NYT reviews "R&J in Baghdad" in Baghdad

The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau has filed a sympathetic piece on Monadhil Daood’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad. It’s in the “Mideast” section rather than on the arts page (surprise), so don’t expect a lot of detail about the scenography or performances, but they do have some interesting interviews with audience members, actors, and Monadhil and Deborah Shaw. And the representativeness angle is played up:

“Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad’s” story line of a doomed cross-sectarian love affair manages to touch on nearly every element of the recent collective Iraqi experience.
In an interesting homage to the Iraqi Shakespeare tradition, Monadhil has cast 82-year-old Sami Abdel Hamid (MV 1965, Hamlet Arabian-Style 1973, MND and much else besides) in the role, fittingly, of a history teacher.  Look forward to seeing the man in person in Stratford.  He last appeared in the news ten years ago, I believe, when he directed the theatrical adaptation of Saddam Hussein’s first novel, Zabiba and the King.  (not the Sacha Baron Cohen version). One of those complicated intellectuals who played the difficult, not wholeheartedly admirable game of surviving and continuing to produce art under a dictatorship that killed or exiled many of their colleagues and friends. 
Monadhil himself never worked under Saddam; he did his PhD (on ta’ziya theatre) in St. Petersburg and has lived in Sweden and Syria.

"War after war! Where are all our men?"

Check out RSC Associate Director Deborah Shaw’s eloquent piece on Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, the play created by her husband Monadhil Daood for the RSC’s upcoming World Shakespeare Festival.
I’m looking forward to seeing it in May.  Here is Shaw’s argument about intercultural appropriation:

At home I am often asked about the foreign-language productions that will be performed during the festival. A common question is: “How do they cope with Shakespeare’s complex language?” I wonder if there is an expectation inherent in the question that they will produce beautiful, literary translations, which will stay as close as possible to the original text. Do we expect them to perform close approximations of British productions, but in foreign clothes? Because they won’t.
Serious artists encounter Shakespeare as a playwright, his work to be transplanted and made sense of through the prism of a different reality and set of culture references. They tell the Shakespeare story they are compelled to tell, appropriating characters, narrative, moral dilemmas, symbolism and themes in a way that, I would argue, embodies the true dramatic spirit of Shakespeare.

What she describes is still a one-to-one encounter (which is what an RSC commission might tend to produce) rather than what I’ve been calling a national or regional “Shakespeare tradition.”  But I find this an attractive and convincing statement of how any “serious artist” (including an Anglophone one) would approach the task of adapting or even producing Shakespeare.

Monadhil Daood to produce Romeo and Juliet in London 2012

Among the works commissioned for the RSC-produced World Shakespeare Festival, directed by the RSC’s Deborah Shaw and coming up next year (April to September) as part of the London 2012 Festival associated with the Olympics:

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Monadhil Daood – Iraqi Theatre Company, Baghdad

Shakespeare’s great love story, set against a backdrop of conflict between families, communities and generations, finds new purchase in the soil of contemporary Iraq, where sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia, ignited and fuelled from outside, has left its population exhausted by a cycle of violence and revenge. Baghdad’s Iraqi Theatre Company will create a Romeo and Juliet for a new generation, infused with Iraq’s rich traditions of poetry, music and ritual.

For Monadhil’s previous work, see the Baghdad Iraqi Theatre‘s web site.  He also played a hammy Polonius in Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit and a terrifying Catesby in Al-Bassam’s Richard III.

UPDATE 7/8/11: Full details of the RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival to be announced in September, but it seems the RSC is one of the collaborators in the London 2012 festival; it’s listed as a partner on this show and others. There’s also going to be an RSC production that is explicitly international, provocatively titled, “What Country, Friends, is This?”

Hamlet Without Hamlet planned in Iraq

Monadhil Daood, who plays Catesby in Al-Bassam’s Richard III, confirmed to me that he plans to direct an adaptation of the play Hamlit bila hamlit (“Hamlet without Hamlet”) at the Iraqi National Theatre in the coming months.

The 1992 absurdist Hamlet spin-off, by Kirkuk-born poet-playwright Khaz’al al-Majidi (b. 1951), opens with news of Hamlet’s death by shipwreck on his way from Wittenberg to his father’s funeral. (Full text here: http://www.masraheon.com/294.htm) Directed at the Iraqi National Theatre in 1997 by Naji ‘abd al-Amir, Hamlit bila hamlit continues to be produced throughout the Arab world. Michel Cerda and Haytham Abderrazak directed it in Paris in 2007. Monadhil Daood says his version, which will be the inaugural play for his Baghdad Theatre Company, will adapt al-Majidi’s script quite a lot and will incorporate aspects of ta’ziya (Shi’a passion plays for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn). Incidentally, Daood’s doctoral dissertation on ta’ziya theatre, written in Arabic and defended in Moscow in the late 1990s, is available through interlibrary loan.

Updates on the Iraqi National Theatre available here.