Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die, by Colleen Kennedy (PhD Candidate in English, Ohio State University; kennedy.623@buckeyemail.osu.edu)

 

1. Shakespeare Must Die was the first and only film to be partially funded by the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva). Was this an optimistic moment for the arts? Are there any art projects funded under the new administration of Yingluck Shinawatra?

At least 50 other film projects received this funding. Some for script development, some for production, one for distribution (The 2010 Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee’). Recipients include studio films as well as independent films. In fact the studio films got the lion’s share; the amount also varied greatly. For instance, out of the 200 million baht fund, one big epic, ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’ received 49 million; and ‘Headshot’ by Penek Rattanaruang got at least 8 million. Most received between 5 and 1 million. Our 3 million is therefore on the lower-middle end.  (30 baht = 1 USD)

So no, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is most definitely NOT the only film funded by the Abhisit government’s film fund under the Creative Thailand Fund (the Thai name, Thai Khem Khaeng Fund, literally means “Fund to Strengthen Thais”.  For industrial applications, to increase the value of goods by improving the design; for cultural and educational projects, to stop the dumbing down of the population). ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was in fact the very LAST film to receive funding (though not the last to be finished; many other projects remain unfinished at this time, August 2013) , as some funding committee members were concerned about our depiction of the regicide scene.

(A few years back, Bangkok Opera got into absurdist trouble with the Cultural Ministry over its production of the ‘Ramayana’. They were told not to portray Rama’s slaying of the Demon King on stage. He might be a demon, but he was still a king, went the argument. The Ramayana! They were not banned from doing so, but would not be allowed to use the Ministry’s prestigious venue. The ministry claimed that it was against tradition to kill a king on stage. This is entirely false. I distinctly remember seeing this very scene on stage at the National Theatre. This shows how unpredictable it can be. The film ‘Suriyothai’, a historical epic, has very graphic scenes of regicide.)

So we had to shoot the scene and show them all the uncut footage before they would approve our funding. No other applicant had to do this. Everyone else only had to submit a synopsis and treatment. We told them that we would stick to Shakespeare’s staging of the scene, namely, that everything happens off-stage: all we see are their bloody hands, all we hear are their thoughts.  Just as Shakespeare intended, I believe, since the focus is not the murder but its effects on the Macbeths, before and after.

After viewing this footage, they were convinced of our Shakespearean sincerity, some even commending that it was in fact a moral undertaking because it “explores the nature of sin and karmic retribution”.

Therefore, far from being a ‘propaganda film funded by the Eton and Oxford-educated Evil Elite Royalist Abhisit to make fun of Champion of Democracy Thaksin’, as claimed by Thaksin apologists, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was actually the most scrutinised film and barely received the funding at the very last minute.

The Democrat Party is highly unlikely to choose me as their propagandist! My first fictional feature, ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned in 1998 by the Democrat government, Abhisit’s party (though he was just an MP, not the PM at the time). Unless you’d insist that by revealing the truth about the tourism/real estate and golf course industries, I made green propaganda films, I can honestly, and proudly, say that I have never made a propaganda film. Most other Thai filmmakers have, including well-known festival darlings who now portray themselves as anti-royalist and therefore democratic. Even Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Penek Rattanaruang have made government-funded films extolling the king. (Not part of the same film fund but a series of shorts funded by the Cultural Ministry to glorify the king’s 60 years on the throne, a project called ‘Nhang Nai Luang’—“The King Movies”, a way to make propaganda sound cool, with cool shorts from cool filmmakers.) No one would dream of approaching me to join such projects. I just wouldn’t do it. It would make me physically ill. Nothing against the king, but such overkill glorification is detrimental to society and the monarchy itself. I think such projects only provoke an understandable backlash.

The Creative Thailand film fund was the first and last of its kind, open to all types of film and filmmakers, without a stated theme (such as to extol the king or save the environment). It no longer exists; the Yingluck government has no film fund. It’s not very interested in our mental improvement.

 

2. Why did the Ministry of Culture fund this particular film? Did you apply for funding? Were you approached by the Culture Ministry? If the latter, why?

Please see above. No, we were not approached; we were in fact barely tolerated!

 

3. Even before Shakespeare Must Die, you were known as a provocative filmmaker.  Your documentary titles Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993) and Casino Cambodia (1994) all demonstrate your ability to highlight and portray the problems of Thai society. Your film My Teacher Eats Biscuits was banned from a film festival for its “depravity.” How does Shakespeare Must Die fit into your oeuvre?

I switched from print journalism to filmmaking because I needed to show rather than tell. As the first writer to focus on environmental problems in Thailand, at a time (1980’s) when the environment was not yet considered real news in the world, I often encountered scepticism and antagonism from editors. They just wouldn’t believe that things could be so bad.

The advent of Hi 8 video made filmmaking accessible to outsiders like me. ‘Thailand for Sale’ (which I wrote and narrated but didn’t direct, for the BBC and the Television Trust for the Environment) and ‘Green Menace’ are obviously straight-forward visual extensions of my green investigative journalism. ‘Casino Cambodia’, initially about Cambodia becoming a casino for the world’s speculators as armed conflict ended, came from my further past as a UNHCR volunteer in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border. Ultimately, it poses the question: who gets the right to write the accepted version of history? Henry Kissinger is not demonised like Pol Pot; instead he gets the Nobel Peace prize–why?

‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ seems a weird departure from all this seriousness. It was my experiment to make a 16 mm film with a very low budget; it was actually the first independent Thai film, made by people totally outside the system. I wrote a script around what I had or what I could beg and borrow, so my dog became the arch villain, a sacred dog worshipped as His Holiness in a New Age ashram. I wanted to examine the nature of rationalisation, of worship and belief. I had the mistaken trust that a comedy would get away with more. It turned out that people get even angrier when you make them laugh in spite of themselves.

In the above list you left out ‘Citizen Juling’, my documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand, which centred on an idealistic  young Buddhist teacher from the North who volunteered to teach art in the war zone of the south and was beaten into a coma, apparently by enraged Muslim housewives (untrue—turns out they were male terrorists in burqas). This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief, and when it was rejected by every documentary festival under the sun, the only way I could deal with it was to set myself an overwhelming task, my version of a Herculean labour, namely to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai. The sheer difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of it would leave me with no idle brain space for unproductive thinking.

I thought it would take years. But the task gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done. (Oddly, as soon as this was done, ‘Citizen Juling’ was invited to Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals out of the blue.) ‘Macbeth’ as ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is a totally natural outflow, of blood and tears if you will, from our conversations with the grief-stricken people of the South, Muslims and Buddhists, who have suffered most from Thaksin’s rule by fear and violence.

While Thaksin’s crimes did inspire me to reread and then translate the world’s best-known study of tyranny, in my mind were also all the local mafia figures in nearly every Thai village who rule with fear. Thaksin is just their overlord. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk as well as other sources, many people believe that Thaksin (who had been a police colonel—he studied criminology in Texas–before becoming a telecommunications billionaire and then politician) achieved his monopoly on Thai tyranny by getting rid of all opposing local influential figures, many of whom were local canvassers for other political parties, through his War on Drugs, which killed at least 2,500 people in police-perpetrated extra-judicial killings, including women and children. My killing of Lady Macduff and her child comes straight from this: the official-looking checkpoint on a lonely road at night, the menacing group of men in uniform-like safari suits. Thaksin’s (and his wife’s) well-known interest in the occult is by the way; all tyrants seem to share this supernatural interest: Hitler, Idi Amin, Hun Sen, Burma’s Than Shwee, you name it. It’s hard to find one tyrant who was or is not into the occult.

I first encountered ‘Macbeth’ as a 15 year old at school in England. My English was barely serviceable at the time. But the play has haunted me all my life. Tyranny in the form of bullies is a fact of most people’s life; my own childhood was rich with them, so they have always fascinated me.

 

4. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn claims that you are denied your rightful place as a Thai filmmaker, as a female director, and as director of cult films, and goes on to compare My Teacher Eats Biscuits to John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes. Could you comment on the following description of your film?

I now realise that to call My Teacher Eats Biscuits a dangerous, depraved film, is the equivalent of the Thai government accusing Pink Flamingoof national treachery, or of clinging to the logic that the films of Paul Morrissey have the power to destroy religion.That’s because My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a ‘cult’ film in the spirit of John Waters. It’s low-budget, stars friends of the filmmaker, and is shot in the back of somebody’s house. The resulting film is one that had myself and a group of friends helplessly laughing every five minutes when we finally got to see it.

Was this film ever officially released? What is the status of this film?

I do love John Waters. He showed me and other guerrilla filmmakers of my generation how it was possible to make a film without real actors and with very little money. The key is to write dialogue that would sound funny even when recited, deadpan. I didn’t consciously copy ‘Pink Flamingo’ otherwise, except perhaps to force my lead actor (now a bona fide movie star but this was his first movie) to eat dog shit (actually just mashed up candied durian).  The film has not been released. It exists as one 16 mm print. It premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival before it was banned.

Many people have suggested that I should resubmit the film to the censors. That would have to wait for the end of the ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ and ‘Censor Must Die’ struggle. It would be too exhausting otherwise. However, along with the fact that these are the worst times for Thai freedom of expression in my living memory, it’s unlikely to pass for a very odd reason. In recent years, some ultra-royalists have taken to wearing pink to show their love for the king. The ashramites in the film wear pink and kowtow to a dog. They might even say I’m depicting the king as a dog, even though this film was made years before all this colour-coded nonsense. My actors wear pink because it’s the Ashram of Boundless Love. If they had worn red, no doubt they’d say I’m depicting Thaksin as a dog. When people see everything through the prism of propaganda, you can’t win; to argue with them is a total waste of energy.

Last year someone suggested to the National Film Archive to include this film, the first shoestring independent Thai film, in their list of national film heritage, but their committee rejected it. Not serious enough, probably.

My style does seem to change from film to film, because surely the style must serve the story. I work with the limitations that I have and make them work for me.

 

5. Can you tell us briefly about Shakespeare Must Die? Why use Macbeth as your source? What is it about Shakespeare that transcends time and space?

As for the title, Shakespeare must die because true artists (as represented by Shakespeare), by their very existence, threaten tyranny’s sense of security by shaking their flimsy constructs and versions of reality; by tyrants I mean those who would rule the world with fear and lies.

The film’s use of the Shakespearean play within a play device is appropriate as well as being affordable. It would’ve been delicious to have tanks in the streets, helicopter shots of Macbeth on a penthouse terrace over the Bangkok skyline at sunset etc., but that is not within our reach, so I couldn’t write that script. Cheap swords on a stage would have to work somehow, and the only way for that to work is to stage such scenes on a theatrical stage. The fake theatrical violence then serves to emphasize, by contrast, our bloody ending of a realistic lynching (of the play’s director) with echoes of the bloodiest chapter in contemporary Thai history (October 6 massacre in 1976, when a mob, incited by lying propagandists to become enraged by a protest play at Thammasaat University, massacred student protesters, Rwanda-style—some girls were staked through the heart like vampires. At least I didn’t depict that—perhaps I should have. I do imply it with a brief shot of two girls backing away from a threatening group of men.)

Shakespeare transcends time and space because, one: he’s just so damned good, regardless of all this clever postmodern deconstruction, this plague of pseudo-intellectual profundity in contemporary art today, any truthful person can recognise truth and beauty (as in John Keats) when they experience it; two: his subject is the human soul and he has the gift of ecstasy; three: he deliberately and joyously plays with time and space, through his sudden gear-shifting from one dimensional reality to another without any warning nor excuses; his trippy visuals; his synaesthesia; his magic (literally, as in invoking, incantational power), so much so that his world view, or view of the whole cosmos, is more akin to quintessential Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism than his own cultural context of social Christianity. Naked Hindu mystics on the banks of the Ganges are more likely to understand and relate to Shakespeare than the average Englishman today. His structural reality (and lack thereof) is universal, therefore. To me, Shakespeare is not only a poet, the poet, of unimaginable power, he is also a prophet, as great or greater than most accepted religious and philosophical figures. (Now you see why I should be burned at the stake.) His art leads us to self-knowledge and divine communion in the deepest sense.

While I was astonished that it took me only four months of total immersion to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai, I soon realised this was because there is something innately universal, quintessential, about his music, his rhythm, his very sound. Like the Hindu mystics (and the bible, actually), I do perceive the physical universe as the manifestation of sound: “OM”; “the music of the spheres”; “In the beginning was the word.” That’s why I worked so hard to keep Shakespeare’s sound. Interestingly, I had terrible problems with some passages, which I later found were suspected by some to be later additions to the original play.

 

6. Is Shakespeare an aspect of the Thai educational system? Are there Shakespearean theatre companies or other cinematic adaptions of Shakespeare’s works popular in Thailand? How and why does Shakespeare speak to or for modern Thailand?

Shakespeare is part of the syllabus for the last two years of high school, but only for those on the liberal arts course rather than the sciences. They learn from King Vajiravudh’s (first world war era) translations of ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘As You Like It’. (This was a man who should’ve been a writer/poet rather than king. He was a genuinely gifted poet but he bankrupted the country.) They are not direct translations but ornately rendered into a very rigid form of Thai poetry called the verse of eight. It’s a virtuoso performance, a genuine achievement; one particular part (“The quality of mercy is not forced…”, which he translates as “Un Kwarm Garuna Pranee/ Ja Mee Krai Bangkup goh hamai”) has entered the stream of common usage, but nothing else has. We can’t relate to it because it doesn’t sound like speech. It’s not easy or natural for actors to say. He directed and even performed in them himself at court, using not real actors but his intimate circle; the performances were not for the public. They haven’t caught on despite being part of the high school syllabus.

Real Shakespearean studies exist only at university level, where they actually study Shakespeare’s original texts.

No, there are no Shakespearean theatre companies, though one theatre group recently staged a loose adaptation of Lear called ‘Lear and His 3 Daughters’. Chulalongkorn University (the Thai equivalent of Harvard)’s Liberal Arts School staged the only nearly full-length (cutting out the ‘boring’ and problematic ‘English scene’ with Malcolm and Macduff which discusses the divine right of kings) performance of ‘Macbeth’ while we were still editing our film, using our Macduff as their Macduff and our Macbeth as their Lennox. It was directed by one of their lecturers, Noppamas Waewhongse (not sure about the correct spelling, just a straight transliteration), who used her own translation, which she did years ago. Since it hadn’t been published, I wasn’t aware until I was casting the film that there was already a translation by a Chula liberal arts professor. The actors told me about it. Macbeth had been an obsession of hers for years; I met her once and her joy in it was obvious.  A news talk show tried to use her to discredit me, but they didn’t expect us to get on so well, because of our common obsession.

They put us together on TV, to find out why her play was attended by the king’s daughter and upset no one, while my film was doubly banned (once by the censors then by the actual Film Board). She said it was because she stuck to Shakespeare and set it in 11th Century Scotland, with authentic armour and costumes. I said if I were to do that, I’d have to shoot in Scotland, the budget would be extreme, and besides there would be no point. Those films have been made; they’re not my story to tell.

My aim was to make an emotionally and spiritually authentic ‘Macbeth’, that brings the joys of Shakespeare to Thai people who must at the same time be able to relate to it. That’s why I changed Norway, England and Scotland to censor-taunting obvious mythic names from the realm of poetry and fantasy like Shangrilla, Atlantis and Xanadu. This is very much a Thai folk opera tradition. (I love ‘likay’, or Thai folk opera. They’re travelling theatre groups equipped with not much more than two canvas backdrops, usually one of a throne room and one of a forest, with singers/dancers/actors in fantastical sequin-encrusted costumes, including since the 19th century Western ballgowns and Napoleonic coats. I took liberally from likay but, since I was making a Shakespearean film for Thai people rather than to seduce international curators, decided against the outright exploitation of such Thai exotica as it would get in the way. For, say, Midsummer, it could be fun.

Thailand, or Siam by its true, pre-fascist name, is nearly unique historically in that it was never colonised by Western empires. (Don’t worry, the West got its revenge on the king who kept them off his land by caricaturing him as Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison and Chow Yoon Fat in Hollywood and on Broadway.) Indian society, for instance, has a close relationship and familiarity with English literature, especially Shakespeare.

Most Thai people do not speak a second language. Shakespeare is heard of as a name, a ‘high-end brand’, like Gucci or Chanel. That’s why it was so exciting to attempt such a challenge, in the most ideal conditions, impossible elsewhere, to perform Shakespeare with actors who would speak every word “as if for the first time”. One girl looked up from the script after trying out for Lady M and said, with genuine wonder, “Oh my God, what a character this woman is. I love her. I’ve never seen such dialogue.”  (She was reading “The Raven himself..” and “I have given suck..dash the brains out.” Alas she did not get the part.)

‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is the first and so far only Thai cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. But because of the ban and no one has seen it, you really have to say there’s been no Thai Shakespearean film and there won’t be any if the court decides against us.

The appeal of Macbeth to the Thai public is obvious. We are living under a real live Macbeth, albeit one with an army of international spindoctors; we are living through Shakespearean times and the world beyond our borders does not know it. High drama in the streets, in the courts, in parliament, everywhere we go. Rage and hatred, operatic villainy, extreme fear and violence, spindoctors staging obscene plays within the play, piling lies upon lies, you name it. The play also contains, in the so-called ‘English scene’, a discussion on the divine right of kings, of leaders and rulers of men, which is the discussion we desperately need now.

I’m quite unrepentant. I went in with my eyes open, fully aware of the sensitive nature of my choice of play. Its relevance is the very reason to do it. It’s absurd that we’re not allowed to film a play that’s taught to 15 year old school children in English-speaking countries all over the world.  It would be obscene to surrender to such a silly fear, even if—surely, especially when—the threats arising from this silly fear are very real.

 

7. Shakespeare Must Die is labeled a horror film. Can you elaborate? Is Macbeth a horror story? Is your adaptation more apt to be labeled horror? How so?

Like many people, I think Macbeth is the archetype of the horror genre. (The Odyssey is full of monsters, it’s true, but it’s an adventure story rather than a horror story, the blood wedding notwithstanding.) On the surface witches, dark prophecy, hallucinations, apparitions and the slaughter of innocents; then beneath that exotic manifestation we have the real horrors of spiritual corruption, guilt, insanity and torment, the ultimate horror being of course the loss of his “eternal jewel”. As the first Thai version of Macbeth, for an audience that’s mostly never heard of it, I felt the film had to deliver the eye of newt and toe of frog, both as gleeful Hallowe’en fun and as a device to emphasise, by contrast, the true horror of the Macbeths’ disintegration, again as I believe Shakespeare intended. Witches for a laugh and Lady M for shivers.

