Preview – Speaker’s Progress in Boston

“How do you make a play about an abstract idea like change?”  Sulayman Al-Bassam speaks to the Boston Globe.

Judging by the dress rehearsal I saw last night, there are still some technical things to be ironed out before tonight’s opening (never mind the idea of change – the real issue is that these guys are scrambling for provisional closure, editing to the last minute!), some meanings to be nailed down, but the play has an amazing energy.

Boston people: come see the show and any of the myriad post-show or para-show events at ArtsEmerson! Reminder: you can also see Sulayman and me in discussion with Graham Holderness at BU this afternoon, 12-2.

Al-Bassam’s "Speaker’s Progress" in Beirut

Sympathetic review of The Speaker’s Progress in The Daily Star suggests that the overall design works but there are still some surtitle glitches to be ironed out.  I’m not surprised, since Sulayman Al-Bassam, a compulsive editor and re-editor, was probably tinkering with the script until ten minutes before the curtain went up.

…the surtitles are projected above and to the back of the stage. This is a problem as one cannot possibly simultaneously read the translation and observe the on-stage action. Forsaking either diminishes the viewer’s experience of the performance, because the strength, wit and entertainment of this play definitely lie in its combination of text, acting and set design.
The envoys commence the performance nervously, on a stage surrounded by bureaucratic apparatus and presided over by The Speaker and a censor who sounds an alarm whenever dialogue is improvised or the action drifts from its state-sanctioned course.
A meter stick is amusingly employed to ensure that the official 90-centimeter distance is maintained between male and female players at all times.
As the play progresses, the spirit of the theater begins to take over. Digressions from the approved performance increase in regularity. The set, lighting and costumes evolve from bleak greys, whites and blacks to colorful oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually the cry rises, in English, “Defect!”
While the momentum is building, alas, the surtitles are falling apart. As they lapse several lines behind the onstage dialogue, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand who is saying what, especially when there are more than two members of the 10-man cast engaged in conversation. It becomes frustrating.
Meanwhile the progressively absurdist nature of what’s happening beneath the translation also grows challenging to follow.

Ironically, Beirut may be a less welcoming audience for this show than Boston and New York (coming up next month!).  In Lebanon, from what I gathered last May, no one wants to hear too much about the Arab Spring.  Further, Al-Bassam doesn’t get any “exoticity discount” (do you know what I mean?) for directing a show in Arabic.  And he has discovered before (with an ill-fated musical Tartuffe adaptation that was cleverly intended for Gulfi audiences who were summering in Lebanon but that ended up playing instead for sophisticated Beirutis, who were underwhelmed) that it can be a tough market to gauge.

BAM Presents The Speaker’s Progress, 10/6-8

Go see this, y’all! Go on the night when my friend (and Paris Review poetry editor) Robyn Creswell is doing the post-show talkback. Here’s Al-Bassam’s latest (I hope!) synopsis:

BAM Presents THE SPEAKER’S PROGRESS, 10/6-8

A condemned 1960s staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has become the focal point for political resistance blogs and underground social network movements. The state, eager to suppress this dangerous mixture of nostalgia and dissent, commissions The Speaker, a once-radical theater producer now turned regime apologist, to mount a forensic reconstruction and public denunciation of the work. As The Speaker and his group of nonacting volunteers delve deeper into the “reconstruction” they find themselves increasingly engaged with the material they are supposed to be condemning. They soon discover-in the act of performance and the growing participation of their audience-a solidarity that transforms the gathering itself into an unequivocal act of defiance towards the state.

The Speaker’s Progress is the final part of writer, director, and performer Sulayman Al- Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy; the second, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, was presented at BAM’s Muslim Voices festival (Spring 2009). Created along with a core team of actors and artists from across the Arab world and Europe, this unique body of work charts a decade of Arab and Western political and social upheaval following the events of 9/11 to the current leaps for reform made by millions across the region.

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.

Al-Bassam on Speaker’s Progress in The Guardian

Sulayman Al-Bassam has a little article in The Guardian on how his current show, a very pessimistic frame story incorporating an Arab adaptation of Twelfth Night,
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has changed in production because of recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, etc.
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More photos from the production previews here.
The show is coming to BAM in New York next fall.

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.