Of course Verdi — whose work inaugurated Khedive Ismail’s opera house — was an even earlier and more decisive influence in Arab theatre than Shakespeare has been.
That is what made the Libyan revolt such a riveting spectacle: unlike the other embattled Arab Spring dictators, Qaddafi showed no doubt, no instinct for compromise and self-preservation. He never really tried to stave off the end with half-hearted “reforms.” He seemed to know he was plunging himself and Libya down a tragic path, and, like Macbeth, to embrace it. Perhaps he understood that he had gone “so far in blood” that there was no turning back. In retrospect, his whole 42-year reign seemed to follow an inexorable arc toward ruin. From the handsome young revolutionary who inspired such hope in his people he transformed into the drugged, puffy-faced madman howling for slaughter in the streets of his own cities. Many Libyans told me they believed Qaddafi used black magic to keep himself in power for so long. I was almost tempted to believe it. I found Chadian witchcraft amulets in some of the weapons depots abandoned by his loyalists. Before his death, he behaved like someone who had sold his soul to the devil, and, like Faust, was waiting to be dragged down to Hell.
Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History – Artistes, Producteurs, Associes from Tunisia combine Shakespeare with film and reportage (LIFT at London’s Riverside Studios, Northern Stage – in Arabic with English surtitles).
There are not a lot of Arabic productions of Macbeth, for whatever reason, and even fewer adaptations. (Low prestige? High censorship?) But the time may be ripe for a production keyed to ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abdine Ben Ali and his widely reviled wife Leila.
Take a break from watching a bloody dictator fight to the death against foreign-supported rebels on satellite TV… to watch one do it on stage.
London’s Globe Theatre educational project (Globe Education’s Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank) is bringing its “educational” version of Macbeth to the UAE. The performance of the show, created specifically for teenagers, was last night at the Abu Dhabi Theatre (would love to hear about audience reception from anyone who was there) and on March 27 and 28 at Al Madinat Theatre, Dubai.
Sonali Pahwa sent me her review of the Iraqi Macbeth, performed at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre this week. She makes the point that staging old-school classicized Shakespeare in today’s Iraq is a pretty daring experiment in its own right. As my teacher Farouk Mustafa once put it: “art for art’s sake, for life’s sake.” Thanks, Sonali!
On entering the Miami (formerly Fuad el-Mohandes) theatre to watch the Iraqi play Hussaan al-damm (Blood Horse), I thought it inevitable that the performance would draw a gathering of Iraqi expatriates. But I didn’t expect to see a large satin Iraqi flag hung at the entrance, signalling that this was no ordinary CIFET event. Inside the theatre, the air echoed with the distinctive ‘j’ and ‘ch’ sounds of Iraqi Arabic as groups of early arrivals waited for the show to begin. The crowd was considerably more elegant than your average intellectuals. Men in suits and women with fulsomely coiffed (and uncovered) hair comported themselves as if at an embassy party. Only the well-loved oudist Nasseer Shamma came in his customary t-shirt.
The Patriotic Troupe for Acting presented a much-abbreviated adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, seemingly a relevant text through which to comment on the power struggles of contemporary Iraq. It was done in classical fashion, however. The performance was composed of a series of monologues and dialogues, enacted in dramatic lighting, which relied quite straightforwardly on the power of the text. The actors playing the adumbrated cast of Macbeth, Banquo, Lady Macbeth and Macduff all delived their lines with a creditable command of fusha and with visible passion. Perhaps the lone experimental touch was the use of a video screen to stage Macduff’s version of the prophesy of Macbeth’s death. In much of the play, the conception was stagey and the monologues delivered in the textbook style taught at acting schools.
On the other hand, I felt that the insistent classicism of Blood Horse was intended to demonstrate that Iraq did still have theatre, according to cherished old norms that validated Shakespeare in fusha translation as a benchmark of high culture. Those of us who came looking for an experimental performance wanted to see the fragmentation of Iraq dissected on stage, but others in the mostly Iraqi audience cheered the grand Shakespearean performance, perhaps in memory of days when they could go to the theatre in their finery and watch tragedy in measured
cadences rather than the violence now seen on the streets and on television.
At the end of the half-hour performance, audience members who had been clicking away on their digital cameras gave a rousing ovation and rushed onstage to greet the troupe. Many had their pictures taken with the better-known actors and with Shamma. Reporters from the al-Iraqiyya television were among a handful of satellite television crews interviewing the director and cast. There were smiles and hugs all round. At this effusion of national feeling the non-Iraqi critic was something of an outsider. I left, but trust that a party followed and that a good, nostalgic time was had by all.
This year’s Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre will include an Iraqi adaptation of Macbeth.
It’s called Blood Horse, presented by the National Acting Troupe (more details as I get them):
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is well known among intellectuals and those interested in theatre. However, we’ve presented here a new view of the play, modernizing the events and making them speak of the reality of our world. We deal here with absolute power, presenting it out of space and time, so we see Shakespeare’s personae out of their worlds, flying in spaces of unknown worlds, surrounded by smoke, fear, and darkness, in a tension that harmonizes with the thematic of the show.