My review of Al-Bassam’s Richard

Almost a year later (who knows how the production has evolved by now?) my review of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy is out in the Winter ’07 Shakespeare Bulletin. Online through Project MUSE here: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/shakespeare_bulletin/v025/25.4litvin.html

And here are the nut grafs:

Included in the Complete Works Festival, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy was billed as a “response” to the main RSC production. It was an inspired commission. The Kuwaiti-British Al-Bassam oversaw a new Arabic translation of Shakespeare’s text and assembled a gifted pan-Arab cast. He
worked with costume designer Abdulla Al Awadi to reproduce (and parody) a variety of regional fashions, dressing Queen Elizabeth (Carole Abboud) in Qatar-esque “sophisticated hijab” and punctuating Lady Anne (Nadine Joma’a) with a pink handbag in the shape of a poodle. He recruited Kuwaiti musicians to perform a powerful score that drew on a range of Gulf Arab musical styles, offset with eerie post-modern compositions by Lewis Gibson. And, as he had done in his earlier Shakespeare adaptation, The Al-Hamlet Summit (staged in English in 2002 and in Arabic since 2004), Al-Bassam sought out contemporary Arab and Muslim
correlatives for Shakespeare’s treatment of rhetoric, religion, family, and politics.

However, Al-Bassam’s take on Richard III went a step deeper than allegory. Tickets were originally sold under the title “Baghdad Richard,” but Al-Bassam wisely decided against producing an adaptation centered on Saddam Hussein. Instead Richard III: An Arab Tragedy used Shakespeare’s play to orient Western viewers to some traits of Gulf Arab culture and politics. It also commented (pessimistically, I thought) on the chances that such an orientation could somehow make sense of the violence and suffering in the region. In fact, by showing how the very tokens of cultural exchange (traditional costumes, music, prayers, food rituals, rhetorical tropes, etc.) were cynically theatricalized and exploited by those in power, the production undercut its own ethnographic lessons even as it imparted them.

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