To be honest, I’d always longed to make a horror film. People have often told me that all my films including the dog-god black comedy have been horror movies at heart. As a horror movie junkie, I’m not offended. It is a genre that allows free exploration of the soul; heaven and hell, good and evil. Sacred texts like the Ramayana is at times a horror epic, not least because the hero makes his wife walk through fire to prove her fidelity. The bible has incredible horror scenes. It’s not a genre that’s taken seriously because it’s so enjoyable.

8. What are your inspirations or filmmakers (especially Shakespearean) you consulted when working on this project?

One major source of inspiration for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was TV melodrama: Thai soap operas and Mexican telenovelas gave the film its look and vibe (though with Caravaggio colours and lighting). This makes it instantly accessible for the soap-addicted Thai audience. The shock is also greater when it is delivered through this familiar guise. Where they expect mental comfort food served by vacuous TV stars mouthing inane TV scripts, they get, instead, powerful actors speaking Shakespeare’s intense words.

For its inner truth, I decided to trust the text unreservedly, no matter how unfashionable or scary that might turn out to be. I tried to be as free of preconceptions from existing Shakespearean cinema as possible, and did not show any Shakespearean film to my cast and crew. I didn’t want them to try to sound ‘Shakespearean’, but just to revel in the actual text. This was easier than it sounds as I haven’t actually seen that many Shakespearean films. I suppose my favourite Shakespearean film would be the Richard 3rd film set in 1930’s fascist England starring Sir Ian McKellen. I love Kurosawa’s Lady M, and the opening scene of Polansky’s ‘Macbeth’, with the witches spitting into a noose on a Scottish beach. I’ve been told that Orson Welles’ version is the only one that doesn’t delete the ‘English scene’, and I’d love to see his treatment of it, but I haven’t seen it yet.

 

9. How can a 400-year old Shakespearean play cause such controversy? Now? In another country? Can you comment on the censorship concerning depictions of the Thai monarchy?

I’ll answer the last part first, as it’s crucial to understanding. ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was not banned out of fear of the monarchy. It was banned out of fear of Thaksin Shinawatra.

As I explained earlier, we had to show uncut footage of the regicide scene before they’d fund us. They even praised the footage and greenlighted the money. That was under the previous government, a ‘royalist government’. So the Yingluck Shinawatra administration could not, cannot, use that old chestnut against us. The incredible scrutiny, meted out to no other film project, that we received from the Cultural Ministry during the funding process has turned out to be a blessing. Because of it, this government was robbed of its favoured tool, Article 112 or Lese Majeste law, which the Thaksin juggernaut exploits to burnish his ‘democratic’ credentials while soiling the king with a tar brush. Even so, as the ban made international news, Thaksin’s spindoctors did their best to portray that it was banned because of the king. You can read their handiwork in the news slant. It didn’t matter what I said, the story was already written to fit the Thaksin script. As a former journalist, I knew that, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I am not fond of Article 112; my family has suffered greatly from it, has even joined a campaign to amend this law. Now that it has become a much-abused political tool, all true reformers have been forced to retreat; we’d just get lumped in with Thaksin’s red shirts. Deliberate Thaksinite provocations (such as by uploading on YouTube a picture of the king with someone’s feet above him, which provoked the predictable hue and cry to force the Abhisit government to object and thereby appearing to be less ‘free’ than Thaksin) have also caused ultra-royalists to become hyper-sensitive. When Abhisit, as PM, said 112 should be amended, their reaction was so strong that he instantly retreated and has not mentioned it again. All thinking people in Thai society are stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.

The greatest irony is the king himself has publicly spoken against this law, on TV, broadcast nationally, on record.  But never mind him. Things that deviate from the script must not exist. Like the film censorship law which was ostensibly designed to protect the public from social poison but ends up harming the people by blind-folding them, the lese majeste law is meant to protect the monarchy and therefore national unity (as in “The king and the land are one so the king can/must do no wrong”), but its effects have been to harm the monarchy and divide the land. Who is the beneficiary?

The old divide and conquer strategy has been as fruitful for Thaksin and his corporate colonial cohorts as it was for the Western colonial powers in these savage lands. Thaksin would be the last to desire the amendment of Article 112. The knee-jerk reactions of ultra-royalists play straight into his hands.

The simplistic script as written by his spindoctors, and as slavishly followed by the international press, is this: Thais are not individuals with our own thoughts; Thais can be divided neatly into evil elite royalists and brave Thaksin democrats. People like me are inconvenient to such spin, so we cannot be allowed to exist. Thus ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is banned not only domestically but, through such spin, internationally. A business tycoon first and foremost, Thaksin thoroughly understands and exploits ‘soft power’; he’s smarter than the Iranian mullahs. I may not be in jail like Jafar Panahi, but in some ways I’ve been more banned than even him.

Thaksin’s best known spindoctor is Lord Tim Bell, whose most celebrated client was Margaret Thatcher. (This is why our fembot clone PM Yingluck was celebrated as one of the world’s great women by Newsweek, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and Hilary Clinton.) I’m sure this is why BBC and CNN didn’t touch the story of the banning of Shakespeare in Thailand, though Al Jazeera covered us twice. This is why the AP wire story was removed from the New York Times website not long after it appeared there—it never made it into print, of course. This is why BBC radio in London immediately cut short their interview with me the second I replied that no, we were not banned because it offended the king. I’d done other, formally set up interviews with the BBC, TV and radio, before. Normally it’s set up in their local office. BBC radio in London must’ve seen the wire story and decided to do the story themselves, so this was not set up in their office. I could hear the interviewer’s surprise at my answer and the sudden ending of the interview, as if someone came in and instantly shut it down.

Macbeth’s relevance to contemporary Thai society is almost literal: a man of insatiable greed for power who sets himself up as an enemy to the king. That’s why it had to be a faithful adaptation, an extreme close-reading even, of Shakespeare. The usual cinematic solution of Macbeth as a gangster, say, would be a coy distraction. It has to be political for these words to make sense: “Alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother but our grave…”  Ross’ lament is the reason I made ‘Shakespeare Must Die’. It’s even our theme song.

As for the depiction of Thai monarchy, filmmakers have mostly avoided it. This is because the visible and invisible rules are so unpredictable and the law is often used to discriminate against opponents. This means avoiding political and historical stories. That vast store is off-limit to us, incredible as it may seem.

 

10. Who has seen Shakespeare Must Die? Censor Must Die? (art galleries, international viewings, etc. I’ve seen that the Asian Shakespeare Association, for example, will screen the film at its conference)

Much of this I’ll answer along with question 11.

It’s funny to think now that while we were making the film, the people we feared most were not the censors but Shakespeareans, since I’m no Shakespearean scholar but an art school drop-out making a horror movie. As it turns out, most of the moral support we’ve received has come from Shakespeareans. Apart from local Shakespeareans, Professor Mark Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast and the Indian director Rustom Bharucha have seen the film and given us wonderful feedback. Rustom Bharucha will hold a talk with me after the Asian Shakespeare conference screening. This should go ahead unless they too are deluged by emails from Thai Studies types, warning them not to show an anti-democratic evil elite propaganda film…(see below)

 

11. Are there possibilities of the film(s) being screened at international film festivals (such as Cannes, the Toronto International Film festival, etc.)?

No, there is absolutely no possibility of ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ being shown at Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin etc. None, and not because it’s a crappy movie. I stand by this comment absolutely.

All, and I mean all, Asian cinema presented at the world’s great film festivals are controlled by the same small group of curators. They send scouts to our third world countries on film selection trips. (Such scouts even tell people how to cut their films. If you don’t obey the dictates of their tastes, you do not ‘go international’. That is why East Asian films shown at festivals are of the same type. This wouldn’t be so bad if local critics, colonially-shackled and lacking confidence, didn’t take their cue from these festivals. Thus entire national cinematic cultures are sacrificed at the altar of the festival circuit. I refuse to do this, so I do have this monolith against me as well as the Thaksin machine. If I had made my witches screechy ‘lady boys’, a Thai cliché, life might’ve been easier.)

The Cannes scout did come to my editing room. He said: “The politics are too specific.” He also “hated” my M and Lady M. Also, why make such a faithful Shakespeare adaptation, how unimaginative of me, how can I hope to compete with “real Shakespearean actors like Judy Dench etc.” as if we the savages have no right to ‘do’ Shakespeare unless we exoticise it, local colour being our only conceivable and acceptable contribution to Shakespearean cinema.

After we were banned, a French sales rep with Cannes connections asked for a DVD; he was initially ecstatic about the film and its chance of getting in at the last minute. Then silence. It was definitely shown to the selection committee. They would’ve consulted the scout in any case.

The Venice scout adored the film in the editing room, said it should be in competition blah blah, told me to rush the film’s completion for him, then at the last moment sends an email that it was not good enough to show to the selection committee, even saying that “the subtitles are in such weird, old-fashioned English”. The subtitles are of course the original text, “the work of one William Shakespeare”, as I put it to him.

Berlin, which had shown our ‘Citizen Juling’ not long before, said ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ “does not fit into our theme”—if we hadn’t been rejected, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ would’ve been in Berlin the same year ‘Caesar Must Die’ won the Golden Bear.

Toronto asked for a DVD, then silence. None of which surprised me as the aforementioned Cannes film scout is also consulted by Berlin and Toronto, both of which that year, last year, showed just one Thai film, the same film, ‘Headshot’, a gunman movie incidentally co-produced by the very same film scout (and also funded by the Creative Thailand Film Fund, 8 million).

The very recent case of ‘Boundary’, a documentary described by many as sympathetic to Thaksin as it tells essentially the same version of events as Thaksin’s sister’s government, illustrates my point succinctly. It was the only Thai film at this year’s Berlinale. It was co-produced by Thai Palme d’Or winner Aphichartpong Weerasethakul and the same Cannes film scout (though he’s credited only as a Thank You) and funded by numerous Western film funds whose logos appear on film. After its Berlinale premiere, it was submitted to censors. What happens next says it all.

‘Boundary’ was at first banned by a censors’ committee headed by the most senior bureaucrat (non-politician) in the Ministry of Culture who accused it of distortion—a serious charge for a documentary. Unlike with ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which was just vaguely charged of being a threat to national security, for the ‘Boundary’ ban the censors had a proper long list of their objections, minute by minute. (I haven’t seen it and can’t give my opinion, though I don’t believe in the banning of any film. People whose opinion I respect have gone so far as to describe it as a ‘red shirt film’ and ‘hate-speech’. I’m sorry to say I was invited to the local premiere but didn’t go. I’m too angry with this government to expose myself to unnecessary aggravation.)

Even so, in no time (just over 24 hours) the ban on ‘Boundary’ was suddenly lifted. This is legally impossible. Normally you have to file an appeal to the Film Board to reverse a ban; you have to do this within 15 days then the Film Board takes another 30 days to decide. These people hadn’t even filed an appeal. The censors actually phoned the director to “apologise for the misunderstanding”. The film then received an 18 rating (for those 18 and older), which is not even the highest rating (20), which the appeal committee told us to expect for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ (and which we didn’t get, receiving instead an 18 to 4 vote to uphold the censors’ ban, along with additional charges of being a disgrace to good public morality and national dignity).  To save face, the censors told them to mute some harmless sound from a scene of a celebration for the king’s birthday, so that it appears to have been banned for less than 2 days in order not to offend the king.

The ‘Boundary’ ban reversal is a great embarrassment for many. For us it’s a boon as we’ve been able to use it, as further irrefutable evidence of discrimination and political interference, to bolster our administrative court case. Also, we’ll be able to cite it if they do decide to ban our utterly truthful and factual documentary, ‘Censor Must Die’.

When ‘Citizen Juling’ was taken in hand by the same powerful film scout and invited to both Toronto and Berlin, he told me that when the title appeared on Toronto’s list of films in its official announcement, the festival was “deluged” with emails from Thai Studies academics, American professors at US universities whom he would not name, telling them to scrap ‘Citizen Juling’ from the programme—“You cannot show such an anti-democratic film” is one example as quoted by the film scout. Yes, the word used was not ‘undemocratic’ but ‘anti-democratic’, as in anti-Christ. “But the festival has decided to stand by your film,” was his conclusion then.

I have no proof that festivals received similar emails about ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, but given the film’s far-higher profile and Thai politics’ further infernal descent since then, as well as the merry go round of ecstatic-then-silent reactions, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they did. I do have an actual eye-witness to one incident: the director of a prominent contemporary art museum “furiously” told a film festival at that venue to remove the film from their list, “because we can’t upset another country’s government.”  (I only happened to hear of it because the girl who was “screamed at in the middle of the museum office” is friends with an artist I know well.)

People aware of the situation did try to save us. In the end we screened at one festival in Seoul described as “middle-level but fiercely independent” called CinDi, where people sat around muttering stories about “the festival mafia”, even as members of that mafia appeared at the parties and at least one sat on the jury. CinDi was set up to fight the mafia, but now it no longer exists; that was the last edition. I’ve been told we got great press, but alas I can’t read Korean.

 

11. Last year, 37 plays in different languages from different countries came to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. The Guardian was running a feature asking directors and actors “Why Shakespeare is … French/German/South African, etc.?” So, I ask you “Why Shakespeare is …  Thai…”

The fact that they banned our film shows how very Thai Shakespeare is.

Shakespeare transcends cultural differences because his focus is the universal human soul. He is especially relevant for Thai people because we are literally living through Shakespearean times.

 

12. In your public panel discussion on “Art and Censorship” (given at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 5 July 2012), the language that you use to describe Thai censorship and media control sounds very much like a dystopian novel: the popularity of mindless entertainment shows such as reality TV and game shows, the commercialization and politicization of dumbed down media, and, of course, the banning of difficult and intelligent films that may force viewers to think. Is Thailand heading into Orwellian territory here? What can be done to create smart, demanding, and problematic film and television options? Are there other filmmakers, directors, or artists that you feel are really pushing against this?

Of course we are in Orwellian territory. Bangkok has become the city with the highest number of facebook users in the world because under the Thaksin regime everything else is so heavily censored and spinned. But now Thai people can’t even speak freely on Facebook.

I’m not exaggerating. Thailand’s best loved political cartoonist, Chai Rachawat, an elderly man, is fighting a libel case, brought against him by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in criminal court, for a comment on his own facebook page. He was just letting off steam over a speech she made abroad with the line: “A prostitute sells only her body, but an evil woman sells out her whole country.” It’s not a cartoon in a newspaper, just a somewhat sexist personal comment to his facebook friends. He didn’t even name her. In another case this very week, the computer crimes police are interrogating four people including the senior political commentator at Thai PBS TV, for “spreading rumours of a coup d’etat” on his facebook page. He’d said that it was unlikely to happen.

Another example, a personal one. Last week at the last minute I was asked to be on a talk show at Thai PBS to defend the evil media against a family values media watchdog. It was obvious they couldn’t get anyone else to sit in the hot seat. The Family Foundation woman was upset with the dangerous behaviour of young people as portrayed by a cable TV series called ‘Hormones’, you know, kids taking drugs, sex and highly daring full frontal close-ups of bloody sanitary pads. (She was especially upset by that.)The damnedest thing that I should’ve been the one chosen to defend the very fortress that keeps me out. The director of the series, a famous film director, should’ve been the one to answer her, and I’m sure they tried but his producers must’ve told him not to feed the controversy. I haven’t even seen the series.

They did try but failed to get the president of the Thai Directors Association, Tanwarin Sukhapisit, whose film ‘Insects in the Backyard’ was banned for obscenity. She bravely fought the ban and was the first filmmaker to sue the censors in both the Administrative Court and the Constitution Court. (These courts did not exist when ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned.) She gave us the nerve to do the same, and stood by us as we went through the process. She used to be extremely outspoken, but she has since become very successful, making films for the biggest studio. This means she now has a lot to lose and has probably been told by studio handlers to downplay the warrior image. As directors’ guild president, she has vowed to continue campaigning for the end of the banning clause. (Our legal teams, along with Banjong Kosalawat, a distinguished director who has been fighting the banning clause for thirty years, have joined forces to propose a new film law.) Tanwarin lost her case at the Constitution Court (to interpret the banning clause as being unconstitutional), but her Administrative Court case, like ours, is still pending. We didn’t file with the Constitution Court—our more experienced human rights lawyer said it would hold everything up and be a waste of time.

Thai PBS ended up calling Manit Sriwanichpoom, my producer, who really couldn’t go. Normally he’s our spokesman, unless it’s in English. He told me I had to do it or no other filmmaker will defend our rights. In this climate of fear and rage, everyone’s afraid for their careers; I’m the only one with nothing left to lose but life and liberty. Manit is the one who’s actually had to face the censors and the film board in our fight to free ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, while I followed him around with a camera as a witness. He’s the star of ‘Censor Must Die’. But that day he really wasn’t free.

There was also a police psychologist and a media academic. The taping went fine. Except that when they aired it, they cut out everything I said about corruption (as in “Thai society’s concept of morality has been so distorted by fascist cultural engineering that we get upset by tops with spaghetti straps, though our quite recent ancestors wore even less; meanwhile a recent survey says 65% of Thais accept corruption so long as they personally benefit…We’re barking up the wrong tree.”), or anything else remotely connected with the Yingluck administration. This was a programme called ‘Thiang Hai Ru Ruang’ (“debate for clarity”), sponsored by a German foundation, to help to heal divisions in Thai society. So much for clarity.

I also said instead of fearfully banning evil, we should promote thought-provoking media and remove censorship so such media could flourish. Censorship is the very reason our media products are so bad; we’re prevented from touching real drama; our story-telling is so limited hence the prevalence of these slap-and-kiss fests that the Family Foundation is so concerned about. They cut that too. I said Tanwarin’s film is not porn as it was not made for sexual arousal; it’s a sad movie about love-starved people who try to fill their lives with sex and just get even sadder. You have to see the maker’s intent. They cut that too.

The show has an infantile gimmick: they tell “the opposing sides” to shake hands at the end. It was like a sitcom, so I hugged her instead. Ah, reconciliation achieved. I told you this long-winded story to show from my personal experience how out of fear even Thai PBS censors itself and collaborates with the spin.

