Documentary about Al-Bassam’s Richard III

A documentary about the international tour of Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy premiered last month.  Would love to hear from anyone who has seen it. Press release here, film website here.

Co-directed by Kuwaiti businessman and arts producer Shakir Abal with British TV director Tim Langford, Richard III “An Arab VIP” is a topical and timely documentary that melds Middle Eastern politics with onstage drama and offstage reality. In the film, the camera follows a pan Arab troupe of actors as they travel the world between the USA and the Middle East rehearsing and performing a highly acclaimed version of Shakespeare’s Richard III as conceived from a contemporary Arab perspective by renowned Kuwaiti dramatist Sulayman Al-Bassam. In addition to the highly dramatic performances by the exemplary troupe of actors, the 70 minutes film also includes interviews with the cast and crew as well as behind-the-scenes footage that shows what it is like to tour a top-notch stage play in sometimes less than perfect circumstances. The film is in English and Arabic with subtitles.

Boston trailer for Al-Bassam’s "Speaker’s Progress"

Swear to Allah, it’s not theatre!  ArtsEmerson in Boston has officially announced its 2011-12 season, and Sulayman Al-Bassam’s pseudo-post-but-actually-meta-theatrical The Speaker’s Progress, a dark and jam-packed take on Twelfth Night,  is on the schedule for October 12-16.  Details and a video clip here.

Qadhafi: Shakespeare Was an Arab Named Shaykh Zubayr

I’ve been looking for a source for the widely known fact that Muammar Qadhafi claimed Shakespeare was not a native-born Englishman but, in fact, an Arab named Shaykh Zubayr.
Cork Milner’s site on the authorship controversy gives us this:

The most bizarre of all the pretenders is Muammar al-Qaddafi’s choice, Sheik Zubayr bin William. Quaddafi came up with his champion in 1989 when Radio Tehran announced that Libya’s “Great One” had declared that an Arab sheik named Zubayr bin William, who had been born in the sixteenth century, was Shakespeare.

I should point out that Qadhafi did not originate the bizarre claim that Shakespeare was a crypto-Arab.  Usually cited in jest, the Shaykh Zubayr “theory” holds that Shakespeare was actually an Arab Muslim living in Britain.  Various authors cite “evidence” including Shakespeare’s full lips and “Islamic” beard in the supposedly “un-English” Chandos portrait(above); his many treatments of mistaken or doubtful identity; and his allegedly unflattering views of Jews, Turks, and the British (supposedly clear in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and the history plays).  Who but an Arab could harbor unfavorable views of precisely these three groups?

M.M. Badawi (“Shakespeare and the Arabs,” 1964) and Ferial Ghazoul (“The Arabization of Othello,” 1998) trace the Shaykh Zubayr authorship theory to a mid-nineteenth-century Lebanese satirical writer, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq; it was later taken up in earnest by Iraqi scholar Ṣafā’ Khulūṣī and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrāhīm Ḥamāda in a book-length essay, عروبة شكسبير (“The Arabness of Shakespeare,” 1989). Qadhafi drew Western headlines by mentioning it (perhaps jokingly? who can tell with such a lunatic?) in 1989.  

But the conceit of an Arab Shakespeare has also appealed to all kinds of intercultural writers addressing Western readers.  My favorite is Wole Soyinka in his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” (replublished in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage). In a similar vein, Jordanian-Irish-American novelist Diana Abu Jaber in her novel Crescent has an Iraqi-American character invoke the theory, tongue-in-cheek, speaking to an American graduate student: “Did you know that Shakespeare’s favorite food was stuffed eggplant?  And there’s some who say that Shakespeare’s name was actually Sheikh Zubayr . . . There’s a nice thesis for you.’”  (132).  Sulayman al-Bassam resorts to a similar opening gambit in a 2005 Guardian column. So the authorship theory can be a playful bid for intercultural understanding, not only (as with Qadhafi) an insane claim of Arab cultural priority.
By the way, the would-be Arabic name preserves the phallic imagery of spear-shaking.  Zubr = penis.  So the diminutive zubayr, on one reading, is “little penis.”  Shake it, Will, habibi!

Al-Bassam on Speaker’s Progress in The Guardian

Sulayman Al-Bassam has a little article in The Guardian on how his current show, a very pessimistic frame story incorporating an Arab adaptation of Twelfth Night,
IMG_8786
has changed in production because of recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, etc.
speakers_progress-0139
More photos from the production previews here.
The show is coming to BAM in New York next fall.

Update on Arabic Tempest

Update – It’s Sulayman Al-Bassam directing the Arabic-language Tempest at the Globe Theatre next year.
A certain lack of imagination on their part, I daresay — but at least they can be confident it will be well done.

Latest update (May 8, 2011): I talked to Sulayman and he is no longer involved in this project.  Decided there was not so much that he could interestingly do with The Tempest right now.  Stay tuned for more on the whole Olympiad-related extravaganza, and let me know if you have more details.

Brooklyn June 11

Brooklyn June 11 was a lot of fun. The audience was pretty big, and full of people who asked smart questions and seemed really to like the show. So did NYT’s Ben Brantley. (And wrote a really perceptive review, I thought.)

Here is also my backgrounder, written in a big hurry at the Asia Society’s request. Most of this will be news to no one who reads this blog. Except maybe this nugget:

In 1935, Egypt’s future president Gamal Abdel Nasser starred in a production of
Julius Caesar put on at his Cairo high school. He played Caesar as a liberating
nationalist hero who defeated Great Britain.

It’s true! Check Georges Vaucher or Joel Gordon or any good Nasser biography.

Al-Bassam hits New York

Theatre preview capsule by Ben Brantley (NYT 6/5/09)
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/arts/07weekahead.html
Winters of discontent occur in even the sunniest climes. The Kuwaiti-born director SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM has relocated Shakespeare’s demonic Richard III to the Middle East, and this bloodiest of monarchs apparently feels gleefully at home in his new surroundings. Part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas” festival, “RICHARD III: AN ARAB TRAGEDY,” which opens Tuesday at the Harvey Theater, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 2007 Complete Works Festival. It has now arrived in the States (stopping off at the Kennedy Center in Washington this year) with its message of the utterly contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s tale of a country raped and paralyzed by a charismatic sociopath. Mr. Bassam has written that “Richard III” has always fascinated him more as history than tragedy. The emphasis in his production, set in an unnamed Gulf emirate, is accordingly less on the psychology than the society of the crookback who would be king (who first appears under the name of Emir Gloucester, if you please). He is, Mr. Bassam says, “the twisted child of a demented history.” Arab music and ritual infuse this “Richard III,” which is performed in Arabic with English titles and seems guaranteed to summon images of the reign of Saddam Hussein and its chaotic aftermath. Tuesday through Friday, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (718) 636-4100, bam.org; $25 to $45.
[Will I see BB at the show? Will be sure to keep you posted. -ML]