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.

Advertisements

Video of our conversation at BU

BU’s media services people used a new program called Echo 360 to capture the conversation in Boston last Wednesday between Sulayman Al-Bassam, Graham Holderness, and me.  Watch it here: : http://echo360.bu.edu:8081/ess/echo/presentation/7a568a3f-fce4-45ba-b2a1-9c119488e55e
Apologies for the weird focus on the video – I think everyone is still getting the hang of the new technology.

Preview – Speaker’s Progress in Boston

“How do you make a play about an abstract idea like change?”  Sulayman Al-Bassam speaks to the Boston Globe.

Judging by the dress rehearsal I saw last night, there are still some technical things to be ironed out before tonight’s opening (never mind the idea of change – the real issue is that these guys are scrambling for provisional closure, editing to the last minute!), some meanings to be nailed down, but the play has an amazing energy.

Boston people: come see the show and any of the myriad post-show or para-show events at ArtsEmerson! Reminder: you can also see Sulayman and me in discussion with Graham Holderness at BU this afternoon, 12-2.

Coverage of Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress in New York

Very favorable New York Times review of the New York performance of The Speaker’s Progress at BAM last week; Al-Bassam’s own “wonderfully dry performance” gets special praise.  In Richard III he played an implausibly slick and charming U.S. Ambassador (later edited out to make room for Mister Richmond in the US performances); now he has switched sides, playing an Arab director and performing in Arabic (at least in the draft of the script I saw). 

 A brief write-up an audio interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS’ NewsHour, who also did a long segment on Al-Bassam when his Richard III: An Arab Tragedy played Washington and New York in 2009.  The first segment’s headline had Al-Bassam “take inspiration” from Shakespeare; the current one has him “taking inspiration” from the Arab Spring.  And there is something to this: it does seem that the source text Twelfth Night plays a relatively insignificant role in the logic of Al-Bassam’s new play — it could have been any other play, or even another type of iconic performance.  Whereas his Hamlet was really a Hamlet.  This is not a criticism.

These things are being posted on SABAB Theatre’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/sababtheatre/

Al-Bassam at BU

Excited that this informal event at BU is actually happening!

The “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy”:
Staging a Region in Tumult, 2002-2011

A conversation with dramatic examples:
Kuwaiti theatre director Sulayman Al-Bassam
and Prof. Margaret Litvin (MLCL)
Born in Kuwait and educated in Britain, Sulayman Al-Bassam founded the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) in Kuwait in 2002. He has directed his Shakespeare adaptations on four continents, including at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Kennedy Center, and BAM. SABAB productions are characterized by a radical approach to text, bold production styles, and playful, provocative combinaons of content and form. The Speaker’s Progress, the final play of Al-Bassam’s “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy,” opens at ArtsEmerson in Boston on October 12.

   Wednesday, October 12, 12-2pm
The Castle, 225 Bay State Road
Lunch will be served before and during the talk

Sponsored by the Peter Paul Development Professorship, the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, and the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Honors College

Al-Bassam’s "Speaker’s Progress" in Beirut

Sympathetic review of The Speaker’s Progress in The Daily Star suggests that the overall design works but there are still some surtitle glitches to be ironed out.  I’m not surprised, since Sulayman Al-Bassam, a compulsive editor and re-editor, was probably tinkering with the script until ten minutes before the curtain went up.

…the surtitles are projected above and to the back of the stage. This is a problem as one cannot possibly simultaneously read the translation and observe the on-stage action. Forsaking either diminishes the viewer’s experience of the performance, because the strength, wit and entertainment of this play definitely lie in its combination of text, acting and set design.
The envoys commence the performance nervously, on a stage surrounded by bureaucratic apparatus and presided over by The Speaker and a censor who sounds an alarm whenever dialogue is improvised or the action drifts from its state-sanctioned course.
A meter stick is amusingly employed to ensure that the official 90-centimeter distance is maintained between male and female players at all times.
As the play progresses, the spirit of the theater begins to take over. Digressions from the approved performance increase in regularity. The set, lighting and costumes evolve from bleak greys, whites and blacks to colorful oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually the cry rises, in English, “Defect!”
While the momentum is building, alas, the surtitles are falling apart. As they lapse several lines behind the onstage dialogue, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand who is saying what, especially when there are more than two members of the 10-man cast engaged in conversation. It becomes frustrating.
Meanwhile the progressively absurdist nature of what’s happening beneath the translation also grows challenging to follow.

Ironically, Beirut may be a less welcoming audience for this show than Boston and New York (coming up next month!).  In Lebanon, from what I gathered last May, no one wants to hear too much about the Arab Spring.  Further, Al-Bassam doesn’t get any “exoticity discount” (do you know what I mean?) for directing a show in Arabic.  And he has discovered before (with an ill-fated musical Tartuffe adaptation that was cleverly intended for Gulfi audiences who were summering in Lebanon but that ended up playing instead for sophisticated Beirutis, who were underwhelmed) that it can be a tough market to gauge.

"Shakespeare After 9/11" issue of Shakespeare Yearbook finally out

A lot of events, some very sad, intervened to delay this issue.  But at least the heroic editors got it out in time for the tenth anniversary!
http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8357&pc=9
I have an article in here about Sulayman Al-Bassam, complete critical history of his work up to and including the Richard III project.

BAM Presents The Speaker’s Progress, 10/6-8

Go see this, y’all! Go on the night when my friend (and Paris Review poetry editor) Robyn Creswell is doing the post-show talkback. Here’s Al-Bassam’s latest (I hope!) synopsis:

BAM Presents THE SPEAKER’S PROGRESS, 10/6-8

A condemned 1960s staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has become the focal point for political resistance blogs and underground social network movements. The state, eager to suppress this dangerous mixture of nostalgia and dissent, commissions The Speaker, a once-radical theater producer now turned regime apologist, to mount a forensic reconstruction and public denunciation of the work. As The Speaker and his group of nonacting volunteers delve deeper into the “reconstruction” they find themselves increasingly engaged with the material they are supposed to be condemning. They soon discover-in the act of performance and the growing participation of their audience-a solidarity that transforms the gathering itself into an unequivocal act of defiance towards the state.

The Speaker’s Progress is the final part of writer, director, and performer Sulayman Al- Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy; the second, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, was presented at BAM’s Muslim Voices festival (Spring 2009). Created along with a core team of actors and artists from across the Arab world and Europe, this unique body of work charts a decade of Arab and Western political and social upheaval following the events of 9/11 to the current leaps for reform made by millions across the region.

Trailer: Richard III: An Arab VIP

When I saw Sulayman Al-Bassam at the Kennedy Center in March 2009, there was a documentary film crew hanging around. Their presence was just another comic detail in the backstage buzz: technical glitches, dressing-room jokes, a bit part Sulayman had to play because a Kuwaiti cast member couldn’t get excused from his day job as a Ministry of Education employee even though Kuwait’s government had given $1 million as sponsors of the Arabesque festival, etc. etc.  So then there were these random guys with movie cameras.  Anyway, here’s the lovely trailer for the film they’ve made (I’ve already posted one review):