Bra tops in the London chill (Cymbeline)

After mentioning the requisite linguistic issues, this very supportive review by Yeganeh Torbati quotes co-director Derik Uya Alfred on a different aspect of cultural exchange:



While Juba reaches springtime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, an unseasonable London chill had audience members sitting in the open-air theatre wrapped in coats, scarves, and blankets.
Actors ran around on stage barefoot, the women often wearing skirts and bra tops, never betraying even a shiver.
“It was a very big challenge, that weather,” Alfred said. “If you change the costume, if you put something under it you will be destroying the culture. We told them, ‘Don’t feel the cold. Just feel warm and send that warmth to the people in the auditorium and they will also feel that warmth.”

 To counteract the depersonalizing connotations of the phrase “ran around on stage,” you can get to know the company here.

I did find it striking how certain things were intentionally NOT localized to South Sudan (the knighting ceremony for Belarius & sons: “I dub thee” etc.) but the costumes were.  In many cases they seemed designed not to convey character (except for the khaki-shorts imperial police uniform) but to showcase local traditions: not only the bras & beads but things like the doctor/soothsayer’s animal headdress. The production synopsis promises:

Costume that distinguishes between north and south Sudanese gestures at the history of empire and the struggle for nationhood on equal terms.

It quotes Alfred again:

We have brought in and bought a lot of costumes from different tribes that we have to celebrate the cultural diversity of southern Sudan. People in London are going to see something very different.

Three days, three plays: on allegory

I have been privileged, for the first time in my life, to see three Arabic Shakespeare plays in three nights. All came from places lately known in the UK more as political hotspots than as theatre centers: South Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine. Each took a different approach to the question of Shakespeare and national allegory. All were great fun to watch, in completely different ways and for different reasons. (Incidentally no one else is analytically lumping them together as “the Arabic plays” at the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe-to-Globe; only I’m doing that, mainly for the simple logistical reason of seeing them back to back. There will also be a Tunisian Macbeth in July; I hope to report on that too.)
In the South Sudanese Cymbeline, the main political statement was the presence of this production, hence of this language and these African costumes, at the Globe, hence on the world stage. (“QiSSa qadima min balad jadid” as they put it.) The plot was secondary; it only mattered for a moment that Caesar (Sudan) was trying to extract tribute from Britain (South Sudan (how’s that for a post-postcolonial reversal)) and that the last words of the play in Arabic were “ittifaqiyat al-salam” (peace accord). Allegory was an excuse for the much more impressive fact of literal physical presence. See, we’re here.
In Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad in Stratford-upon-Avon (on which at least one full post to come), allegory was handled more straightforwardly. Parallels were explored, equivalencies and correlates found. The two families had been at war for nine years: since 2003. Romeo was Shia; Juliet was Sunni; old Capulet nearly married her off to Paris, a mujahid with al-Qaeda (on whom everything could conveniently be blamed at the end). Old Capulet and Montague were brothers, estranged after 30 years of Capulet cheating Montague of his rightful profits of their shared boating or pearl-diving business, while now after nine years Old Capulet longed to “feel his hands on the steering wheel” again – ship of state anyone? (First-cousin marriage is fine in Iraq, sometimes even preferred, so that change didn’t confuse the star-crossed lovers.) And so on. There were other things going on too, such as the way the casting hearkened back to a golden age of pre-Saddam Iraqi culture, but I won’t go into them here, because they would work best for an Iraqi audience.  Here I’ll stick to the allegory of “in Baghdad” as presented in Stratford.
In this allegorical setup, the departures from Shakespeare’s R&J signified as much as the parallels: for instance, the fraternal relationship between the two feuding families; the absence of a Rosaline plot; the prior relationship between R&J, who had loved each other and been kept apart since childhood; an original and moving scene in which Lady Montague rouses the conscience of her brother-in-law Capulet, who then curses surrendering his country to al-Qaeda/Paris (Sunni Awakening anyone? the musicians even played “Frere Jacques” to make sure everyone got it); the fact that no sententious wrapup is spoken at the end after the final explosion (al-Qaeda blows up a church) in which the young couple is killed. Of course this setup also allowed aspects of Iraqi realia to be smuggled into the sedate premises of the Swan Theatre: notably a lot of VERY loud explosions and gunfire.  Also some costumes, some wedding customs, adoration of the Barcelona soccer team, and of course the Iraqi colloquial Arabic language.  See? those elements seemed to say, this is our reality, here it is, try to understand it. 
The Palestinian show (al-Ashtar theatre, again at the Globe) was the most intriguing. It sidestepped allegory almost entirely, presenting a “straight” and quite beautiful production of Richard II that happened to be performed in (modern literary) Arabic. Performing for Londoners who had taken the trouble to see a play in a foreign language (and now wanted some ethnography or political commentary for their trouble), this was a risky move.  It prompted an eminent Shakespearean who saw the show to ask what the company had “added to the play.” But I loved it. For me it recalled the best aspects of the 1960s Arab dream — not of Arab unity, but of a seat at the table of world culture. The lovingly deliberate conservatism served to reclaim the metropolitan voice – the right to stand before anyone as an equal and with no discount made for being “from” somewhere. It was simply a good performance. On the way out I heard the couple behind me discussing the ingenious (and it really was) way the production represented characters’ onstage deaths – nothing about Palestine at all. See? We are not simply “local” Shakespeare. We have art just like you.

If there were elements of the Richard II production that alluded to contemporary Arab reality, they mostly stayed far from Palestine, instead pointing vaguely to Arab military dictatorships as such, Saddam Qaddhafi, whatever (as you can see in the picture – this is Bolingbroke shortly before his coup, with Northumberland and Ross). This was done through the costumes and in the Jericho performance it must have been reinforced through the ruined-castle setting. But there was no effort to assign one-to-one Shakespearean labels to particular Palestinian characters or groups (e.g., Hamas or Fatah) or Arab events (e.g., the way Mubarak was deposed only to be replaced by his own top generals).  None of that even seemed to matter. The company’s main work, according to the pre-show talk some of them gave (on which more later), had been to work back and forth with their director, who is Irish and knows no Arabic, to find the right Arabic equivalents, not cultural but mainly just linguistic, for each dense Shakespeare line (and it’s a very dense play with a lot of rhetorically scintillating bits). They succeeded wonderfully in places; apparently members of the Jericho audience told them it sounded as though Shakespeare had originally written the play in Arabic.

A few moments of political-allegorical resonance emerged organically, non-systematically from this process of working through to a poetic prose translation. For instance, my friend Katie and I both found it impossible not to hear John of Gaunt’s famous speech about his self-betraying homeland

 This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,


Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm…  [etc etc]

as a lament about more contemporary losses. As the actor knelt and crushed imaginary soil in his fingers, one could feel exactly what this speech would mean to a Palestinian cast and audience. And then the play moved on, without belaboring the point, without forcing a one-to-one assignment of allegorical labels.  (Remember Iman Aoun’s comment that I quoted in an earlier post: “Yes, at some point you could see a Palestinian dress onstage, or you could see people dressed in Middle Eastern outfits, but it does not particularly say that this is happening here in Palestine or in a particular Arab city. We want the audience to concentrate and think.”)  The Shakespeare text was allowed to reshuffle, perhaps slightly to deepen, the recurring disappointments of Middle Eastern politics: divine-right kingship, military coups, out-of-touch yet image-obsessed leaders, the overvaluation of rhetorical beauty, etc. Because the acting was so strong, it worked.
Pictures, info, and reviews of Ashtar’s Richard II are on Facebook. Best of all, see it for yourself in Oxford on Monday or during what I hope will be a long run in Palestine and internationally.

Between Arabics (Cymbeline)

My friend Katie and I saw the South Sudanese Cymbeline at the Globe tonight.  More thoughts on the show later when I’m less jet-lagged, but I just wanted to start by saying something about the language.  Katie lived for six years in Palestine and also frequently uses Iraqi Arabic and other dialects in her work (for an awesome British nonprofit, Reprieve).  I’m proficient in Egyptian and have a working knowledge of Lebanese.  And I must tell you how little we both understood of the language of this show.  Had I not reread Cymbeline this afternoon, I might have understood even less.
There were many energizing aspects of the show, but I’m sure there was a big chunk of the audience for whom the physical fact of hearing this language spoken onstage — and at a venerable theatre in London! — was the most exciting thing. The actors took obvious pleasure in using the language. And at many points they spliced in English words or short phrases to connect with their audience or for comic effect (Cymbeline about the Queen, on hearing the report of her death: “Crazy woman!”), which further drew attention to the underlying fabric of the South Sudanese Arabic.
It made me curious. Aside from the classical-colloquial question: How different is South Sudanese from other Sudanese Arabic?  Is it like Serbian and Croatian, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian until, suddenly, they weren’t?

To my very untrained ear, many of the most commonly used words sounded identical to Egyptian (kways, 3ashan kida) and many of the nouns including most of the abstract vocabulary comes from “modern standard” fuSHa Arabic (mushkila, sharaf, but also samm, da3wa, etc. etc).  But much of the rest was as opaque to me as Portuguese to a Spanish speaker.  And it seems this distance may be deliberately increased in the next few decades.
According to a fascinating recent article by Emmanuel Monychol, there is considerable debate in South Sudanese intellectual circles about the merits of learning “Africanized” vs. “Khartoum” Arabic. Not sure if people use Khartoum to mean fuSHa or North Sudanese colloquial. Joseph Abuk, who helped adapt Cymbeline for this production, is quoted as follows:

Joseph Abuk states that Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is relevant to South Sudan. Joseph Abuk seems to be in support of an Africanized Arabic. During my short chat with him, he said that there are two types of Arabic language that people must always bear in mind. There is the classic Khartoum Arabic, spoken by Khartoum and the local or Juba Arabic, which is lacking in classic Arabic [lexemes]. According to Joseph Abuk, lack of Arabic [lexemes] in Southern Arabic was due to the “Closed District Ordinances” which barred Northerners from travelling South and Southerners travelling north. It was a policy made by the British and Egypt in the 1930s.

Other aspects of the production – the costumes and dancing – certainly appeared to take the Africanizing, not Arabizing, route.  More on these later.  Photos coming, too.
Meanwhile, more comments from Abuk on the translation in this preview in the Independent.  Tons more media coverage here.  There’s of course a whole shelf of books on Shakespeare in Africa; start here.

South Sudan Cymbeline

I was amazed last fall when a theatre person contacted me looking for an Arabic translation of Cymbeline for the purpose of translating it on into Juba Arabic for a production by the South Sudan Theatre Company.  Now it’s really happening! 
England-based folks: join me at the show on May 3, and meanwhile check out the publicity and fundraising efforts of the London-based support staff, most recently here. Trailers and company info are here: http://www.southsudantheatre.com/.  And here’s a BBC World Service report: just the sort of story the BBC would be attracted to.
A blog post by British Council director and “friend of the project” Tony Calderbank (is this the same Calderbank whose luminous translations of Arabic novels I’ve so enjoyed teaching?) writes movingly of the South Sudanese cast’s determination to “stand for an hour or two on the world stage.” Something not to be forgotten as various critics (including, no doubt, me) write various snarky things about the Globe-to-Globe and RSC festivals’ framing and presentation of hot-spot Arab Shakespeares for their own self-serving rhetorical purposes.