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):
I’m happy to report that our Arab Shakespeare panel last week went very well, thanks to the gracious moderating of Kristin Johnsen-Neshati and the wry presence of Michael Kahn of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre. (“Shakespeare’s culture is foreign to me, too, as an American, even though I may speak his language. I’ve always thought it would be liberating not to be bound by his language…”) Good attendance and interesting questions, too.
That night, the WaPo reviewer had mixed impressions of the show.
He’s not wrong…
Since I last saw the show (Stratford 2007), Sulayman has made a major change in a key character, the US ambassador/General Richmond. He has fused the two (hard power in the Middle East is no longer even nominally separate from soft power, it seems) and brought in Nigel Barratt (the creepy Arms Dealer from his Al-Hamlet Summit) to play the resulting US official. Then in the last few days before the Kennedy Center opening (I am told), he rejiggered Mr. Richmond 180 degrees, from a sleazy Arms Dealer-type operator into a total incompetent schlub of an apparatchik: bathrobe&slippers, coffee mug, vaguely phrased Evangelical convictions expressed in a sloppy drawl. The idea of the bumbling occupier (not malicious, just high-handedly clueless) was nice, but the product wasn’t quite fully cooked when I saw it. Barratt’s acting seemed parodic: way too broad for the Kennedy Center audience, one as finely attuned to political semiotics as any you’d find in Damascus. It had none of the subtlety of Fayez Kazak’s Richard or Monadhil Daoud’s Catesby. I think they will surely tone it down for the BAM performance in June.
Meanwhile, the trail of journalists and documentarians around Sulayman continues to grow. At a post-show reception I met someone making a documentary film about him. (There have been others.) “Ah, hello. So you’re my competition!” he said when I introduced myself as an academic who has written on Al-Bassam. (Hmmm.) And have I already posted the link to this segment on PBS’ NewsHour? (Part of their very extensive coverage of the festival.)
Kuwaiti Theater Director Finds Modern Inspiration in Shakespeare
In the second of a series of reports on the Arabesque arts festival at the Kennedy
Center, Jeffrey Brown talks to Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam, whose company is presenting a Shakespeare play with a twist, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.”
Announcement via The Associated Press. Watch how Sulayman’s play is again appropriated as the “bridge” between cultures or even “two great civilizations.” Both the Kennedy Center’s president and the Arab League ambassador do it. (I am trying to write an article on this phenomenon.)
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: A retelling of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” set in the contemporary Arab world of desert palaces and oil-rich kingdoms, is among the highlights of a three-week Arab arts and culture festival that will mark the 2008-2009 season of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” festival — a name inspired by a calligraphic style from ninth-century Iraq — was announced Tuesday. It will feature artists from all 22 Arab nations in February and March 2009, and will be the largest presentation of Arab arts ever in the United States, Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser said.
Themes from “Richard III,” for example, take on new meanings in the Arab context and can help bridge cultural divides, he said. “In this world of tribal allegiances, family infighting and absolute power, the questions of leadership, religion and foreign intervention are at the heart of Shakespeare’s play,” Kaiser said.
[Sulayman’s familiar quote, of course, but look at the “cultural divides” stuff -ML]
The programming slate also includes dance ensembles from Lebanon and Syria as well as traditional belly dancing, [we hasten to reassure people] while exhibits will feature Arab photography, sculpture and fashion. Theater and musical offerings include diverse religious sounds of the region, and the more provocative “Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation,” a play produced by the only professional theater in the Palestinian territories.
. . .
The Arab festival in 2009 follows similar international events focused most recently on Japan and China. The festival is being coordinated with the League of Arab Nations, though still a “daunting” task to bring together 22 different nations, said Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming. She said the visa and customs process alone would probably be most challenging. [You think?-ML]
Arab League Ambassador Hussein Hassouna said the festival will promote
better understanding between Americans and countries ranging from Iraq to Sudan and Somalia. [Hmm, especially Sudan. -ML] “It shows that the Arab world belongs to a great civilization that wants to be interactive with other cultures,” he said.
Kennedy Center officials continue to search for more artists to join the festival, though planning for the project began four years ago after the center brought the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra to perform in Washington.