Another "Hamlet" protest sign – Syria last spring – in Arabic this time

Just found this too, from Syria. Over a year old: Dera’a, April 2011. Reported here. The sign with two lines of black text right in the middle says “Imma an takuun aw la takuun.”  Written in Arabic, in case you were wondering whether only Anglophones use this line. 


Something rotten

In Syria, meanwhile, recent Higher Academy of Dramatic Arts acting program graduate `Arwa al-`Arabi عروة العربي has directed what seems, according to this review in Al-Akhbar (also reprinted on the Iraq-based web magazine and maybe elsewhere), to have been a really awful production of Hamlet.  Mustafa al-Khani starred. Produced by the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Theatre and Music, it opened at the Hamra theatre in downtown Damascus. 
Does the young Syrian intelligentsia really have nothing better to do??  Last February (is it possible?) the same young director seems to have put on a funny J.B. Priestley play. The text of his Hamlet was edited by none other than Dr. Riad Ismat, who himself directed a “contemporary” Hamlet in 1973, and who is now Bashar al-Asad’s minister of culture. 

After a catalog of the new production’s shortcomings (and alas it fell short only in quality, not length), the reviewer concludes:

كل ذلك، أضاع بوصلة المشاهد عن مقولة العرض التي أراد العربي إيصالها إلى جمهوره: جميعنا الآن نعيش صراعات وحالات ارتياب وتأمل مثل هاملت في بلاد تحوّل فيها الموت والقتل إلى وجبة يومية.

All this has ruined the show’s chance to get across the play’s message, which al-Arabi had wanted to communicate to the audience: we are all now living through power struggles and amid doubts and hopes, like Hamlet, in a country where death and killing are daily fare.
Rehearsals began this past February. For a glowing announcement in the government newspaper Tishreen, see here.

Shakespeare… at a Damascus bus stop

One might not think there would be time for theatre in Damascus these days, let alone Shakespeare, but apparently the Bard makes a cameo (along with some of his characters including Othello and Juliet) in an absurdist play being staged tonight and tomorrow at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus.  Read more here (in Arabic).  The rhyming title might be translated “The Position of Ezbekia on the Crisis of Drama.”  Not very easy to tell from this (unfavorable) review what the show was about, except that it made a perhaps awkward effort to integrate references to current events including random arrests, conversations between ghosts, etc.

Syrian student "Twelfth Night" production

Amid everything happening in Syria, students at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts put on a production of Twelfth Night (of all things) earlier this month.  `Ajaj Salim directed.

From the few pictures available it does not look like political allusions were the order of the day.  Too bad: one could have a lot of fun with Malvolio.

The show then traveled to Sharjah, where it received warm reviews in Al-Bayan and Al-Ittihad (both in Arabic).  Here’s the press release with more background info.

Twelfth Night in Damascus

I just came across the Damascus Shakespeare Festival, and apparently it aspires to be annual. However, this year’s performance of Twelfth Night by the Birmingham Theatre troupe (visiting from England) seems to have left the Syrian audience cold. The review quotes a Syrian actress named Yara Sabri wishing the show had had more music and dancing etc. to “contribute to the arts education” of a less elite audience. No surprise there. If ever there were a problematic play for cross-cultural presentation, surely Twelfth Night must be it.

Al-Bassam in Damascus

Have to ask Sulayman about this (from the Abu Dhabi-based, English-language National. It must have been hair-raising and very satisfying. Not because of any “catch the conscience of the king” effect — current rulers can sit brazenly through anything. Rather, perhaps, because of the effect on the rest of the audience watching the play in the ruler’s presence. (Especially since Fayez Kozak is such a stage and film star in his native Syria.)

The play’s the thing… and so is a president in the audience
Hamida Ghafour

President Bashar Asad and his beautiful wife Asma, a former investment banker, are frequently seen on Damascus’s cultural circuit.
Recently, Shakespeare’s Richard III was brought to the Damascus stage after the city was named the Arab cultural capital of 2008. The Kuwaiti director, Sulayman al Bassam, reworked the play…
A good friend of mine related this anecdote to me after he watched the play. It was due to begin at 8pm but the crowd grew restless as an hour went by without any sign of the play starting.
“Two seats were being kept empty, obviously for someone senior,” he related. Finally who should walk in but Mr Asad and his wife. The president gave a gangly wave of the hand before sitting down. My friend was quite nervous at what he would make of the play. But he followed it intently and visibly cowered when a pistol was pointed at “Emir Gloucester”.
The audience waited expectantly during a sarcastic scene near the end when Gloucester, with mock reluctance, accepts the crown after a vote in which 99 per cent of the population endorses him. “What happened to the other one per cent?” someone asks. “Oh,” came the dry reply, “they were trying to vote by phone or online but ran out of credit.” Mr Asad – endorsed by 97 per cent of the vote in the last referendum – laughed heartily.

More here.

Syrian ambassador to Pakistan Riad Ismat on directing Shakespeare

Syrian playwright, cultural bureaucrat, and diplomat Riad Ismat is now Syrian ambassador to Pakistan.  In this capacity he addressed a local Shakespeare society at Greenwich University.  His (not very well covered) remarks there seem to have been quite general, as befits a diplomat; for more details see his essay هاملت كما اخرجته in his collection شيطان المسرح.

Hamlet’s "Something is Rotten" used in controversy over Danish cartoons

The photo is missing for some reason, but there is a striking entry about the use of Shakespeare in the Danish cartoon controversy  on Kristine Steenbergh’s blog, Serendipities.  Here it is:

The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad this week featured this photo :

The photo captures a moment in a demonstration in the Syrian capital Damascus, one of the many demonstrations protesting against the cartoons placed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We see a large group of male demonstrators carrying signs in Arabic, signs that I cannot read. The male protestors are captured either with their eyes closed, or looking at each other and each others’ signs. In the foreground of the picture is a woman who looks straight into the camera of Dirk-Jan Visser, press photographer at Reuters. She carries a sign that I can read, with a quotation that is immediately familiar.
What is Shakespeare doing in Damascus? What do Marcellus’ words, spoken in the depth of night on the watchtower of Elsinore, mean in this woman’s hands? She is looking us into the eye, addressing us in English, and she speaks in the words of one of Europe’s most canonical authors. The authority – the cultural capital – of Hamlet’s canonical status is strategically entered into the demonstration, to make a point about the decadence of European culture. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is thrown back at the Western world. Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, as a symbol of European culture, is here appropriated with a vengeance.