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.

No comments: