbeth in July; I hope to report on that too.)
In the South Sudanese Cymbeline, the main political statement was the presence of this production, hence of this language and these African costumes, at the Globe, hence on the world stage. ("QiSSa qadima min balad jadid" as they put it.) The plot was secondary; it only mattered for a moment that Caesar (Sudan) was trying to extract tribute from Britain (South Sudan (how's that for a post-postcolonial reversal)) and that the last words of the play in Arabic were "ittifaqiyat al-salam" (peace accord). Allegory was an excuse for the much more impressive fact of literal physical presence. See, we're here.
In Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad in Stratford-upon-Avon (on which at least one full post to come), allegory was handled more straightforwardly. Parallels were explored, equivalencies and correlates found. The two families had been at war for nine years: since 2003. Romeo was Shia; Juliet was Sunni; old Capulet nearly married her off to Paris, a mujahid with al-Qaeda (on whom everything could conveniently be blamed at the end). Old Capulet and Montague were brothers, estranged after 30 years of Capulet cheating Montague of his rightful profits of their shared boating or pearl-diving business, while now after nine years Old Capulet longed to "feel his hands on the steering wheel" again - ship of state anyone? (First-cousin marriage is fine in Iraq, sometimes even preferred, so that change didn't confuse the star-crossed lovers.) And so on. There were other things going on too, such as the way the casting hearkened back to a golden age of pre-Saddam Iraqi culture, but I won't go into them here, because they would work best for an Iraqi audience.  Here I'll stick to the allegory of "in Baghdad" as presented in Stratford.
In this allegorical setup, the departures from Shakespeare's R&J signified as much as the parallels: for instance, the fraternal relationship between the two feuding families; the absence of a Rosaline plot; the prior relationship between R&J, who had loved each other and been kept apart since childhood; an original and moving scene in which Lady Montague rouses the conscience of her brother-in-law Capulet, who then curses surrendering his country to al-Qaeda/Paris (Sunni Awakening anyone? the musicians even played "Frere Jacques" to make sure everyone got it); the fact that no sententious wrapup is spoken at the end after the final explosion (al-Qaeda blows up a church) in which the young couple is killed. Of course this setup also allowed aspects of Iraqi realia to be smuggled into the sedate premises of the Swan Theatre: notably a lot of VERY loud explosions and gunfire.  Also some costumes, some wedding customs, adoration of the Barcelona soccer team, and of course the Iraqi colloquial Arabic language.  See? those elements seemed to say, this is our reality, here it is, try to understand it. 
The Palestinian show (al-Ashtar theatre, again at the Globe) was the most intriguing. It sidestepped allegory almost entirely, presenting a "straight" and quite beautiful production of Richard II that happened to be performed in (modern literary) Arabic. Performing for Londoners who had taken the trouble to see a play in a foreign language (and now wanted some ethnography or political commentary for their trouble), this was a risky move.  It prompted an eminent Shakespearean who saw the show to ask what the company had "added to the play." But I loved it. For me it recalled the best aspects of the 1960s Arab dream -- not of Arab unity, but of a seat at the table of world culture. The lovingly deliberate conservatism served to reclaim the metropolitan voice - the right to stand before anyone as an equal and with no discount made for being "from" somewhere. It was simply a good performance. On the way out I heard the couple behind me discussing the ingenious (and it really was) way the production represented characters' onstage deaths - nothing about Palestine at all. See? We are not simply "local" Shakespeare. We have art just like you.
If there were elements of the Richard II production that alluded to contemporary Arab reality, they mostly stayed far from Palestine, instead pointing vaguely to Arab military dictatorships as such, Saddam Qaddhafi, whatever (as you can see in the picture - this is Bolingbroke shortly before his coup, with Northumberland and Ross). This was done through the costumes and in the Jericho performance it must have been reinforced through the ruined-castle setting. But there was no effort to assign one-to-one Shakespearean labels to particular Palestinian characters or groups (e.g., Hamas or Fatah) or Arab events (e.g., the way Mubarak was deposed only to be replaced by his own top generals).  None of that even seemed to matter. The company's main work, according to the pre-show talk some of them gave (on which more later), had been to work back and forth with their director, who is Irish and knows no Arabic, to find the right Arabic equivalents, not cultural but mainly just linguistic, for each dense Shakespeare line (and it's a very dense play with a lot of rhetorically scintillating bits). They succeeded wonderfully in places; apparently members of the Jericho audience told them it sounded as though Shakespeare had originally written the play in Arabic.
A few moments of political-allegorical resonance emerged organically, non-systematically from this process of working through to a poetic prose translation. For instance, my friend Katie and I both found it impossible not to hear John of Gaunt's famous speech about his self-betraying homeland
 This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm...  [etc etc]
as a lament about more contemporary losses. As the actor knelt and crushed imaginary soil in his fingers, one could feel exactly what this speech would mean to a Palestinian cast and audience. And then the play moved on, without belaboring the point, without forcing a one-to-one assignment of allegorical labels.  (Remember Iman Aoun's comment that I quoted in an earlier post: "Yes, at some point you could see a Palestinian dress onstage, or you could see people dressed in Middle Eastern outfits, but it does not particularly say that this is happening here in Palestine or in a particular Arab city. We want the audience to concentrate and think.")  The Shakespeare text was allowed to reshuffle, perhaps slightly to deepen, the recurring disappointments of Middle Eastern politics: divine-right kingship, military coups, out-of-touch yet image-obsessed leaders, the overvaluation of rhetorical beauty, etc. Because the acting was so strong, it worked.
Pictures, info, and reviews of Ashtar's Richard II are on Facebook. Best of all, see it for yourself in Oxford on Monday or during what I hope will be a long run in Palestine and internationally.

Guardian reviews Cymbeline

Some curious ideas in this Guardian review, but also a good description of the whole, the over-the-top thearicality of the props, the "infectious" and "irresistible" atmosphere.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Between Arabics (Cymbeline)

My friend Katie and I saw the South Sudanese Cymbeline at the Globe tonight.  More thoughts on the show later when I'm less jet-lagged, but I just wanted to start by saying something about the language.  Katie lived for six years in Palestine and also frequently uses Iraqi Arabic and other dialects in her work (for an awesome British nonprofit, Reprieve).  I'm proficient in Egyptian and have a working knowledge of Lebanese.  And I must tell you how little we both understood of the language of this show.  Had I not reread Cymbeline this afternoon, I might have understood even less.
There were many energizing aspects of the show, but I'm sure there was a big chunk of the audience for whom the physical fact of hearing this language spoken onstage -- and at a venerable theatre in London! -- was the most exciting thing. The actors took obvious pleasure in using the language. And at many points they spliced in English words or short phrases to connect with their audience or for comic effect (Cymbeline about the Queen, on hearing the report of her death: "Crazy woman!"), which further drew attention to the underlying fabric of the South Sudanese Arabic.
It made me curious. Aside from the classical-colloquial question: How different is South Sudanese from other Sudanese Arabic?  Is it like Serbian and Croatian, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian until, suddenly, they weren't?

To my very untrained ear, many of the most commonly used words sounded identical to Egyptian (kways, 3ashan kida) and many of the nouns including most of the abstract vocabulary comes from "modern standard" fuSHa Arabic (mushkila, sharaf, but also samm, da3wa, etc. etc).  But much of the rest was as opaque to me as Portuguese to a Spanish speaker.  And it seems this distance may be deliberately increased in the next few decades.
According to a fascinating recent article by Emmanuel Monychol, there is considerable debate in South Sudanese intellectual circles about the merits of learning "Africanized" vs. "Khartoum" Arabic. Not sure if people use Khartoum to mean fuSHa or North Sudanese colloquial. Joseph Abuk, who helped adapt Cymbeline for this production, is quoted as follows:
Joseph Abuk states that Shakespeare's Cymbeline is relevant to South Sudan. Joseph Abuk seems to be in support of an Africanized Arabic. During my short chat with him, he said that there are two types of Arabic language that people must always bear in mind. There is the classic Khartoum Arabic, spoken by Khartoum and the local or Juba Arabic, which is lacking in classic Arabic [lexemes]. According to Joseph Abuk, lack of Arabic [lexemes] in Southern Arabic was due to the "Closed District Ordinances" which barred Northerners from travelling South and Southerners travelling north. It was a policy made by the British and Egypt in the 1930s.
Other aspects of the production - the costumes and dancing - certainly appeared to take the Africanizing, not Arabizing, route.  More on these later.  Photos coming, too.
Meanwhile, more comments from Abuk on the translation in this preview in the Independent.  Tons more media coverage here.  There's of course a whole shelf of books on Shakespeare in Africa; start here.