Art and theatre have remained under their radar so far. Nevertheless, in a subtle way, Thaksin’s spindoctors are causing damage and distortion to Thai contemporary art. Now that every artist knows that the sure-fire way to ‘go international’ is to appear to criticise the monarchy or display some other marker of ‘controversy’, ‘democracy’ and ‘political integrity’, that is the way to go.

 

13. What would you be willing to do to make Shakespeare Must Die be released nationally? If the Censorship Board stated cut out this or that reference or allusion (e.g. the allusion to the 1976 Bangkok student uprising), what could/would you remove without harming the integrity of this film?

That decision is long past. The censors asked for “corrections”, which we refused to make. They objected to so many things: our use of red, Lady M’s jewellery, the lynching scene, on and on and on in a never-ending run-around.

From my contact with them, from their extreme reactions, I believe the thing that’s shaken them to the core is none of these things. Yes, they fear Thaksin, but they also fear William Shakespeare. They’d never seen or heard Shakespeare before, that’s all. This must seem incredible to you. But imagine that you’ve never experienced Shakespeare in any shape or form (except perhaps Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’) and never in your own tongue, then suddenly you’re hit on the head with ‘Macbeth’ which, incredibly, is just like your own country. You’ve only ever heard straight-forward, predictable Thai dialogue, then suddenly you’re hit by Lady M, in Thai, but Shakespeare’s words, invoking evil spirits to enter her. Nothing in your life has prepared you for such an assault. It’s in verse but it’s totally natural, and oh so intense. Meanwhile the English subtitles appear, Shakespeare again, floating in and out like a moving Shakespearean graphic novel, emphasizing it still more that it’s the exact translation, no hanky-panky from me.

Perhaps because of our Buddhist background, Thai people tend to mistrust intensity; it’s just not good for your mental health. It’s obvious to me that it just blew their minds. They’d never heard words used like this before; the power and the intensity thrilled and terrified them. You can see this clearly in ‘Censor Must Die’. Manit is convinced that it doesn’t matter what we cut, they’d still feel threatened by it. The most-rewarding response I’ve ever received was from an economics professor after a screening at Chula University, who said he now understands why ‘farangs’ (white foreigners) enjoy Shakespeare. He could never see the point before.

For a non-Thai audience, I can easily remove the long talky ‘English scene’. I was tempted to remove it even before we shot it, since it’s extremely sensitive politically,  hard to do well and potentially boring: talking heads, a man weeping, discussion on the divine right of kings. Uncinematic and risky in every way. Who wants to touch that? But its relevance for the Thai audience cannot be denied so I couldn’t cut it with a good conscience, out of sheer cowardice. For the Thai audience, I can remove nothing without harming the integrity and impact of the film. Other Thai films have portrayed October 14 and October 6 events. The censors’ objection is not the real one. We are being discriminated against. They only latched onto that scene because, horrors, it’s the October 6 massacre!!!

 

14. Is the Censorship Board missing all of the irony of banning your film, which is all about the banning of Shakespeare’s play?

They are too fearful to care about irony.  Manit did point that out to them, but they didn’t care.

 

 

15. Finally, what is the current status of Censor Must Die? When will you hear more about Censorship Board’s decision?

The censors have been silent as the grave. They have until August 22nd (ten more days) to decide the fate of ‘Censors Must Die’, and may or may not summon us for questioning before they do. The ‘Boundary’ farce must tie their hands somewhat. It’s not going to be decided by them in any case. The current Minister of Culture is the husband of the then Minister of Culture (that’s how it works with the Thaksin regime), who looks none too good in the film. A summon is not a good sign, so there’s hope yet.

 

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Speaker’s Progress: Introduction

Friday, July 26th, 2013

The third installment of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy premiered in New York in 2011. The Speaker’s Progress used Twelfth Night as a starting point to explore events in the Middle East. The play transformed Shakespeare’s comedy into a satire on the political inertia of the Arab world, and a theatrical metaphor for the mechanisms of dissent.  The production was strongly coloured by the ‘Arab Spring’, the succession of revolts against established regimes that have begun to rise up across the Arab world. Al-Bassam comments:

A new history is finding its voice among the millions across the Arab world who stood up and continue to stand—and fall—for dignity and freedom after decades of shame and oppression. This play, forged at the cusp of these two eras, has the fortune—and the responsibility—to be one of its platforms.

In an unnamed Arab country theatres have been shut down and theatrical performance criminalized. From a lectern, a former theatre producer, played by Al-Bassam himself, explains to the audience that what he is presenting is not a play, but a reconstruction of a 1960s production based on the story of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The costumes and set resemble a scientific rather than an artistic context, with the actors wearing laboratory coats. Men and women remain at a distance from one another. An ominous camera sits in front of the stage, suggesting universal government surveillance.

The 1960s production of Twelfth Night, we understand, had the radical spirit of its time, especially in its irreverence toward moral and political authority.  We see parts of it parts of it in black-and-white film on a large screen onstage, and hear Shakespearean dialogue adapted to a radical contemporary agenda:

Music is the food of love and love is the blood of freedom and freedom is the mother of progress. . . . How can you transform a country if you don’t put women at its center?

The government-sponsored revival played out on stage tries to empty the performance of any radical sexual or political content. But the actors run into trouble, simply by having a woman dress as a man. Shakespearean drama becomes a metaphor for radical dissent.

The reconstruction is performed by eight actors who are also ‘not actors’, the Speaker emphasizes, but ‘envoys’ from the Tourist Board and the Council of Virtue. Initially the actors obediently deliver the official programme. Gradually they begin to deviate from the script, and wander into politically dangerous territory. They burst into song; women change into dresses and take off their head scarves; they cry ‘Freedom!’  People are arrested; voices are silenced; disobedience repressed. But the energy and humour of the Shakespearean drama continually explodes through the barriers of oppression. The Speakers Progress is Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Spring.

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit: Introduction

Friday, July 26th, 2013

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Shakespeare touched the Arab world astonishingly early. In 1608, during the 3rd voyage of the East India Company, on the island of Socotra at the entry to the Gulf of Aden, the crew of the Red Dragon staged a performance of Hamlet, a play then less than a decade old, and published only 5 years previously.  The ship’s captain William Keeling obviously shared Shakespearean interests with his patron (and major East India Company member) the Earl of Southampton (see Holderness and Loughrey, ‘Arabesque’, 2006).

Socotra is now an integral part of the Arab Republic of Yemen; and Hamlet needs of course no introduction. Shortly after the First World War, F.S. Boas conferred on the English Merchant Navy ‘the proud distinction of having been the pioneer in carrying Shakespearean drama into the uttermost ends of the earth’ (Boas, p. 95).  Yemen no longer seems quite so distant from the United Kingdom, but this example of Hamlet exported to the Middle East by agents of a nascent British Empire certainly confirms Michael Neill’s judgement that Shakespeare’s plays were ‘entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization’ (Neill, p. 168)

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Shakespeare re-entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893, and was immediately popular with local audiences, who had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness. Productions were based on translations derived from 18th century French versions of Shakespeare. Hence the play was radically adapted, with whole scenes deleted and songs introduced; with Hamlet making love to Ophelia in the language of Arab love poetry, and with all obscenity discreetly purged. Above all the play was converted from Shakespeare’s tragedy into a historical romance, in which Hamlet defeats his uncle, ascends the throne, and reigns with the Ghost’s blessing: ‘may you live a joyful life on earth, pardoned in heaven’ (translation by Tanius ‘Abdoh, quoted by Al-Shetawi, p. 44).  The ‘happy ending’ Hamlet of the French versions, though clearly shaped by Enlightenment views of Shakespeare, were actually more faithful to the story of Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus than was the Shakespearean tragedy, just as Nahum Tate’s notorious happy-ending King Lear restored the Lear-tale to its original romance form. In Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamlet flourished as a stage show, independently of textual scholarship, and appeared in radically revised, rewritten, and reconstructed adaptations. Early Arab Shakespeare shared this wide liberty of adaptation with the Restoration and 18th century theatres, where (as David Scott Kastan puts it):

On the stage … Shakespeare was not merely modernized, but aggressively modified to satisfy the expectations of the fashionable audiences that filled the theatres … turned … into a contemporary playwright, at once modern and highbrow, for the theatrical environment in which he was now performed …   (Kastan, p. 14).

This ungenerous view of the Restoration theatre is echoed in Mahmoud Al-Shetawi’s harsh judgement of early Arab Shakespeare: ‘Overall, the early stage productions of Hamlet were crude, vulgarizing Shakespeare’s masterpiece in order to please the illiterate audience’ (Shetawi, p. 46). Alexander Pope said much the same of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Free adaptation from French models continued to be the norm in Arab cultures:  the translation of Hamlet made by Khalil Mutran from the French (1916), in which Hamlet kills Claudius and ascends the throne, remained popular in Egypt for many years.

Shakespeare’s absorption into Middle Eastern culture was not therefore by any means a simple process of imperialist transmission and passive colonial reception. ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Nadia Al-Bahar ‘was transplanted into Arab soil’ (Al-Bahar, p. 13).  ‘Transplanted’ indicates not a simple exchange but a cross-cultural migration across borders, in which the artefact becomes rooted in different soil, and there adapts itself to the local climate and conditions. Hamlet has been ‘assimilated’, said Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ (p. 60).

Hamlet was continuously produced in Egypt from the late 19th century onwards, in several different translations. This performance tradition did not on the other hand produce a consistent ‘Arab’ interpretation of Hamlet. ‘The play’, writes Al-Shetawi, ‘has always been known to the Arab audience and frequently staged in the Arab world’; but it has also ‘always been adapted to suit the conditions of local Arab theatres and native culture’. Appropriations have for example been sharply divided between heroic and anti-heroic Hamlets: sometime in the late 1970s, Hamlet the romantic freedom fighter of the postcolonial tradition gave way to a series of Hamlets disarmed, impotent and emotionally crippled by the weight of their destiny. These divergences can be seen in  productions and adaptations from Egypt, Syria and Tunisia: Hamlet wakes Up Late (Syria 1976); A Theatre Company Found  a Theatre and Dramatized Hamlet (Tunisia and Jordan 1984); Dance of the Scorpions (Egypt 1989); Forget Hamlet/Ophelia’s Window (Egypt 1994). All these plays deploy technical devices to challenge the norms of conventional theatrical representation; all are sceptical about the power of words to achieve change. Claudius is invariably the powerful Arab despot, while Hamlet is the ‘Arab intellectual, a figure who is commonly portrayed as impotent when it comes to responding positively to the miserable conditions of his country’ (Al-Shetawi, p. 48).

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This complex tradition was one of the starting-points for Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit, first performed, in Arabic with English surtitles, as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002, where it was awarded the Fringe First Award for excellence and innovation in writing and directing. It was subsequently presented at the 14th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, in September 2002, where it won Best Performance and Best Director Awards. Subsequently it has played at the Riverside Studios in London (March 2004), the Singapore Arts Festival (June 2005), and at Elsinore Castle in Denmark (August 2005).

The work had previously been through various adaptations of the Shakespeare text, from 2001 onwards, performed by the Zaoum Theatre Company: Hamlet in Kuwait, performed in Kuwait (2001), and The Arab League Hamlet, performed at a festival in Tunisia (2001). The earlier versions were both adaptations of the Shakespeare text.  The Al-Hamlet Summit by contrast jettisoned Shakespeare’s language and rewrote Hamlet into modern English with a strongly Arabic flavour, producing what the author called a ‘cross-cultural construction’ (Al-Bassam 2003). Al-Bassam produced and performed versions in both Arabic and English. This edition for the first time makes available a definitive text of The Al-Hamlet Summit in both English and Arabic.

Al-Bassam’s play maps a Middle Eastern political tragedy onto the template of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The key characters carry Shakespearean names, and occupy parallel situations within their own modern Middle Eastern world. Hamlet’s father, the old ruler, has been poisoned, and his position usurped by Claudius his brother, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. Gertrude and Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes all play roles comparable to those of their Shakespearean namesakes, but redomesticated into an Islamic Arab context.  The regime is threatened, as Denmark is threatened at the beginning of Hamlet, by Fortinbras’s troops lining the borders, and internally by the ‘People’s Liberation Brigade’, which has been distributing leaflets claiming Old Hamlet was assassinated.  Where Claudius in Shakespeare’s play resolves the Norwegian threat by diplomacy, Claudius in Al-Hamlet responds with violence and atrocity:

POLONIUS: I’ve got 300 men working round the clock gathering up the leaflets.

CLAUDIUS: Forget the leaflets, burn the townships, all of them – I want them all burnt by dawn.

Fortinbras’s army is backed by the West, ‘armed with millions of dollars of foreign equipment’. Behind the suggestions of foreign intervention lies the West’s greed for Arab oil (Claudius is obsessively concerned to protect the pipelines from sabotage).

In a scene which is the equivalent of Hamlet 3.3, instead of displaying remorse and praying for forgiveness, Claudius voices what is virtually a religion of oil and dollars:

Oh God: Petro dollars.  Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image, I seek guidance from you the All Seeing, the All Knowing Master of Worlds, Prosperity and Order …

At the end of the play Fortinbras clearly intends to sustain this policy and this faith: ‘It won’t be easy, terrorism is not yet defeated, but the pipeline will be completed within a year’.

The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer, who spoke English in the Arabic version, and was played by a woman in the English version. The Arms Dealer converses with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and finally Fortinbras.  S/he will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents.  S/he remains in place at the end: ‘As the lights begin to fade, the Arms Dealer enters and walks downstage incredibly slowly.

Just as in Hamlet Claudius recognises that the real enemy of his regime lies within, so Claudius and Polonius in The Al-Hamlet Summit are vigilant against signs of domestic subversion. Opposition and dissent are read as fundamentalist terrorism. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia the ‘apocalyptic imagery’, the ‘yearning for violent and comprehensive change to the world order’ which are naturally linked with ‘terrorist activities’. Both Hamlet and Ophelia become Islamicised, adopting traditional Muslim costume; and both become from the perspective of the ruling regime ‘terrorists’. Ophelia is associated, as Yvette Khoury has observed, with the Palestinian cause (Khoury 2005), and dies as a suicide bomber; Hamlet (who adopts ‘shortened muslim dress and long beard’) shoots Polonius, and at the end of the play is seen leading the liberation army.

CLAUDIUS: Just two hours ago, our forces began an attack on terrorist positions belonging to Hamlet and his army.  These continue as I speak.  This conflict began when Hamlet laid siege to our democracy, our values and our people through a brutal series of kidnappings and terrorist bombings that have killed many innocent victims and shocked the world community.

The equation between Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist militant is one that Hamlet internalises. This is the equivalent of Hamlet’s revenge, a vindictive fantasy bloodbath explicitly expressed in the language of the Holy Q’uran:

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger… I will clean this land, I will make it pure, I understand, I do understand, but I will cleanse it for you, I will prepare it for your return, even if it costs me my life, I will clean it, I will purge it, blood will flow, I will make blood flow in torrents, I swear in my father’s name, I swear in the name of Allah.

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Where does this adaptation sit vis-à-vis both Arab Shakespeare and dominant theatrical interpretations of the play in the West?  Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is not the passive figure of recent Arab plays, but rather recalls  the hero Hamlets of the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways Al-Bassam has by-passed the previous two decades, and reconnected with an older Arabic tradition. The Al-Hamlet Summit is divided into sections corresponding to the Islamic times of prayer, which seems to echo Riyad ‘Ismat’s 1973 Damascus production, where the play was divided into three parts – huzn (sorrow), al-thawra (rebellion), al-shahadah (martyrdom) (see Al-Shetawi, p 48).

On the other hand the figure of the Islamic militant which Al-Bassam’s Hamlet grows to resemble, cannot be so easily identified with the heroes of a previous century, though he is certainly an active crusader against corruption and a militant for justice:

HAMLET: The real enemy is here, in the palace, amongst us.

LAERTES: There will be no nation to fight over unless we defeat Fortinbras.

HAMLET: We’ll have no nation to lose unless we destroy the rot that devours us from within.

Hamlet becomes wholly the man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence:

HAMLET: … the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword … No more words … Words have been killed, they died on our tongues and in our ears, words are dead. We cannot us them anymore, now we must speak with our flesh.

On the other hand, although Hamlet’s death is a significant gesture of martyrdom (‘I do not approximate God/I come closer to him/in giving of myself’), it is only one detail in the final scene of universal carnage, where a failed coup-d’etat, the converging of Western power and Fortinbras’s assumption of authority are all presented with the excited objectivity of a media event. If Hamlet does ‘clean this land’ it is only to create an empty space into which Fortinbras can move his troops. Islamic militancy has not provided a solution, only a dramatic denouement:

FORTINBRAS: I have biblical claims upon this land, it is empty and barren and my presence here is a fact that has not been invented.

 
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Insofar as there was a separate, local Arab tradition of adapting and appropriating Shakespeare, Al-Bassam’s work is obviously part of it. But by writing also in English, Al-Bassam has also chosen to work partially inside an Anglophone culture (or set of cultures), which is, as Michael Neill phrases it, ‘saturated with Shakespeare’: ‘Our ways of thinking about such basic issues as nationality, gender and racial difference are inescapably inflected by his writing’ (Neill, p. 184). Al-Bassam has explicitly confirmed that the work is ‘cross-cultural’, speaking from an Arab perspective but also to an English-speaking audience.

The script was written from a contemporary Arab perspective. It carries many concerns and issues of today’s Arab world and its relationship to the West. At the same time, it addresses these concerns to an English-speaking audience. The cross-cultural construction of the piece creates a sense of implication in the affairs of the other. (Dent 2003)

This sounds like the cultural ‘hybridity’ that occurs when an imperial discourse penetrates a post-colonial culture and merges with local and native materials to produce a synthetic fusion. But The Al-Hamlet Summit does not fit so easily into this or any of the available models provided by post-colonial criticism. Any writer who so deliberately places his work on a cultural or national margin, or seeks to work across territorial and historical borders, is seeking a difficult and precarious balance, and is likely to find himself challenged from all sides, as Al-Bassam himself confirms:

For some The Al-Hamlet Summit was the work of a Westernised traitor that falsely approximated between Islam and the propagation of violence. For others, and I’m happy to say the majority and particularly the young, The Al-Hamlet Summit gave vital and much-needed expression to today’s Arab concerns and presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form (Al-Bassam, 2003).

Even Al-Bassam’s admirers have found themselves questioning his position. Peter J. Smith (2004) asks:

Is it not the case that the portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia as Muslim fundamentalists and suicide bombers will have the effect of exacerbating – even promoting – the racist assumptions typified by the tabloid press? (74-5).

But then Smith questions his own authority to make such judgements: ‘Who am I as a non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking Englishman to tell Sulayman Al-Bassam how to write and direct his adaptation?’ (Smith, p. 75).

These critical responses are all however testimony to The Al-Hamlet Summit’s capacity to generate dialogue across borders, dialogue that challenges and questions and enters reservations, but remains fundamentally an international conversation. As such it offers an alternative, an urgently imperative alternative, to mutual misunderstanding and reciprocal violence. What Al-Bassam called the ‘cultural symbiosis’ manifest in the play was clearly designed to form a ground of dialogue between East and West. The move from the earlier versions, which were adaptations of the Shakespeare text, to a more contemporary form which allowed for the fuller expression of Arab experience, was clearly critical in this process.

6
The writing of The Al-Hamlet Summit  began with the experience of globalisation:

I was in Cairo with an exiled Iraqi theatre director and a Palestinian theatre troupe from Ramallah drinking coffee in the bazaar when a boy came running past us, chanting: ’Al-Kull murtabit / Am-reeca qarabit’ (’Everything is linked /

America just got closer…’). It was September the 11th and news from New York was just beginning to stream across the television screens. In all the confusion of that night, I remember the words of one of the Palestinian actors: ‘The hell in New York today will bring hell to Ramallah tomorrow’ (Al-Bassam 2003).

9/11 is the supreme instance of globalisation, viewed here from a range of different perspectives. The boy’s chant seems to celebrate with a certain triumphalism the shrinking globe and the ease with which Islamic terrorism can reach to the very heart of America’s political and economic institutions. The Palestinian actor thinks ruefully of the consequences, immediate reprisal not from America but from Israel, and against the Palestinians. Global events know no barriers of time and space.

In an article on 9/ll British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments exactly. 9/11 ‘brought home the true meaning of globalisation’:

In this globalised world, once chaos and strife have got a grip on a region or a country, trouble is soon exported.… It was, after all, a dismal camp in the foothills of Afghanistan that gave birth to the murderous assault on the sparkling heart of New York’s financial centre (Blair 119).

This is the negative side of globalisation. But from Blair’s perspective, globalisation also provides the potential solution to such problems. Blair reflects that the West can ‘use the power of community to bring the benefits of globalisation to all’ (121) in the form of truly universal values: ‘values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society… Values that are “universal and worthy of respect in every culture”’ (122). The vehicle for disseminating these values globally is economic penetration: increased trade flows, and greater involvement of the private sector in public finance (121).

Al-Bassam clearly intended the The Al-Hamlet Summit as an intervention into this fraught conversation:

The globalisation of politics is deceptive. Every Arab knows that George Bush said ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ and everyone in the West now knows that Saddam is bad. This is globalisation of politics, but it does very little to increase dialogue between cultures. All it does it promote vacuous ‘world views’. This is where culture and theatre become vital. They permit complexity and difference and they permit the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges the accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that power very well (Dent).

Globalisation is not only inevitable but desirable, since it is the only route to mutual understanding and a stable world. Everything really is linked, as the Arab boy recognised. The problem is how to develop those links without conflict and violence; without the supremacy of the West; without the suppression of alternative cultures and consequent global homogenisation. In this process theatre has a critical role to play:

The events of 9-11 and the political fallout since have drawn to light the inextricable intertwining of the fates of Arab peoples and those of the West.
Everything is linked and the much-touted ‘clash of civilizations’ simplifies and tries to obscure what is a complex series of overlapping and interpenetrating cultural realities that are tied together in fatal symbiosis (Al-Bassam 2003).

This is quite a different approach from Tony Blair’s vision of a universalisation of enlightenment values of liberal democracy via the spread of free-market capitalism. Though he does not speak for Islamic fundamentalism or terrorist violence, Al-Bassam shows them as the inevitable consequences of an alliance between native Arab despotism and the economic machinations of the West. In Shakespeare Hamlet is driven reluctantly towards revenge, and in The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet and Ophelia seem to have no option but the bloody and suicidal course they undertake.

7
Between 1608, when Shakespeare’s lines echoed emptily from the deck of the Red Dragon around the Arab world, and 2001, when Al-Bassam’s adaptation found a common acceptance across both East and West, empires rose and fell. But one thing changed. In 1608 Shakespeare was virtually talking to himself. In 2001 Shakespeare was the substance of a global conversation. ‘Everything is linked’ in the globalised world, either through violence or through an acceptance of reciprocal ‘implication’. The Al-Hamlet Summit opens a conversation over the ground of our reconciliation.

Works Cited

I am very grateful to Margaret Litvin, Yvette Khoury, Peter J. Smith and Sulayman Al-Bassam for providing material used in the writing of this introduction.

 

Al-Bahar, Nadia, 1976. ‘Shakespeare in Early Arabic Adaptations’, Shakespeare Translation, 3.

Al-Bassam, Sulayman, 2003. ‘Introduction to the publication of The Al-Hamlet Summit’ in Theatre Forum Magazine, 22 ( Winter/Spring).

Blair, Tony, 2002. ‘The Power of World Community’, in Mark Leonard, ed. Re-Ordering the World. London: Foreign Policy Centre.

Boas, Frederick S., 1923. Shakespeare and the Universities and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama. New York: Appleton.

Dent, Shirley, 2003. ‘Interview: Sulayman Al-Bassam’, Culture Wars. N.p. [Available at http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2003-01/albassam.htm] [Accessed 11 November 2005]

Holderness, Graham and Bryan Loughrey, 2006. ‘Arabesque: Shakespeare and Globalisation’. Essays and Studies: Globalisation and its Discontents. English Association/Boydell and Brewer.

Kastan, David Scott, 1999. Shakespeare After Theory. London: Routledge.

Khoury, Yvette, 2005. ‘”Glaring Stare”: Middle Eastern Presentation of Ophelia’. Paper presented to the Modern Language Association, 2005 Annual Convention, seminar on ‘Gender in Arabic Interpretations of Shakespeare’, Washington DC.

Litvin, Margaret, 2005. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit in the Arab Hamlet Tradition’. Paper presented  to the American Comparative Literature Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, Pennsylvania State University.

Loomba, Ania  and Martin Orkin, eds, 1998. Post-colonial Shakespeares. London: Routledge.

Neill, Michael, 1998. ‘Postcolonial Shakespeare? Writing away from the centre’, in Loomba and Orkin (1998) 164-185.

Smith, Peter J., 2004. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism’. Shakespeare Bulletin, 22:4, 65-78.

Arabesque: Shakespeare and Globalisation

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

[Originally published in Globalization and its Discontents: Writing the Global Culture. Essays and Studies, English Association and D.S. Brewer, Cambridge , pp. 24-46. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

By Graham Holderness and Brian Loughrey

1. Shakespeare Comes to Arabia

On April Fool’s Day 1607 the crew of the Red Dragon weighed anchor off the coast of southern England and set sail into global history –mercantile, cultural, and imperial. The flagship of the Third Voyage of the East India Company, the Dragon (as it was almost invariably known) was under the command of William Keeling, who inspired the trust of the Company and his crew, according to the Minutes of the Court of the East India Company 1614, through ‘good command of his men abroad (whom they loved and respected for his kind usage of them)’ (Strachan and Penrose 31). The Dragon was accompanied by the Hector under the command of William Hawkins and — nominally at least — by the Consent, although her commander, David Middleton, had for unexplained reasons left ahead of his companions and later rendezvous proved elusive.

Keeling’s instructions were to lead his fleet to Bantam (the first English trading ‘factory’ to be established by the Company in the Far East at Java) by way of Socotra, Aden, and Surat, the principal port of the largely land-locked Mughal empire. The purpose of the voyage was threefold. To identify additional potential markets for English broadcloth (the Company was perennially optimistic that the inhabitants of the tropics could be persuaded to wear woollen clothes). To explore the prospect of shortening extended trade routes to the South China seas by obtaining spices from the entrepots of Aden and Surat. And, ideally, to establish a ‘triangular trade’: selling broadcloth for cash around the ports of the Arabian sea; purchasing with the proceeds cotton cloth in Surat and the Coromandel coast of India for export to Java; exchanging there cotton for spices through the Company’s Bantam factory, in the process boosting economic activity sufficiently to justify investment in defences against local and Dutch predation; and returning finally to London laden with hopefully profitable cargoes of spices. The Third Voyage thus carried with it a vast array of woollen commodities; a second-in-command, William Hawkins, with diplomatic credentials who was sufficiently fluent in Turkish, the lingua franca of the largely Islamic ruling classes of the region, to undertake trade negotiations; and sufficient firepower both to solace friend and deter foe.

Having missed the trade winds, progress proved painfully slow. By August the Dragon and Hector had reached only the West Coast of Africa where they found themselves becalmed off the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone. Keeling’s enlightened concern for the welfare of his crew was remarkably demonstrated during this enforced leisure. To maintain morale and keep his men from what he called ‘idlenes and unlawfull games, or sleepe’ (Rundall 231) he encouraged theatrical entertainments and, in the event, the crew of the Dragon gave a landmark performance of Hamlet before an audience that included not only officers but a visiting African dignitary. As far as we are aware, this was the first performance of a Shakespeare play outside of Europe; the first performance of a Shakespeare play on board a ship; the first amateur performance of a Shakespeare play; and presumably (given that the visiting dignitary understood Portuguese but not English) the first performance of a Shakespeare play to be translated. Nor was the repertoire of the Dragon limited to a single play: a little later the crew provided a command performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II while Keeling entertained his second-in-command Hawkins to dinner.[1]

After further frustratingly slow progress, in late April 1608 the Dragon arrived off the shores of Socotra, a safe haven commanding entry to the Gulf of Aden.  Then a desolate island noted principally for its strategic position (which had led to its brief occupation by the Portuguese in the early 1500s) and as a source of aloes, Socotra is now an integral part of the Arab Republic of Yemen, and a thriving Eco-tourism destination. Here during an extended stay Keeling learnt rudimentary Arabic, and the theatrical talents of the Dragon’s crew were again exercised with a reprise performance of Hamlet. Shakespeare thus entered the Arab world through performances enacted by servants of a nascent nautical empire, directed by officers of a capitalist enterprise engaged in bitter trade rivalry with European competitors, and before a local audience that was in all probability either uncomprehending or entirely absent.

The members of the Third Voyage took various paths from Socotra. The Dragon loaded nearly a ton of aloes and sailed direct to Bantam, encountering strong opposition from Dutch forces intent on preserving their trade monopoly. Keeling’s perseverance however earned the respect of the Company’s Directors and in 1615 he was reappointed as Commander of its Fifth Voyage with plenipotentiary authority to implement far-reaching reforms to the Company’s by then extensive organisational presence in the Far East, establishing an administrative regime that subsequently underpinned an indirect colonial rule. Keeling retired in 1617 to become Captain of Cowes Castle, a sinecure almost certainly in the gift of the Governor of the Isle of Wight, Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton (Strachan and Penrose 6). This connection might well explain why Keeling had in his library, as early 1607, copies of more than one Shakespeare play.

By the time Keeling set sail from Socotra, Middleton had already begun his return journey from Java, having purchased a cargo of cloves for £3,000 that would be sold on the London market for £36, 000.  The stupendous profit margin was critical in persuading the largely risk-averse directors of the East India Company to invest heavily in developing the Far East market. Middleton became one of their most influential officers in the venture.

After his departure from Socotra Hawkins followed his specific commission, setting sail for Surat in order to ‘proceed to the Court of the Great Mogul at Agra, and there to present his credentials’ to the Emperor Akbar as agent of the Company in the hope that trading privileges in Western India might be secured (Strachan and Penrose 22). The negotiations proved tortuous in the extreme but eventually led to a successful treaty. The Battle of Plessy, which effectively established de facto English rule in India, was ostensibly fought to protect the terms of Hawkins’s treaty.

The East India Company returned to Socotra in 1834, annexing the island in order to protect trade routes to India, the jewel in the British imperial crown.

2. Will and the World

In 1923 F.S. Boas recalled and celebrated this event in the accents of high imperialism: ‘At a time when our mercantile marine has been covering itself with glory on every sea, it is an act of pietas to reclaim for it the proud distinction of having been the pioneer in carrying Shakespearean drama into the uttermost ends of the earth’ (Boas 95).  In the 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of language programmes entitled ‘The Story of English’.  The series was announced in the Radio Times by means of a spectacular cover design showing a version of the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare, with the familiar exaggeratedly domed forehead; and printed across the forehead, a map of the world. The caption read: ‘From Will to the World: the great adventure which transformed the island speech of Shakespeare into the world English of 1,000 million’.

The effigy of this linguistic imperialism was therefore the head, and by implication the mind, of Shakespeare as a microcosm of ‘the great Globe it selfe’ (Shakespeare 33). The linguistic achievements of that microcosmic globe-shaped brain have imprinted themselves on the global map, facilitating the universalisation of English around the world. This was only possible, however, because the Shakespearean mind was capable of conceiving and mapping such a global image. The world can know itself in Shakespeare because Shakespeare knew the world. Mary Thomas Crane traces this process from micro- to macrocosm via the physiology of the brain:

Portraits of Shakespeare emphasize the large dome of his forehead, accentuated by a receding hairline; he must have had a brain….And if Shakespeare’s brain functioned as most normal brains do today, then the formation of a sentence… probably involved activity first in the occipital, posterior superior parietal, and posterior inferior temporal lobes, central to the generation of mental images, and then in the perisylvian cortex (those regions of the brain located near the sylvian fissure, also called the lateral sulcus), where the images… would be associated with appropriate words and formed into a grammatically acceptable sentence.The construction of the sentence would probably have involved the formation and linking of several ‘mental spaces’ or temporary areas of knowledge … that could be mapped onto a more abstract conceptual space (Crane14-15).

‘What a forehead!’, as A.L. Rowse exclaimed. ‘What a brain!’ (Rowse 5-6). Here the creative functioning of the spherical brain in that rounded skull produces a mental ‘mapping’ that aligns Will and world, Shakespeare and the globe.[2]

The naming of the theatre most familiarly associated with Shakespeare’s dramatic work as the ‘Globe’ compounds this identification between mind and world, globe and skull. Between the microcosmic globe-shaped head and the thick rotundity of the planet lies the circular hollow of the Globe Theatre, the medium through which this global vision was able to print itself into universal consciousness. The ‘wooden O’ of the Globe took its shape from that of the world, even boasting a ‘heaven’ in its overhanging penthouse roof. But it functioned as an empty space, the tabula rasa on which images of the world could be printed; a vacant womb, impregnated by poetic genius to deliver a theatrical world. Over the stage of the Globe passed a phantasmagoric representation of the globe itself, ‘Asia of the one side’ as Sir Philip Sidney complained, ‘and Africa of the other’ (Sidney 65). The round skull of the poet mapped the vast known world within this concentrated space of theatrical representation.

The successful Elizabethan theatres did more however than show the world its own features. The construction of purpose-built playhouses in liminal but accessible districts of London created the possibility of a ‘national theatre’, which then automatically became the site of an international cosmopolitan economy of cultural exchange. Foreign visitors gravitated towards these palaces of entertainment in the 1580s exactly as they do now. As we have shown elsewhere, the ‘tourism’ dimension of the Shakespeare industry has a history coterminous with the origins of the plays themselves (Holderness 2001 133-6).  Much of the most significant evidence in existence about the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres originates from the recorded observations of travellers.  The only visual documentary record of an early Elizabethan public playhouse, the Swan, is the familiar sketch made by the Dutchman, Johannes de Witt.  The recorded observations of tourists provide much more information about the theatres than any home-grown, native evidence:  the Germans Samuel Kiechel, Thomas Platter, Paul Henzner; the Venetian Busino, who visited the Fortune in 1617; the French ambassador who took his wife to the Globe to see Pericles in 1607; the Spanish ambassador who went to the Fortune in 1621, and afterwards banqueted with the players; and a stream of titled dignitaries who patronised the playhouses, such as Prince Lewis Frederick of Württemberg, Prince Otto of Hesse-Cassel, Prince Lewis of Anhalt-Cöthen and Duke Philip Julius of Stettin-Pomerania (Chambers 367-9).

An important consequence of the establishing from the 1570s of a centralised metropolitan theatrical profession, occupying purpose-built theatres around London, was the provision of a specific cultural venue to which tourists might be drawn.  As the theatre became incorporated, notwithstanding complex and pervasive conflicts of interest, into the new political and cultural hegemony of the metropolis, so the drama became a prestigious possession of the new national state; as Thomas Heywood testified:  ‘Playing is an ornament to the city, which strangers of all nations, repairing hither, report of in their countries, beholding them here with some admiration:  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any city of Christendom, more than in London?’ (Heywood sig. F3). This partly explains why the Elizabethan drama, especially the plays of Shakespeare, was so strikingly international. Shakespeare’s plays are always set elsewhere, in time or space, never (with one exception) in contemporary England. But internationalism is paradoxically a way of defining, even of constituting, the nation, characterising Tudor England over against all the foreign languages and influences that penetrated and populated its cosmopolitan stage (Holderness 1992 115-29).
The system of correspondences between these various spherical objects is perfectly rounded, complete. The Shakespearean skull, working through the theatrical Globe, produces the great globe itself. And the people of the globe flock to the Globe to see and hear themselves represented.

3. Postcolonial Shakespeare

It was a beautiful model while it lasted. But this great chain of being, linking the smooth creative head, the fertile rotundity of the theatre and the unified perfection of the represented world, has been thoroughly fractured on the anvil of modern Shakespeare studies. The composite brain has been split into fissured subjectivities; the round theatre exposed as a symptomatic product of Tudor cultural nationalism; and the Shakespearean world-map torn up to reveal a globe ravaged by empire and its legacy of poverty, disease and war. These changes have been brought about by developments in poststructuralist, Marxist, feminist and psychoanalytic criticism. But it is specifically postcolonial analysis that has shown how, over the previous two centuries, Anglo-American criticism consolidated an imperial Shakespeare, one whose works testified to the superiority of the civilised races, and could be used to establish and maintain colonial authority (Loomba and Orkin 1). The Radio Times’s innocent view of the ‘adventure’ that turned English from a parochial island tongue into the ‘world language of 1,000 million’ masks a much more violent process involving subjugation of native peoples, extirpation or annexation of native cultures, and the imposition through administrative and educational systems of Anglocentric norms and ideologies.

The various forms of colonial response have been well studied and well documented. Subjugated cultures could engage in imitation and mimicry, assisting the domestication of a foreign power. Or native intellectuals could challenge colonial culture in favour of their own native literatures, initially by exposing the conscious or unconscious racist content of imperial fictions. When in 1975 Chinua Achebe declared that Joseph Conrad was ‘a bloody racist’ (Achebe 8), postcolonial criticism was born. Later trends extended these possibilities by for instance re-reading Shakespeare from a colonised viewpoint, and finding there comfort and support for the oppressed; or producing versions of Shakespeare that in some way merge imperial with native materials, constituting what has been called cultural ‘hybridity’. Postcolonial criticism also re-evaluated the early modern period in which empire had its origins, and demonstrated that colonial discourse was no mere passive backdrop to Shakespearean drama but rather one of its key discursive contexts (Barker and Hulme 198). In other words, these plays were immersed in the formation of empire before they became its tools, ‘entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization’ (Neill 168).

The final outcome of this now familiar process is an Anglophone culture (or set of cultures), which is, as Michael Neill phrases it, ‘saturated with Shakespeare’ Neill’s conclusion is that this saturation is constitutive and inescapable. ‘Our ways of thinking about such basic issues as nationality, gender and racial difference are inescapably inflected by his writing’ (Neill 184). Yet if the Shakespeare dispersed by linguistic imperialism around the globe is also a Shakespeare wholly or partially ‘hybridised’ by contact with other languages and cultures, then is it still the same old imperial Shakespeare? Or is it possible, as Dennis Kennedy puts it, that ‘ almost from the start of his importance as the idealized English dramatist there have been other Shakespeares, Shakespeares not dependent on English and often at odds with it’ (Kennedy 2); that Shakespeare ‘goes native’ every time he crosses a geographic or national border, and ‘may thus be construed as the repositioned product of a complex of social, cultural and political factors that variously combine under the pressure of colonial, postcolonial and more narrowly national imperatives’ (Cartelli 1)?

4. Global Shakespeare

This question takes on particular force as the language of the ‘postcolonial’ is replaced by the language of ‘globalisation’. Globalisation is a contested term. In the definitions of some social scientists, globalisation entails a subsumption of the nation into international political and economic structures, and a corresponding diminution of the power of the national state in favour of international governmental organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union or the World Trade Organisation, and transnational corporations. In economic terms, globalisation is defined as ‘a process of emergence of global product markets and global organisation of production’ (Perraton 672). Free trade areas reduce the regulatory authority of the state over economic activities; and increased mobility of capital and labour, with corporations relocating production to cheaper locations, triggers the mass migration of workers across borders. Culturally globalisation is considered to produce homogenisation of both production and exchange. Electronic communications render borders easily permeable by global knowledge and information. As Liam Connell puts it:

These processes of political, economic, social and media convergence combine to paint a picture of a world in which traditional political structures are in decline, where the private sector has an increasingly influential role and where social, economic and hence cultural practice is increasingly homogenised. (Connell 80)

Globalisation is seen alternately as the beneficial universalisation of the capitalist system, and with it economic opportunity, liberal democracy and enlightenment values; or as the continuance of imperialism and colonialism by more subtle methods. As long ago as 1976 Raymond Williams anticipated this difficulty:

If imperialism, as normally defined in late nineteenth-century England, is primarily a political system in which colonies are governed from an imperial centre, for economic but also for other reasons held to be important, then the subsequent grant of independence or self-government to these colonies can be described as … ‘the end of imperialism’. On the other hand if imperialism is understood primarily as an economic system of external investment and the penetration and control of markets and sources of raw materials, political changes in the status of colonies or former colonies will not greatly affect description of the continuing economic system as imperialist. (Williams159-60)

In this definition what is now widely called ‘globalisation’ is nothing more than a protraction of economic imperialism beyond the demise of imperialism’s political and military institutions. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, using a similar Marxist terminology, explicitly define globalisation in this way:

Colonialism, the conquest and direct control of other peoples’ lands, is a particular phase in the history of imperialism, which is now best understood as the globalisation of the capitalist mode of production, its penetration of previously non-capitalist regions of the world, and destruction of pre- or non-capitalist forms of social organisation. (Williams and Chrisman 2)

Is global Shakespeare then still imperial Shakespeare? Has the Shakespeare myth simply extended itself into what Bourdieu (Bourdieu 38) called the ‘justificatory myth’ of globalisation?

5. Postcolonial Hamlet

Just as feminist criticism of Shakespeare initially targeted those plays that answered most readily to its preoccupations and priorities (The Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra), so postcolonial criticism has naturally favoured plays with broader horizons and a window onto the wider world (The Tempest, Othello). Hamlet will seem immediately resistant to global reading: resolutely Northern European, incandescently white, a story straight from the Scandinavian Viking roots of Englishness. A tale, one might almost say, using D. H. Lawrence’s terminology, of ‘The white races, having the arctic north behind them, the vast abstraction of ice and snow’ (Lawrence 159).

Modern adaptations of Hamlet reinforce this perception of Eurocentric insularity. In John Updike’s novelistic ‘prequel’ Gertrude and Claudius (2001), the physical whiteness of Horwendil (Old Hamlet) represents the dullness and conventionality of an insular warrior culture that stifles Gertrude, and exposes her to the seductions of Feng (Claudius).  Feng is cosmopolitan and travelled, suave and courtly, a soldier of fortune rather than a pillar of the state. He is Heathcliff-dark against his brother’s northern whiteness (like Othello, he woos Gertrude with tales of the dangers he had passed); associated with Mediterranean adventures and Provençal poetry; and an eloquently seductive hedonist beside the stiffly conventional husband.  The Nordic whiteness of Scandinavian culture is contrasted, in very Lawrentian terms, with the dark vigour and energy of the South. Claudius is an outsider who trails with him an ambience of otherness, and as such proves irresistibly attractive to Gertrude.

Similarly, when Jacques Derrida wrote of Hamlet, he imagined the haunted castle of Elsinore as the ‘old Europe’, which Marx saw as haunted by the spectre of communism: ‘It is always nightfall along the “ramparts” on the battlements of an old Europe at war. With itself and with the other’ (Derrida 14). For Derrida the scene is automatically Marx’s ‘Europe’, not mediaeval Denmark or Jacobean England, since his parallel draws in part on Paul Valéry’s 1919 essay ‘La crise de l’esprit’, which imagines a ‘European Hamlet’ surveying the continent in the immediate aftermath of the First World War:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousand of spectres. But he is an intellectual Hamlet. He meditates on the life and death of truths. His ghosts are all the objects of our controversies; his remorse is all the titles of our glory.… If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – ‘Whose was it?’ – This one was Lionardo… and this other skull is that of Liebnitz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them!… Will he cease to be himself? (Valéry in Derrida 5).

The vista from those displaced ‘battlements’ is the Europe of 1919, a waste land populated by millions of ghosts, littered with innumerable skulls.  The Danish ‘prison’ of Hamlet becomes the fortress of European empire, picking over its dead white bones, perpetually at war with itself and with the other.

Hamlet is a play that seems to trade in whiteness, especially theatrically: ghosts, white faces in the darkness, the pallor of melancholy, the bleached candour of the exhumated skull. Classic monochrome film versions such as Olivier’s or Kozintsev’s reinforce this chiaroscuro reputation. And yet paradoxically this is the play of all plays that has the largest pretensions to universality, ‘directly valid for all relations within a particular situation, and at least indirectly valid for all relations of the same type’ (Hallward xxi). It is understood to universalise the experiences of revenge, bereavement, alienation; to portray images of fundamental human emotions such as mother-love, father-hate, the desire not to be. Read as a classic formulation of the Freudian Oedipus complex, Hamlet can be viewed as a repository of universal human truth, transcending all boundaries of race, ethnicity and culture.

6. Hamlet Black and White

In a fascinating document prefiguring Shakespearean globalisation, the psychoanalytic study by Wulf Sachs of the African John Chavafambira, the tragedy of Hamlet is represented as the tragedy of every race, colour and creed: ‘I discovered’, says Sachs in Black Hamlet, ‘that the manifestations of insanity, in its form, content, origin, and causation, are identical in both natives and Europeans’ (Sachs 11). John believed that his father, who was a ‘nganga’ or healer, was murdered by his own brother. John has dreams in which he sleeps with his mother (179).  Like Hamlet, John possesses a conscious desire to revenge a father’s murder, and in both cases the murderer is the uncle (180).

Claudius has committed in Hamlet’s eyes two crimes: the killing of Hamlet’s father and his marrying Hamlet’s mother – crimes which the psychoanalyst has proved to exist in the fantasies of childhood. Thus the reality has fulfilled Hamlet’s forbidden and successfully repressed desires, and this is the cause of his tragic fate.

Now, the situation which occurs in Hamlet is common to all humanity, and this is the primary reason why Shakespeare’s tragedy appeals to men of all races and nations. In Hamlet, Shakespeare, with the intuition of genius, penetrated the depths of man’s innermost conflicts and illustrated in an unprecedented and unexcelled manner the tragic outcome of such conflicts (177).

Shakespeare’s tragedy then, despite apparent cultural differences, is truly global, ‘common to all humanity’ (177): ‘Hamletism is a universal phenomenon’ (176).

Sachs’s work has naturally been viewed from very different perspectives. To argue in the 1930s that black and white psychology were indistinguishable was an extraordinarily liberal gesture; as Saul Dubow puts it ‘greatly in advance of its time’ (Dubow 520). On the other hand his work can be accused of reproducing the native African in the image of white imperialism, ‘colonisation by other means’ (Deleuze and Guattari 170), subjecting the colonised to what Bourdieu called ‘the imperialism of the universal’ (Bourdieu 19). Shakespeare forms a robust template to which any clinical observations can readily be assimilated, and the black man is seen not for what he himself is, but as an honorary white man. ‘Prone to see Oedipus everywhere they look’, in Diana Fuss’s words, ‘Western ethnologists are impelled to find their own psychosexual pathologies duplicated in their objects of study’ (Fuss 33). The whiteness of Hamlet is that abstract whiteness that goes beyond skin colour, and renders white supremacy a natural condition of existence, ‘the invisibility that fuels white hegemony’ (Hall 181).

Sachs’ Black Hamlet was produced by eliding the differences between European psychoanalysis and the mental operations of an African. Shakespeare and the English language form the common currency, the lingua franca that bridges the gap, sutures the divide. In Shakespeare blackness and whiteness meet and harmonise, ebony and ivory. And yet for many native English speakers the language of Shakespeare is no more a natural form of speech than it was to a speaker of John Chavafambira’s tribal dialect. In contradistinction to ‘black Hamlet’ we can pose ‘white Hamlet’, the bizarre and obscene parody published by Richard Curtis and known as the Skinhead Hamlet. Here the ancestral whiteness of the old Scandinavian tale is thrown violently back at Shakespeare in a grotesque echo of a lost white supremacy.

The ‘skinhead’ is a prototype of disaffected youth culture that developed initially in the 1960s and saw resurgence in the 1970s, centred particularly around the young white working-class male. Where the earlier ‘Mods’ affected a flamboyant style, Skinheads adopted the shaved heads and steel toecaps of East End dockers. Though initially Skinheads fraternised with West Indians, sharing their music and dance, in a context of high unemployment and immigration their culture became increasingly associated with racism, neo-Nazism and street violence. Skinhead culture overlaps with the cultures of football and of militarism.

Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet is a brief parody of Shakespeare’s play consisting of some 600 words, 44 of which are variants on ‘fuck’. It is not an instance of working-class writing, and can hardly be described as ‘Skinhead Literature’, which might seem a contradiction in terms (though see Allen). At one level Skinhead Hamlet is a travesty, a grotesque imitation producing irony by improbably juxtaposing alien contexts (like the famous Monty Python football match between the Great Philosophers and the Long John Silver Imitators). ‘Our hope was’ says an ironic prefatory note, ‘to achieve something like the effect of the New English Bible’; in other words to facilitate a parodic subversion of linguistic power by contemporary banality. On the other hand if one considers Hamlet as a quintessentially ‘white’ drama, then the juxtaposition of white extremism with the world’s greatest Nordic masterpiece is productive of more than comedy.

Hamlet may seem from a global perspective firmly attached to Northern Europe and Caucasian ethnicity. Yet from the Skinhead viewpoint adopted by Richard Curtis, Hamlet is written in what is virtually a foreign language that needs to be retranslated into demotic Skinhead idiom:

HAMLET: (Alone) To fuck or be fucked.

[Enter OPHELIA.]

OPHELIA: My Lord!

HAMLET: Fuck off to a nunnery!

[They exit in different directions.]

Shakespearean rhetoric appears in this context an alien imposition to be robustly challenged and rudely rejected:

[Enter PLAYERS and all COURT.]

I PLAYER: Full thirty times hath Phoebus cart…

CLAUDIUS: I’ll be fucked if I watch any more of this crap.

[Exeunt.]

Saxo Grammaticus’s saga of Danish history, refurbished and updated by Shakespeare’s Tudor English nationalism, has by the twentieth century come to be perceived as the exclusive preserve of a middle-class culture far removed from the earthy demotic of Skinhead vulgarity.

Postcolonial criticism operates within a framework consisting of a unified imperial culture and a fragmented diaspora of colonial outposts.  ‘Shakespeare’ is assumed to be an integrated ideological commodity before its exportation to the rest of the globe. Yet Skinhead Hamlet discloses a relationship of contestation between the imperial culture and its own unwelcome bad conscience, the white supremacist fantasies of the working–class youth it has dispossessed. Imperial Shakespeare is challenged from within by his own white shadow. In a globalised world where power has shifted from the old imperial centres to international capital and global bureaucracy, Shakespeare can be more ‘foreign’ on the Isle of Dogs than in Delhi or Cairo. The point is made eloquently by Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif, whose Mezzaterra (2004) movingly celebrates the achievements of cultural globalisation.

Growing up Egyptian in the Sixties meant growing up Muslim / Christian / Egyptian /Arab /African / Mediterranean / Non-Aligned / Socialist but happy with small-scale capitalism. On top of that if you were urban / professional the chances were that you spoke English and / or French and danced to the Stones as readily as to Abd el-Hakeem….

In Cairo on any one night you could go to see an Arabic, English, French, Italian or Russian film. One week the Russian Hamlet was playing at Cinema Odeon, Christopher Plummer’s Hamlet at Cinema Qasr el-Nil, and Karam Mutawi’s Hamlet at the Egyptian National Theatre.

The fragility of this increasingly threatened world was savagely emphasised on March 19 2005, when in the theatre in the British School in Qatar a bomb exploded during the second Act of an amateur performance of Twelfth Night mounted by the Doha Players, killing the Director. No doubt the primary motive was to attack a target frequented by Westerners on the eve of the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The suicide bomber was identified as a 39-year-old Egyptian. Here Shakespeare in Arabia is the ground for global violence rather than global understanding. From a western perspective such atrocity can be guaranteed to symbolise Al-Qaida’s assault against the power of British culture. Shakespeare, wrote United Press International editor Martin Walker, ‘stands for the Western invasion of Islam’s holy peninsula. He is the symbol of the English language that he helped perfect, and thus he also symbolizes its steady advance into the mouths and sensibilities on a generation of educated Arabs.… This means that an educated Arab is increasingly likely to know more of Shakespeare than of Abu Tammam’ (Walker 2005).

7. Arabia Comes to Shakespeare

Suleyman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit was first performed as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002, where it was awarded the Fringe First Award for excellence and innovation in writing and directing. It was subsequently presented at the 14th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, in September 2002, where it won Best Performance and Best Director Awards. The work had previously been through various adaptations of the Shakespeare text, from 2001 onwards, performed by the Zaoum Theatre Company: Hamlet in Kuwait, performed in Kuwait, and The Arab League Hamlet, performed at a festival in Tunisia. The earlier versions were both adaptations of the Shakespeare text.  The Al-Hamlet Summit by contrast jettisons Shakespeare’s language and rewrites Hamlet into modern English with a strongly Arabic flavour, producing what the author called a ‘cross-cultural construction’ (Al-Bassam 2003). Al-Bassam produced and performed versions in both Arabic and English[3].

Al-Bassam’s play maps a Middle Eastern political tragedy onto the template of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The key characters carry Shakespearean names, and occupy parallel situations within their own modern Middle Eastern world. Hamlet’s father, the old ruler, has been poisoned, and his position usurped by Claudius his brother, a dictator with more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. Gertrude and Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes all play roles comparable to those of their Shakespearean namesakes, but redomesticated into an Islamic Arab context.  The regime is threatened, as Denmark is threatened at the beginning of Hamlet, by Fortinbras’s troops lining the borders, and internally by the ‘People’s Liberation Brigade’, which has been distributing leaflets claiming Old Hamlet was assassinated.  Where Claudius in Shakespeare’s play resolves the Norwegian threat by diplomacy, Claudius in Al-Hamlet responds with violence and atrocity:

POLONIUS: I’ve got 300 men working round the clock gathering up the leaflets.
CLAUDIUS: Forget the leaflets, burn the townships, all of them – I want them all burnt by dawn.

Fortinbras’s army is backed by the West, ‘armed with millions of dollars of foreign equipment’. Behind the suggestions of foreign intervention lies the West’s greed for Arab oil (Claudius is obsessively concerned to protect the pipelines from sabotage).

In a scene which is the equivalent of Hamlet III, iii, instead of praying for forgiveness, Claudius voices what is virtually a religion of oil and dollars:

Oh God: Petro dollars.  Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image, I seek guidance from you the All Seeing, the All Knowing Master of Worlds, Prosperity and Order … This for the MD of Crude Futures: all of Heaven’s gifts down to the cracks of their arses and I, the poor, sluttish Arab, forgoing billions to worship you … Is it not charm, is it not consummate charm to slouch on silk cushions and fuck and be fucked by all the flesh dollars can buy? … In front of your benificence I am a naked mortal, full of awe: my ugliness is not unbearable, surely it is not?  My nose is not so hooked is it, my eyes so diabolical as when you offered me your Washington virgins and CIA opium.

At the end of the play Fortinbras clearly intends to sustain this policy: ‘It won’t be easy, terrorism is not yet defeated, but the pipeline will be completed within a year’.

The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer, who spoke English in the Arabic version. The Arms Dealer converses with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and finally Fortinbras.  He will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if he is arming opponents.  He remains in place at the end: ‘As the lights begin to fade, the Arms Dealer enters and walks downstage incredibly slowly.’

Just as in Hamlet Claudius recognises that the real enemy of his regime lies within, so Claudius and Polonius in The Al-Hamlet Summit are vigilant against signs of domestic subversion. Opposition and dissent are read as fundamentalist terrorism. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia the ‘apocalyptic imagery’, the ‘yearning for violent and comprehensive change to the world order’ which are naturally linked with ‘terrorist activities’. Both Hamlet and Ophelia become Islamicised, adopting traditional Muslim costume; and both become ‘terrorists’. Ophelia dies as a suicide bomber; Hamlet shoots Polonius, and at the end of the play is seen leading the liberation army.

CLAUDIUS: Just two hours ago, our forces began an attack on terrorist positions belonging to Hamlet and his army.  These continue as I speak.  This conflict began when Hamlet laid siege to our democracy, our values and our people through a brutal series of kidnappings and terrorist bombings that have killed many innocent victims and shocked the world community.

The equation between Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist militant is one that Hamlet internalises. This is the equivalent of Hamlet’s revenge:

I will clean this land, I will make it pure, I understand, I do understand, but I will cleanse it for you, I will prepare it for your return, even if it costs me my life, I will clean it, I will purge it, blood will flow, I will make blood flow in torrents, I swear in my father’s name, I swear in the name of Allah.

The fantasy of a vindictive bloodbath is explicitly expressed in the language of the Koran:

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger… I, Hamlet, son of Hamlet, son of Hamlet am the rightful heir to this nation’s throne.  My rule will crush the fingers of thieving bureaucrats, neutralize the hypocrites, tame the fires of debauchery that engulf our cities and return our noble people to the path of God.  Our enemies comprehend only the language of blood for this, the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword.  We crack the skull of falsehood against a rock and lo! Only the Truth remains.  Let it be so and may God raise the profile of his martyrs!

8. Hamlet and Globalisation

The writing of The Al-Hamlet Summit began with the experience of globalisation:

I was in Cairo with an exiled Iraqi theatre director and a Palestinian theatre troupe from Ramallah drinking coffee in the bazaar when a boy came running past us, chanting: ’Al-Kull murtabit / Am-reeca qarabit’ (’Everything is linked /

America just got closer…’). It was September the 11th and news from New York was just beginning to stream across the television screens. In all the confusion of that night, I remember the words of one of the Palestinian actors: ‘The hell in New York today will bring hell to Ramallah tomorrow’ (Al-Bassam 2003 28).

9/11 is the supreme instance of globalisation, viewed here from a range of different perspectives. The boy’s chant seems to celebrate with a certain triumphalism the shrinking globe and the ease with which Islamic terrorism can reach to the very heart of America’s political and economic institutions. The Palestinian actor thinks ruefully of the consequences, immediate reprisal not from America but from Israel, and against the Palestinians. Global events know no barriers of time and space.

In an article on 9/ll British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments exactly. 9/11 ‘brought home the true meaning of globalisation’:

In this globalised world, once chaos and strife have got a grip on a region or a country, trouble is soon exported.… It was, after all, a dismal camp in the foothills of Afghanistan that gave birth to the murderous assault on the sparkling heart of New York’s financial centre (Blair 119).

This is the negative side of globalisation. But globalisation also provides the potential solution to such problems. Blair reflects that the West can ‘use the power of community to bring the benefits of globalisation to all’ (121) in the form of truly universal values: ‘values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society… Values that are “universal and worthy of respect in every culture”’ (122). The vehicle for disseminating these values globally is economic penetration: increased trade flows, and greater involvement of the private sector in public finance (121).

Al-Bassam clearly intended the The Al-Hamlet Summit as an intervention into this fraught conversation:

The globalisation of politics is deceptive. Every Arab knows that George Bush said ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ and everyone in the West now knows that Saddam is bad. This is globalisation of politics, but it does very little to increase dialogue between cultures. All it does it promote vacuous ‘world views’. This is where culture and theatre become vital. They permit complexity and difference and they permit the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges the accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that power very well (Dent).

Globalisation is not only inevitable but desirable, since it is the only route to mutual understanding and a stable world. Everything really is linked, as the Arab boy recognised. The problem is how to develop those links without conflict and violence; without the supremacy of the West; without the suppression of alternative cultures and consequent global homogenisation. In this process theatre has a critical role to play:

The events of 9-11 and the political fallout since have drawn to light the inextricable intertwining of the fates of Arab peoples and those of the West.
Everything is linked and the much-touted ‘clash of civilizations’ simplifies and tries to obscure what is a complex series of overlapping and interpenetrating cultural realities that are tied together in fatal symbiosis (Al-Bassam 2003).

This is quite a different approach from Tony Blair’s vision of a universalisation of enlightenment values of liberal democracy via the spread of free-market capitalism. Though he does not speak for Islamic fundamentalism or terrorist violence, Al-Bassam shows them as the inevitable consequences of an alliance between native Arab totalitarianism and the economic machinations of the West. In Shakespeare Hamlet is driven reluctantly towards revenge, and in The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet and Ophelia seem to have no option but the bloody and suicidal course they undertake.

9. Mezzaterra

Liam Connell distinguished between texts as ‘objects of globalisation’, texts which may contain an implicit critique of global power relations, but are circulated through the very economic and cultural systems that support and maintain the existing global powers; and narratives ‘capable of signifying globalisation’, texts that manage to get underneath the mythology of new universalism and reveal the contradictions that lie at its heart (Connell 80). The Al-Hamlet Summit belongs to the latter rather than the former category.

            Al-Bassam spoke of divergent reactions to the play:

For some The Al-Hamlet Summit was the work of a Westernised traitor that falsely approximated between Islam and the propagation of violence. For others, and I’m happy to say the majority and particularly the young, The Al-Hamlet Summit gave vital and much-needed expression to today’s Arab concerns and presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form (Al-Bassam, 2003 29).

The ‘hybridity’ of the piece, what Al-Bassam called its ‘cultural symbiosis’ was clearly designed to form a ground of dialogue between East and West. The move from the earlier versions, which were adaptations of the Shakespeare text, to a more contemporary form which allowed for the fuller expression of Arab experience was clearly critical in this process.

The script was written from a contemporary Arab perspective. It carries many concerns and issues of today’s Arab world and its relationship to the West. At the same time, it addresses these concerns to an English-speaking audience. The cross-cultural construction of the piece creates a sense of implication in the affairs of the other. (Dent 2003)

‘Everything is linked’ in the globalised world, either through violence or through an acceptance of reciprocal ‘implication’. The The Al-Hamlet Summit opens a conversation over the ground of our reconciliation.

10. Globalisations

The Red Dragon touched the shores of Socotra early in the first global age, at the incipience of modernity. From the sixteenth century onwards, travel and commercial traffic were opening the world up to a familiar pattern of conquest and counter-conquest, colonisation and resistance. The East India Company was not only ‘discovering’ and encountering the wider world, but mapping and charting its geopolitical contours, and in the process beginning to delineate a global consciousness.

This awareness of the globe in terms of extent and diversity is one of the core meanings of ‘globalisation’. The Red Dragon’s Shakespearean experiments introduce another definition of globalisation, which has to do with colonisation and empire, the exploration of ideas and manners – in short of culture – worldwide from powerful metropolitan centres. In this paradigm Shakespeare is a potentially global commodity to be broadcast and disseminated to a passive or subjugated global population, ‘Will to the world’.

By the twenty-first century Shakespeare has become, as the examples discussed here clearly demonstrate, a vehicle of global communication, a repository of universal themes that facilitates multi-cultural diffusion from a plurality of centres. Shakespeare belongs wholly to the flux of global culture, and is no longer the property of any one national constituency. Shakespeare is irreversibly part of that ‘process by which a number of historical world societies were brought together into one global system’ (Modelski 2000: 49).

These three meanings of globalisation – global consciousness, cultural imperialism, universal communication – are historically linked, but distinguishable, and frequently in conflict one with another. Universal features of human existence common throughout the globe (such as love, or death) have no necessary relationship with the globe as a context or concept; and many products of globalisation (such as Coca-Cola) have no credible claim to universality. If Shakespeare has in fact survived the experience of empire in such a way as to import a potential universality of interest into a genuinely global consciousness, then this represents a remarkable transformation that should prompt us to look again at the map on the forehead on the cover of the Radio Times. If Shakespeare is now, to use Thomas Cartelli’s useful term, ‘repositioned’ beyond national boundaries and colonial authority, then he inhabits a genuinely non-national and multi-cultural global universe. And this is something new.

The Al-Hamlet Summit is a representative product of multicultural communication in a global frame. It occupies one of innumerable local sites that have no territorial linkage, yet reflect specifically on global events, defined as events that implicate humankind as a whole. This is the ultimate globalisation of Shakespeare; but it is also the ultimate localisation of Shakespeare, since it implies an infinite multiplicity of local/global Shakespeares. The term ‘glocalization’ was specifically coined to address this condition:

Glocalization is marked by the development of diverse, overlapping fields of global-local linkages … [creating] a condition of globalized panlocality…. This condition of glocalization… represents a shift from a more territorialized learning process bound up with the nation-state society to one more fluid and translocal. Culture has become a much more mobile, human software employed to mix elements from diverse contexts. With cultural forms and practices more separate from geographic, institutional, and ascriptive embeddedness, we are witnessing what Jan Nederveen Pieterse refers to as postmodern ‘hybridization’. (Gabardi 33-4)

This is not then an inevitable movement towards the universalisation of culture in a wholly homogenised world. Globalisations can also work against each other, as The Al-Hamlet Summit speaks so strongly against international capitalism.  All that links these phenomena together in a global age is their common subordination of national considerations, and their shared reference to the globe, especially as the planet.  The Al-Hamlet Summit belongs to the ‘Global Age’ (see Albrow 1996), but it sits uneasily beside the rhetoric of Tony Blair’s Third Way globalisation. Even the globe has no universal or univocal interpretation (see Featherstone 1995). Between 1607, when Shakespeare’s lines echoed emptily from the deck of the Red Dragon around the Arab world, and 2001, when Al-Bassam’s adaptation found a common acceptance across both East and West, empires rose and fell. But one thing changed. In 1607 Shakespeare was virtually talking to himself. In 2001 Shakespeare was the substance of a global conversation.[4]

Works Cited

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            in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann.

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Chambers, E.K., 1923. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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            Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane.

            Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dent, Shirley, 2003. ‘Interview: Suleyman Al-Bassam’, Culture Wars.

            http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2003-01/albassam.htm

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning

            and the new international, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London:

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            Modernity. London: Sage.

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Notes

[1] See Strachan and Penrose, and Keay; though Keay appears at some points to confuse details of the third and fifth voyages of the East India Company, both commanded by Keeling (Loomba 111-14; Taylor).

[2] See Holderness 2001 141-3; Holderness and Loughrey 183-4.

[3] The Al-Hamlet Summit will be published by University of Hertfordshire Press in May 2006. ‘Introduction’ by Graham Holderness, ‘Preface’ by Suleyman Al-Bassam.

[4] The authors are deeply grateful to Professor Martin Albrow, both for his pioneering contributions in the field of globalisation, and for his immensely helpful commentary on an early draft of this article.

From Summit to Tragedy: Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III and Political Theatre

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

[Originally published in the Critical Survey , vol 19 , no. 3 , pp. 124-143. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters, a familiarity independent of the history plays, Henry VI and Richard III, in which he appears. This celebrity has less to do with Richard’s historical reputation, and more with the way in which great actors of the 19th and 20th centuries gave the role status and popular visibility, particularly perhaps via Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film version.[1] Just as Hamlet is automatically identifiable by black suit and prop skull, Richard is immediately recognisable by his legendary deformity (mandatory hump, optional limp), and by the famous opening lines of his initial soliloquy:

Now is the winter of our discontent…

The phrase has also of course escaped from Richard, as he escapes from the play: it was much used in Britain during the successive years of bitter labour dispute in the early 1970s, becoming inseparable from an environment of strikes, picket-lines, power cuts. But it still belongs to Richard. When Peter Sellers guested on the Muppet Show, he delivered ‘the soliloquy from Richard III’ (with a distinct resemblance to Olivier), ‘whilst (and at the same time) playing tuned chickens’.[2]

Spectators of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s adaptation of Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, performed at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in February 2007, encounter from the outset an immediate disruption of convention and expectation, since the first person on the stage, the first to speak, is not Richard at all, but a woman, Queen Margaret.

- I am Margaret…

…You needn’t be concerned about me…

…We lost…

…It is your right to ignore me. I would ignore myself if my history let me…

…I don’t want your loans, your gifts, your reconstruction grants.
I don’t want your pity…

…We lost…

…All I ask from you is not to question my thirst for revenge…

…It’s not because I’m Arab…

…I have a degree …

…anyway, my name is not Margaret…

…But our history is so awful, even the victors have changed their names (ATS, p. 1).[3]

Margaret traverses the stage with a suitcase, which she opens and closes to reveal bundled clothes.[4] She establishes an immediate link between the different ‘pasts’ of the play – c. 1400 and the early 1590s – and the present. In the dimension of the play’s historical subject, the Wars of the Roses, she is representative, as widow of Henry VI, of the defeated Lancastrian faction. In the late 16th century domain of the play’s composition, she speaks for vengeance, especially through the languages of revenge tragedy and witchcraft. But in the present of the spectator’s existence, she is immediately identifiable as a refugee, dispossessed and rejected, ignored by history and the politics of power. Stateless, propertyless, abandoned, her suitcase contains the few belongings she has managed to keep with her. She has changed her name, lost her identity, is insulted and patronised by the fake philanthropy of post-invasion reconstruction. But she retains enough pride to muster a fierce rejection of the audience’s ‘pity’.

Al-Bassam begins his play, then, not with a man, but a woman; with a woman who is not English, but declares herself to be Arab; not with a theatrical star, but with a marginal figure; and not with one of victors who, in Walter Benjamin’s formulation, normally have the privilege of writing history, but with one of the defeated. Expecting Richard III and ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’, the audience instead encounters a figure instantly recognisable as an Arab refugee, Lebanese or Palestinian or Iraqui, of the type who appears daily on our television screens.[5] Although this is Shakespeare, she speaks Arabic, and the non-Arabic-speaking British spectator has access to her words only through translation. The Arabic text actually spoken by the actors was formed from Al-Bassam’s English adaptation of Shakespeare’s play; and the English surtitles read by the audience derived from the Arabic version (Al-Bassam adapted the play in English, then had it translated into Arabic, then produced an English version of the Arabic text to serve as the parallel English medium of performance). Languages divide and interweave, past and present diverge and assimilate, East and West are contrasted and temporarily merged.[6] Is this here, or there? Now, or then?[7] Self, or other?

When Richard does speak, it is with an effect ‘as strangely familiar as it is alien’:[8]

- The earth has changed its robes. The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal given way to the lazy warmth of spring…

…War is too fat for its armour, too drunk to roar.
And all we hear today are the blasts of pleasure giggles,..

…Fighters who waged the valiant fight are seen today  clean whiskered, soft skinned, slipping around in a lover’s bed…

…oiling whisper lusts with pleasure screams…

…But I, whose chest is weighed with a weatherproof heart…

…Dispossessed of a mug  to draw a lusty female eye;
I, who was born to a mother with a narrow pelvis…

…who spat me into this world so battered, beaten, buckled  and underdone that even dogs bark at me!…

…Therefore since I cannot prove a lover I am determined to prove a villain,… (ATS, p. 1)

In the Shakespearean ‘original’[9] of this speech, Gloster’s climatic metaphors are closely bound up with political references (‘sun of York’, ‘clouds that loured upon our house’), and his discourses of war and peace are heavily influenced by the poetics of mediaeval chivalry and courtliness. In Al-Bassam’s version, the metaphorical horizon has shifted. The images of seasonal change are more elemental and pastoral; the erotic fantasies more orientalized; and the personal conviction of physical difference localized into a different paradigm of gender and family relations (‘born to a mother with a narrow pelvis’ is quite different in its impact from ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time’). Al-Bassam’s Richard has neither hump nor limp, though he later protests a physical affliction symptomatised by a neck-brace concealed beneath his military uniform. Reviewers and spectators saw him as charismatically handsome rather than hideously deformed. The language is Shakespeare and yet not Shakespeare; classical and demotic; poetic and idiomatic; Eastern and Western. In Al-Bassam’s initial adaptation text (ATT), the soliloquy was much closer to the Shakespearean ‘original’.

GLOUCESTER

The earth has changed its robes

The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal

Have given way to the lazy warmth of spring …

But I, whose chest is weighed with a weatherproof heart

Have no joy in such tricks -

I lack the frail agility of the soft men

And want the fashionable virtue of eunuchs …

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity ..
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (ATT, p. 1)

Here the modern, idiomatic and transcultural improvisations are cast into verse form, and modulate easily into a passage of unaltered Shakespeare. Al-Bassam preserves the Shakespearean rhythm with its effortlessly self-generating poetry, so that the decision to ‘prove a villain’ flows spontaneously from Richard’s scholastic discourse. By the time the text reached performance it had been through what Al-Bassam calls ‘a layered process of “arabisation” and re-appropriation’[10] , and emerged as a dramatic medium with an entirely different rhythm and structure.  In the ATS text Richard seems to tear his choice of villainy violently out of his complaint of deformity. There may be logic to this deduction, but it is the arbitrary logic of a megalomaniac will.

Al-Bassam has formally distinguished different conceptions of history at work in his play. Richard stands for a ‘linear’ teleology of history, planning, setting and seizing objectives, the iron will moving inexorably against obstacles to reach its targeted goal. Buckingham, Richmond and all the other political agents and instruments stand for an ‘East-West’ historical paradigm, still bifurcated by empire and its modern versions, history as manipulation and corruption, assassination and show trial. In Margaret, on the other hand, Al-Bassam saw a different kind of history: history as a cyclical recurrence, in which the past rises to meet the present, the dead wake, ghosts haunt the living, curses are efficacious and the passion of revenge never sleeps.[11] A scene where Margaret casts bones to foretell the future symptomatises this history of omen and portent, the dark shadows of a buried past and an unrevealed futurity.[12]

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy represents Sulayman Al-Bassam’s fourth Shakespearean experiment, and the third Shakespeare play he has adapted. Prior to his work on Richard III, he had written and produced an experimental improvisation on Macbeth, and three different versions of Hamlet. Hamlet in Kuwait, a version of Shakespeare’s text performed in English, was initiated in January 2001, in association with a cultural festival ‘Kuwait 2001: Cultural Capital of the Arab World’, a historic celebration of national independence and autonomy which marked the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi invasion.

Born in Kuwait, son of a Kuwaiti father and a British mother, Al-Bassam was educated in Britain and now resides in Kuwait. He speaks Arabic, and writes in English; his works are translated from English into Arabic by others, with his own participation.[13] Al-Bassam’s position within Kuwaiti society is that of a loyal citizen, but also that of an internal émigré, capable of viewing his country with a critical scepticism. He has expressed gratitude to the United States and its allies for the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, but offers an unqualified critique of American foreign policy.[14]  He is committed to the cultural development of the Kuwaiti nation, but is also acutely conscious of the nation’s need for radical political reform and cultural change.

Hence Hamlet was reoriented to highlight social and political parallels. Claudius is the Arab despot, ruling over a corrupt oligarchy. The young prince, struggling to define himself in a hostile environment, suggests the disillusioned but resourceful youth of Kuwait, resistant to the authority of the older generation, but diffident about the possibilities of action. The Ghost was a symbol of the Gulf war, a disturbing past that still haunts the people of Kuwait. The production performed 20 times to capacity audiences, playing to a mixed audience of Arabic and English-speakers.[15]

In speaking of his decision to choose Shakespeare for this exercise, Al-Bassam focuses on the political parallels that can be drawn from the plays, and on the classic status of Shakespeare that provides a kind of shield or mask for the radical dramatist.

Shakespeare seemed a natural choice. In addition to being rich, malleable and volatile material, Shakespeare guaranteed me my ‘green card’ past the Cyclops of the state censor and the prejudices of a largely conservative society.[16]

To some extent Shakespeare was a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Al-Bassam, a cultural monument that enabled him to smuggle critical views on his own society past the authorities and to the greedy intelligences of the theatre audience. Hamlet in Kuwait ‘encoded’ its meanings within a Shakespearean register ‘a cultural encoding that would allow the work’s meanings to override the various linguistic, cultural and political barriers in Kuwait and permit its meanings to explode in performance’.[17]

Al-Bassam’s next Shakespearean experiment, entitled The Arab League Hamlet and produced first in Tunisia later in 2001, was an adapted version of the Shakespeare text, with scenes cut and re-arranged, and the cast reduced down to a few principal players. The revised Jacobean text is punctuated with short scenes and interspersed lines in modern colloquial English. For the first time Al-Bassam used the ‘summit’ setting which added much to the success of The Al-Hamlet Summit. The characters occupied a space akin to a political assembly, sitting at and moving around desks and chairs.  In this new staging all of the characters were visible all of the time. Projection screens displayed the larger context of ‘an empire desecrated by war’ and the characters ‘adopted the grammar of diplomatic negotiations in a fight for their own survival’.[18]

The new setting threw the emphasis on explicit political parallels between the world of Shakespeare’s court and the modern Arab world, and invited response as to a piece of political theatre.

The Kuwait experience had taught me that Arab audiences are very quick to extract political meaning from theatrical signifiers. In fact, as a result of decades of censorship, they had grown to almost demand political significance from ‘serious’ work. They enjoyed searching for it, hungrily reading metaphors into scenes and digging for signs of dissent in the work- sometimes finding it where there was none intended! … I was actively feeding the Arab audience’s hunger for political statement and controversy. Indeed, audiences and critics in Tunisia immediately read the work as a piece of radical agit-prop.[19]

When The Arab League Hamlet was performed to an invited audience in London it was far less successful. In Al-Bassam’s view this was because while the Arab audiences were skilled in reading political meaning from dramatic texts, and saw the play as ‘a politically hyper-loaded piece that touched at the very heart of their feelings of despair in the political process’, the Western audience ‘regarded it as little more than a “clever” adaptation of Shakespeare’. ‘The political overtones did not translate’.[20]

In fact it is far more likely that English spectators encountered the ‘political overtones’ not as indecipherable but as all too familiar. A ‘clever adaptation of Shakespeare’ using modern dress and settings, insistently contemporary parallels, back-projected newsreel footage is something of an everyday occurrence. When Peter Culshaw saw The Arab League Hamlet he had no problem in reading this dimension off the very surface of the production:

The Hamlet I saw in London began with the characters seated behind desks as though at a summit, complete with name tags and headphones. This set the scene for an evening of power struggle, negotiations, compromise and tragic chaos. The overheated, incestuous atmosphere built up (‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’) with Claudius as a western puppet and the confused Hamlet outraged by the corruption.[21]

Al-Bassam was correct however in surmising that the production took the British audience into Shakespeare rather than into Arab culture and psychology: ‘I had wanted to put the English-speaking spectator inside the head of the Arab spectator in Kuwait and Tunisia …  I had wanted the English spectator to experience the same sense of strangeness in familiarity the Arab one had felt and, above all, the same degree of implication in the events presented to them on stage’.  But The Arab League Hamlet simply did not provide the Western spectator with a theatrical language powerful and suggestive enough to facilitate that cultural leap into such unfamiliar territory. ‘I was wrong’.[22]

The Al-Hamlet Summit was first performed in English as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002. The newly-modernised English script, combined with the political assembly ‘summit’ setting devised for The Arab League Hamlet, played naturally into the category of political theatre. Al-Hamlet is if anything more overt in its agit-prop relevance and immediacy than its predecessors. Philip Culshaw said that it ‘makes explicit what was implicit’[23] in the Arab League Hamlet. Al-Bassam identified the play’s themes as ‘political corruption, the twisted relationship between willing puppets and their imperial masters, the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism; suicide as a desperate form of political self-expression’.[24] The parallel between Claudius and Saddam Hussein was further exaggerated; Ophelia is more closely linked to the Palestinian cause; and Hamlet himself more decisively characterised as an Islamic fundamentalist, goaded to violence by internal betrayal rather than by external aggression.

This emphasis on specific contemporary political issues offers the play to audiences as a piece of dramatic journalism, or a roman-a-clef from which obvious contemporary analogues to the Shakespearean characters can readily be identified. This is exactly how the play was read by many spectators:

Polonius is a devious spin-doctor, Hamlet moves from indecision to becoming a Bin Laden-type religious fanatic, while Ophelia ends up as a suicide bomber. CNN-type footage of burning oil wells adds to the claustrophobia.[25]

Hamlet becomes a religious extremist … Laertes joins the army … Ophelia is a suicide bomber …[26]

Although the primary historical context of the adaptation is that of the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, it was clearly also influenced by the atrocity of 9/11, and this helped Western viewers to find paradigms for understanding it: ‘the play rides on the aftermath of September 11 2001, and the impact it had on Arab and Western perceptions of one another’.[27]

It is abundantly clear that Al-Bassam was trying to do something more than this. These quotations suggest that Western spectators of The Al-Hamlet Summit are impressed primarily with the way in which the play brings Shakespeare up to date, providing dramatic analogues for contemporary archetypes or stereotypes (the Arab dictator, the Islamic fundamentalist, the suicide bomber) that are visible daily on every TV screen. But Al-Bassam wanted to move the spectator away from these temptingly easy analogies. The most substantial difference between The Arab League Hamlet and The Al-Hamlet Summit is that in the latter Al-Bassam deviated from the Shakespearean text and produced a wholly new script combining a much wider range of linguistic and theatrical registers. These naturally include echoes of Shakespearean verse and the modern colloquial language of a contemporary-oriented political theatre, but also new layers of poetic language derived from classical Arabic, including the Holy Quran, from contemporary Arabic poetry, and from a ‘cross-cultural’ poetic sensibility capable of interweaving all these strands and producing from them a new theatrical discourse.

These features are more noticeable in Al-Bassam’s most recent Shakespearean adaptation, his version of Richard III, which was premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford as part of the RSC’s ‘Complete Works’ project. The repertory consisted of ‘mainstream’ productions and parallel or alternative versions (‘responses’). An Arab Tragedy was billed as a ‘response’ to Michael Boyd’s production of Richard III. The play was performed in Arabic (the first play in Arabic to be produced by the RSC), with the English text projected onto screens as surtitles, and with some scenes spoken in English. This piece clearly has a longer development history that remains in process: it was played in Athens in May 2007 as part of the Athens Festival, and is scheduled to play at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and thereafter in Amsterdam.

Although the play is set in an unnamed ‘Gulf state’, Al-Bassam clearly did not want the play’s frame of reference restricted, as some reviewers suggested it was, to the Gulf monarchies.  Hence he broadens the scope of the piece to include the whole Middle East:

More generally, the modern Middle East, like so many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, offers a painful plethora of examples of how not to rule. Modern imperialism, tyranny, barbarism, oppression, plots, assassinations and civil wars are sadly becoming the rule not the exception in our region. The players in this grim game of politics, natural resources and strategic power are many, and like all the characters in Richard III, none are innocent; all have bloodied their hands.

At this point we are still inside the paradigm of agit-prop theatre occupied by the earlier adaptations. Here the landscape of the play is identical to the landscape of the modern Middle East, Shakespeare is our contemporary, and history is politics.

It is true that the play does to a certain degree depend on relatively simple parallels between Shakespearean situations and characters, and those to be found in Al-Bassam’s contemporary Middle East. This dimension was certainly the primary focus of the play’s British reception, intoxicated with orientalism:

It is as though the Swan Theatre has been put on a magic carpet and flown to Saudi Arabia. For the gripping two-hour direction of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s ‘Arabian’ account of Richard III, we see not dukes, earls and queens, but turbaned sheiks and women in burkas. We hear not alarums but strange beguiling ululations. Shakespeare’s language comes to as though through secret service intercept: in Arabic with surtitles.[28]

The same reviewer saw the piece as a play of ‘urgent topicality’, ‘reconceiving Shakespeare’s tragedy for the jihadi age’. Shakespeare’s play is  ripe for such analogies, replete as it is with arrests and executions, secret assassinations, political in-fighting and photo opportunities, hostage-taking, character assassination and show trials, religious hypocrisy, forced confessions, usurpation, invasion and civil war. All these aspects of the plot are here ‘Arabized’ and transferred to the play’s ‘unnamed oil-rich kingdom or emirate’.[29]

The staging accentuates these parallels further. Just as in Hamlet in Kuwait, projection screens were used to contextualise the action to the Gulf War, so in Arab Tragedy back-projected images flesh out the contingent context of despotism, military action, clandestine surveillance. ‘Grainy video footage of forced confessions and executions jostle for attention with swaying figures.’[30]  These ‘multimedia interventions’[31] were read primarily as documentary illustrations enforcing the contemporary parallels. Al-Bassam’s Buckingham is a double agent, secretly liaising with the Americans as he ostensibly supports Richard’s bid for the throne. The screens record his coded email communications. ‘Even as Buckingham does Richard’s bidding, he sends e-mail updates on the sly to the American ambassador, reporting on the latest political machinations’.[32] Richmond is portrayed as a ‘platitude-spouting Christian US general who at the play’s conclusion announces the installation of an interim government’.[33] Stability is already however threatened by insurgency:

Richmond is an American general who, chillingly, speaks the final words of the play in English, with the swaggering accent of the occupying army. The speech, ending with the words ‘God say Amen’, is meant to reassure. But even as he delivers it, a group of insurgents can be seen in the background, ready for a fight in the name of their own religion, ‘Allah-u akbar!’ they cry. ‘God is great!’[34]

At this final point of the drama, just before the theatre collapses its illusions and decants us back out into our own world, we are here transported from 1400 to 2003, from Bosworth Field to Afghanistan or Iraq in the embattled Middle East of the 21st century.

I would nonetheless argue, and will seek to illustrate from some moments from the play, that the true achievement of Arab Tragedy lies less in its astute political parallels and historical comparisons, and more in the cross-cultural encounters it sets up between Western and Arab societies. The project was initially titled Baghdad Richard (tickets were sold for the play under that title) with the Gloucester-Saddam parallel clearly foregrounded. Al-Bassam changed the title in response to changing events, particularly the trial and execution of Saddam, but also out of a realisation that in this theatrical medium, oversimplification is a constant danger.

With the rapid change of events in the region and also as I delved more deeply into it to make that comparison really work, I reached the conclusion it would be selling both histories a bit short in trying to make a foolproof comparison between Richard III and the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein.[35]

The new title An Arab Tragedy suggests a broader territory, not just Iraq, and broaches wider issues of concern to the Gulf States and the Arab world in general. Al-Bassam came to see the play as initially about ‘constitutional crisis’ which is a ‘very current’ issue for the Gulf region. The production programme quotes a passage from 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun on the dangers of dynastic succession in monarchy. The succession of a child protected by powerful ‘wazirs’ renders the state vulnerable, and this weakness is seen as a virtually incurable ‘disease of dynasty’.[36] In a programme note Al-Bassam underlines this parallel:

In this piece, I am using a foreign (English) history to explore contemporary political anxieties in the Gulf and Arab region. The monarchical system of rule that governs all the countries in the Arabian Peninsula (in which the reins of power are passed down through generations descended from an original founder) has proved itself to be a stable and durable form of governance. But, as recent events have shown, crises of succession present a constant threat of implosion to these monarchies. Richard III offers the model of a crisis of succession that turns into a nightmare.[37]

This theatrical ‘nightmare’ goes well beyond the interpolation of agit-prop relevance, and has the capacity to take the spectator deeper not only into Arab culture, but into territories of myth and communal emotion where trans-cultural rapprochements can more effectively take place.

Shakespeare’s Act 1 scene IV is the long scene of Clarence’s murder. Clarence tells Brakenbury of the dream which anticipates his assassination. In the dream Clarence finds himself in the underworld, and is rebuked by the ghosts of his victims for his crimes of perjury and murder. The murderers then enter and engage in some clowning before falling to their task. Clarence cannot believe that Edward would wish him killed, protests his innocence and appeals to shared Christian values:

I charge you, as you hope to have redemption

By Christ’s dear blood shed for our grievous sins,

That you depart, and lay no hands on me.

There follows an energetic debate on the authority of kingship vis-a-vis God’s law; whether or not the guilty have any rights to mercy; the proper punishments for perjury and murder. Eventually the murderers confide in Clarence the truth that they act for Gloster. He pleads for his life, and they kill him by beating him and drowning him in the wine-butt.

Al-Bassam concentrates this whole sequence down to this:

- I swear there is no God but Allah.
God forgive my sins.

…In God’s name what art thou?

- A man as you are.

- If you be hired for money go back again and I will send you to my brother Gloucester…

…He shall reward you better for my life than the King does for news of my death.

- You are deceived, he hates you.
- Do not slander him.
He is kind and merciful.

- Merciful as rain on mud huts. He sent me to slaughter you. Pray now for you must die.

- Dare you counsel me to pray to God yet would war with God by murdering me?..

He who kills without due reason, it is as though he kills the whole of humanity (Q.);
- Pray!

- And do not shed blood that is sacred by Allah’s law (Q.);
- Pray!

- Al Rawandi in the sources says: beware of shedding innocent blood-
- Pray!

- Pray! (ATS, p. 7)

Here Clarence is presented as a devout Muslim who quotes the Holy Quran and illustrations from Islamic scholarship against unlawful killing and the violation of innocence. Not surprisingly there is no wine-butt: instead Clarence is drowned in the sacred water he has used to perform his ritual ablutions. Simultaneously the musical accompaniment deploys an old Gulf sea-song, thus invoking poetic associations of dreaming and drowning.

Al-Bassam has moved the narrative of Clarence’s dream from this scene to an earlier scene with Richard. In the murder scene there is no detailed account of Clarence’s past, or the role he has played in previous political machinations: he seems an ordinary pious man who is conscious of his sins, and prays for forgiveness.  His appeal to his murderers is articulated in terms of the Islamic values they share, just as, in Shakespeare, Clarence appeals for mercy through the blood of Christ.[38] The Quaranic quotations used by Clarence speak out against the murder of innocence, and the reference to ‘the shedding of innocent blood’ invokes the tradition of Ibrahim and Mohammad, the young sons of Muslim and the descendents of the Prophet, who were assassinated in a story that forms a direct and detailed parallel to the story of the Princes in the Tower.[39] Thus Clarence as victim is shifted closer in this version to the massacre of the innocents later practised on young Edward and Richard.[40]

In Shakespeare’s scene, Clarence’s Christian language is undermined by the murderers’ indictment of his crimes. Here however the issue is not Clarence’s guilt – for who is guiltless? – but the moral atrocity of assassination itself. The murderers instruct him to pray, although his prayers clamour out against their actions. They decline to enter any kind of religious debate with him, thus letting the stark moral beauty and clarity of the Quranic injunctions stand in clear contrast to the act of butchery perpetrated by those who purport to share their victim’s faith. This is more than a substitution of an Islamic for a Christian frame of reference. This is an attempt to draw the spectator inside an engaged but critical perspective on Islam and the violence that shadows it.

Later in the equivalent of Shakespeare’s 4.3, in which Tyrrel describes his murder of the princes, we are presented again with the immense moral power of religious taboo, and the strength required to betray it:

- I swear I turned back twice.
But he put out his hand. The Book was on the pillow…

…“No!” I said. It’s the Quran. It’s haram. Can’t do it. Haram…

…Then one of them opened his eyes: a boy. Same age as my own boy.
Haram…

… God, what did you make me of ? I killed my friend, then these children…

…Filthy dirty scab, rotten useless chump…

…It was not me: it was
the Devil. Not me: the Devil put out his hand.

…Damn you and damn who asked for your love. Damn lovers that seek only pain!..

…My crime in this life was placing you in my heart. To love one like you is to slash open my veins. (ATS, p. 21)

Here it is Catesby, no stranger to violence, who undertakes the murder on Richard’s behalf. In Shakespeare on the pillow there lies a ‘book of prayers’, here replaced by the Holy Quran. The sight of the text forces Catesby to realise that he is about to commit an unspeakable crime, ‘Haram’. The Arabic word ‘haram’ can mean ‘forbidden’ or ‘sacred’. It is used for example of sanctuaries and holy places such as the Musjid-al-Haram at Mecca, an inviolable sacred space. Catesby rehearses in Islamic language and terminology the power of the sacred law that forbids the desecration of innocence; the immense struggle of the man who seeks to betray the law; and the desperate invocation of a diabolical power to explain how such acts can be committed. The speech ends by quoting a traditional Arab lament which sings of the hopelessness of love, the bitter disenchantment of a betrayed loyalty.

My final illustration is from the conclusion to Arab Tragedy, which aims for effects quite different from those of the source text. Just as the play opened by countermanding conventional expectations of Richard’s famous soliloquy, so here there is no trace of the scene in Richard’s camp on the night before Bosworth: no ghosts of the slain returning to haunt him, no lights burning blue, no self-pitying exhortations (to the manifest disappointment of some spectators). The equivalent of Richard’s last Shakespearean soliloquy is this one-ended telephone conversation Richard conducts with the American Embassy:

- [Prayer] Please Allah forgive my deepest blackest sins, my crimes. My soul this night is heavy, my life in your hands…

- [Telephone] Will the Ambassador not speak to me? I have a conscience I want to talk to him about,…

…it’s something he should understand being an enlightened man of learning!..

…Where can I take this stray dog of mine? Where can I kennel it? If my dog bites you Ambassador…

…it will infect you and your masters, show you in the filth I know you!..

…I have studied how to plant bombs in the bowels of your democracies- your hands are not clean, sir, I will unveil your complicity!..

…Neither are my hands clean but I don’t boast otherwise you two-faced hypocrite democrat dog!..

…Now be careful what you say Ambassador you’re in my country. Oh really? Well, I have firing squads in the Hague too!. (ATS, p. 24)

Again the language of Islamic prayer provides the discourse for Richard’s expression, whether genuine or merely conventional, of guilt.[41] If he genuinely does want to discuss his guilt with the Ambassador, the intention very soon evaporates as Richard collapses from one raging diatribe into another. The self-searching renaissance hero-villain is replaced here by the modern megalomaniac despot, psychotically convinced of his power, unscrupulous in the pursuit of his will, ruthless in meeting opposition. There can be no sympathy for such a figure, and Al-Bassam has stated that he deliberately omitted Richard’s final soliloquy because in this context he ‘questioned the value of pity’.[42] The subsequent entry of Margaret, leading a procession of the dead, creates what Al-Bassam calls a ‘religious-political-historical montage’, underscored by Catesby’s recited prayers, which draw on litanies from both the Shia and Sunni traditions.[43]

Having defeated expectation so many times, Al-Bassam finally obliges by providing Richard with the ‘horse’ for which he would exchange his kingdom. On stage this is a strange contraption, part gym equipment and part physiotherapy apparatus, that is brought in disguised and then revealed when required. Richard mounts it and tries to flog the machine into action, brandishing the scimitar:

- What’s this horse called?
- “Al-Umma”.

- “Al Umma”! let me ride you! O my battle of Badr! … Victory sits on our helms. (ATS, p. 25)

‘Al-Umma’ is ‘the nation of believers’, the people considered as a belief community. The word is encountered widely in Arab culture, in political language (the Kuwaiti parliament is called ‘Majlis-al-Umma’), in the press, where it is the title of several newspapers, or as the name of an Islamic fundamentalist group.  Richard is offering himself as the leader of an Arab Islamic nationalism. The battle he names, Badr (625) is a great victory from the history of militant Islam. When Richard III’s iconic lines finally arrive, they can be read as the echo of an ancient and suicidal heroism that can still be invoked in the present:

…A horse! A horse!
My kingdom for a horse! (ATS, p. 25)

But the heroism is undermined by the absurdity of the stage image, Richard flailing clumsily around on a mechanical horse that is going nowhere except  in circles.

In the adaptation text (ATT), Richard used the name of another battle, Qadisya (636) in which the Muslims defeated the Persians.  Al-Bassam dropped this reference, since to Arab spectators it would tie Richard too closely to Saddam Hussein (Saddam invoked this historical exemplar in the course of his war against Iran of 1980-8, known as the Qādisiyyat Saddām). ‘Badr’, the battle of 625 in which a small Muslim force defeated the much larger army of the Meccans, also invokes Saddam, but with deeper cross-cultural reverberations and sharper ironies. The eighth sura of the Holy Quran represents the Battle of Badr as clear proof of God’s favour to believers. The chapter is called Al-Anfal, ‘The Spoils’.[44] Saddam used the title Al-Anfal as the code name for his notorious campaign against peshmerga rebels and Kurds between 1986 and 1989, the campaign in which chemical weapons were used against civilians. Saddam’s cousin ‘Chemical Ali’ was sentenced to death on charges including these atrocities.

Hence the play’s emphasis shifts from any notion of Richard as victim, to the list of martyrs with which the play closes. This list, which fades out as if it could go on indefinitely, is the equivalent of a Shakespearean list of battlefield slain, but brings together Arab martyrs past and present, from the dawn of Islam to today; brings together soldiers, writers, thinkers, freedom fighters of all descriptions, and victims of may different regimes. Their names echo into silence as the territory of the stage splits into civil war between occupying power and insurgent militia.

These examples should help to further the argument that although Al-Bassam’s adaptations of Shakespeare clearly are a form of political theatre, and offer themselves to be read as such, they are not restricted to this cultural register. The works aim to produce ‘a richly suggestive theatrical experience, not a piece of agit-prop’.[45] Political parallels and historical comparisons are certainly drawn, but not in any simplistic or reductive way. Rather he attempts to ‘put contemporary figures in the political landscape, within the fabric of another world, a Shakespearean world, and thereby open up a space for dissent, or a space for another kind of annotation’.[46] The Shakespearean dimension is there to provide a dramatic space in which contemporary events can be re-projected with something like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, so that the present condition is estranged rather than simply recognised. ‘Current political events – and our perceptions of them – hang like a misty landscape, half-perceived, in the backdrop of the play’.[47] Al-Bassam wants his Western spectators to think again about contemporary political stereotypes rather than merely to identify (and implicitly endorse) them.

In making theatre in the Arab world and presenting it to the West (as is the case in this production) I am very conscious of not using theatre to make binary moral statements (we are right: you are wrong) as this process merely confirms prejudices and makes matters worse. I have tried to level the earth to make a space for this text and aspects of the contemporary Arab world to meet and make sense of each other.

The dramatist was also obviously steering a difficult course among a wide range of extreme and moderate opinions on the current condition of the Middle East. His focus is on the possibilities for cross-cultural linguistic and theatrical encounters, and for enhanced understanding between divided communities.

I think that there are sadly few Arab voices that are able to speak to Western audiences outside of a political or religious context and in that sense one has to find a way to steer between ideological cliché and antagonism but also to use those elements – because that’s what most people are familiar with – to open up new space for dialogue and meeting.[48]

The last word belongs to the actor who played Richard in the production, Syrian Fayez Kazak, who told an interviewer:

Whenever I sing you my song, and you sing me your song, then we become relatives on this earth. Otherwise we will be enemies.[49]

The last word belongs to the actor who played Richard in the production, Syrian Fayez Kazak, who told an interviewer:

Whenever I sing you my song, and you sing me your song, then we become relatives on this earth. Otherwise we will be enemies.[50]


[1]  ‘Richard III is comfortably the most entertaining of the three great Olivier Shakespeare films, and may have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work. When shown on US television that same year, the resulting audience (estimated at between 25 and 40 million) would have outnumbered the sum total of the play’s theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance’. Michael Brooke, Richard III (1955), Screen Online (London: BFI) [Available at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/467017/index.html][Accessed 12 July 2007]. Sellers also did a Richard III version of the Beatles’ song Hard Day’s Night in a direct imitation of Olivier’s film.

[2] Roger Lewis provides a fascinating parallelism between Sellers and Olivier in his The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (London: Century, 1996, repr. London: Arrow Books, 2007), pp. 1-19.

 

[3] Two texts are used as a basis for this paper, both kindly supplied by Sulayman Al-Bassam. The first, styled here ‘Arab Tragedy Text’ (ATT) is an adaptation into English, partly free and partly imitative, of the Shakespearean text. The second, ‘Arab Tragedy Surtitles’ (ATS) is a text representing the English surtitles as they appeared on video screens in the performances at Stratford-upon-Avon in May 2007. According to a programme note, ‘The surtitles you are reading at times paraphrase the original English and at others try to capture the texture of what is being said in Arabic’ (RSC programme, The Culture Project [Kuwait]) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy [2007]). The two texts are very different, and reflect the complex process of adaptation. ATT is divided into scenes corresponding to the Shakespeare text, while ATS takes the form of blocks of text designed to fit into PowerPoint slides. Quotations are referenced to page numbers on printouts from ATT and ATS.

[4] Sam Marlowe saw these clothes as ‘the gore-stained garments of her slaughtered husband and son’. The Times, 15 February 2007.

[5] Dominic Cavendish complained, ‘one may baulk at the way that “Now is the winter of our discontent” has been twisted into “The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal …”’. In this reviewer’s opinion Al-Bassam has ‘duffed up the original text to the point of unrecognisability’. ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.  

[6] ‘His play blends past with present, East with West.’ Hussain Al-Qatari, ‘Kuwaiti Playwright advocates Cultural Reform’, Kuwait Times, 8 May 2007.

[7] Dominic Cavendish describes it as a ‘collision between past and present’. ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] I use the word ‘original’ very advisedly, here meaning the speech as it appears in the published texts of 1597 and 1623.

[10] Personal communication from Al-Bassam to the author (5 May 2007).

[11] The linear and cycical motions of history nonetheless interact. Al-Bassam thinks of Richard as a ‘product of endless cycles of violence, revenge and civil war’. Quoted in ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedy in Arabic’, Trade Arabia News Service, 24 January 2007.

[12] Observations made by Sulayman Al-Bassam in a staged discussion with Michael Boyd, Playing with History, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (February 2007).

[13] See Sulayman Al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006), p. 25. Mehdi Al-Sayigh was credited as ‘Translator’ for Richard III: an Arab Tragedy.

[14] Al-Bassam says ‘As a Kuwaiti, there is a lot I owe to the coalition’, quoted by Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004. But elsewhere he speaks critically of ‘America’s War on Terror’. See Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Director’s Note – Hamlet In The Age of Infinite Justice’, The Arab League Hamlet [available at http://www.zaoum.com/index.html] [accessed 15 May 2007). In Arab Tragedy ‘War on Terror’ is a slogan adopted by Richard and Buckingham as a pretext for repression.

[15] ‘Hamlet in Kuwait’ [available at http://www.zaoum.com/] [accessed 15 May 2007].

[16] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), pp. 85-6.

[17] Ibid., p. 86.

[18] Ibid., p. 86.

[19] Ibid., p. 86.

[20] Ibid., p. 87.

[21] Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004.

[22] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), p. 87.

[23] Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004.

[24] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), p. 87.

[25] Lynn Gardner, ‘The Al-Hamlet Summit’, The Guardian, 13 March 2004.

[26]  Maddy Costa, ‘The Al-Hamlet Summit’, The Guardian, 13 August 2002.

[27] ‘Hamlet Bin Hamlet: Sulayman Al-Bassam Fuses Shakespeare with the Middle East’, Emerging Kuwait 2006 (Oxford: Oxford Business Group, 2006), p. 205.

[28] Dominic Cavendish, ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.

[29] ‘Note on the Production’, RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).

[30] Sam Marlowe, The Times, 15 February 2007.

[31] Kieron Quirke, ‘Shakespeare’s Arabia’, Evening Standard, 14 February 2007.

[32] Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare: an Arab Richard III’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007.

[33] Sam Marlowe, The Times, 15 February 2007.

[34] Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare: an Arab Richard III’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007.

[35] ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post (2 February 2007). Elsewhere he described the initial plan to parallel Richard and Saddam as a ‘non-sequitur’. (Quoted in Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007), and also talked of the risk of ‘trivialising the horrors’ of the Saddam regime. (Quoted in ‘Politics gets a Shakespearean Twist at London Theatre’, The Peninsula [Qatar], 2 December 2007).

[36]  Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Arab Muslim scholar. His major historical work is titled Book of Evidence, Record of Beginnings and Events from the Days of the Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries. See Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, edited by N. J. Dawood , translated by Bruce Lawrence (Bollingen Series, 1969). As Al-Bassam has observed to me, Khaldun was contemporary, not with Shakespeare, but with Richard III.

[37] RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).  

[38] ‘All the Christian elements have been uprooted and replaced with Islamic references … it is a political play, but it happens in a very religious context … a secular, western audience would normally see that in a very historical way, but this way it becomes contemporary’. Al-Bassam quoted by Peter Aspden, Financial Times. 6 February 2007.

[39] The mausoleum of the Sons of Muslim can be seen at in Moosayab near Karbala in Iraq.

[40] There are many resemblances between the two stories, which clearly have deep folk-tale roots. The Sons of Muslim are held in a dungeon; the sight of them praying together moves the jailer so much he releases them; they are killed successively but remain united in death.

[41] ‘In the use of recitations and quotations from the Holy Quran we have sought to portray different aspects of the political, military and social functions to which religion is put in the contemporary societies of the Gulf. It is a bitter truism that Islam is, at times, misused by authority; the words and meanings of the Holy Quran are perverted to serve agendas of power. In dramatising this reality we offer a pious critique of our world that, one trusts, will not be misunderstood’. ‘Note on Use of Quranic Extracts’, RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).

[42] Observations made by Sulayman Al-Bassam in a staged discussion with Michael Boyd, Playing with History, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (February 2007).

[43] Personal communication from Sulayman Al-Bassam, 25 July 2007.

[44] The Koran, trans. Arthur J. Arberry, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1983), pp. 169-78.

[45] Patrick Carnegy, ‘Dynastic Dissonance’, The Spectator, 24 February 2007.

[46] ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam interview by Gabriel Gbadamosi’, Night Waves, Radio 3, broadcast 9 May 2006.

[47] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Author’s Note’, The Al-Hamlet Summit (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006), p. 25.

[48] Quoted by Sebastian Usher, ‘Shakespeare in Arabic Hits Stratford’, BBC News Front Page (19 February 2007), available at [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6375547.stm] [accessed 15 May 2007].

[49] Fayez Kazak, quoted in ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post, 2 February 2007.

[50]Fayez Kazak, quoted in ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post, 2 February 2007.

Arab Shakespeare

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Presented at British Shakespeare Association Conference ‘Local/Global Shakespeares’
King’s College, London, 2009

There’s still something of novelty about that concatenation “Arab Shakespeare”. Compared to many topics under discussion in this conference programme, “Arab Shakespeare” is a relatively new and unfamiliar concept.

We have to ask why this should be so,  since it has been long established that Shakespeare was not a man from Stratford, or a peer of the realm, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a dark-skinned Jewish Italian woman. He was in fact an Arab Muslim living in Britain, and named Sheik Al-Zubir. Look at the Chandos portrait: the full lips, the dark complexion, the Islamic beard. See the evidence in his plays of how much he disliked Jews, Turks and the British.

This idea began as a joke with a nineteenth-century Lebanese comic writer called Al-Shid-yaq; it was later taken up in earnest by an Iraqi scholar, and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrahim Hamada in an extended essay, ‘The Arabness of Shakespeare.’  Colonel Qadhafi invoked it (again probably jokingly) in 1989.  But it has continued to catch the imaginations of intercultural Arab writers in the United States and Britain. The joke’s persistence, mainly in the West, suggests that it taps into some real intercultural anxiety. The fact that it seems so outrageously unthinkable, while equally unconvincing attributions of authorship keep scholars perennially busy on the Shakespeare Authorship question, indicates that there’s some deep-rooted problem with the very notion of ‘Arab Shakespeare’.

I should say at the outset, acknowledging of course that all such terms are contested and ideologically loaded, that what we mean by ‘Arab’ has to do with language, ethnicity and cultural geography.  So we’re talking here about a relation between Shakespeare and the Arabic language, classical and demotic, and with the culture of Arab territories in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. (Clearly, the topic of Shakespeare and Islam is also central to this project, though it’s a larger, overlapping category).

Studies of international Shakespeare appropriation have mushroomed over the past 15 to 20 years, and are of course at the heart of our conference this year on “Local and Global Shakespeares”.  In the 1990s several lines of academic inquiry began to converge.  Marxist scholars had for some time focused on the fetishization of Shakespeare as a British cultural icon, which was used to confer cultural legitimacy on the project of capitalist empire building.  Scholars of postcolonial drama and literature were exploring how the periphery responded.  Scholars in performance studies were noting how sharply local context could influence a play’s staging and interpretation, and saw a need to account for ‘intercultural’ performances of Shakespeare in various languages and locales.  Translation theorists found in Shakespeare’s plays a convenient (because widely known and prestigious) test case. All this scholarship developed quickly, and Shakespeareans in many countries have contributed: it’s been very much an international project.  By now, there is a rich bibliography on Shakespeare appropriation in India, China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, and many countries in Latin America and Eastern and Western Europe.

Until recently, scholars of Arabic literature and drama were mainly passive participants in this growing Shakespeare conversation.  The Arab world went unnoticed in the numerous edited volumes on international Shakespeare reception and appropriation.  Arab scholars were rarely represented at the major congresses on the subject.  The World Shakespeare Bibliography Online, which catalogues materials in 118 languages, has had only one active Arabic-speaking contributor in the past decade. In English, a handful of articles and dissertations has represented the field.  When scholars in Europe and the United States have occasionally mentioned ‘Arab Shakespeare’ to their colleagues, they have presented it as I did at the beginning of this talk as a novelty, drawing a cheap laugh with the old ‘Shaykh Al-Zubayr’ joke. For which I’m now publicly reprimanding myself.

However, this situation is changing quickly.  In 2006, the World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane formally embraced Arab Shakespeare. The WSC opened with a panel on Arab Shakespeare, and staged a rehearsed reading of Jawad Al-Asadi’s play Forget Hamlet, translated into English by Margaret Litvin. In 2007 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged its first production in Arabic, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s wonderful Richard III: an Arab Tragedy.  Shakespeareans and Arabists alike are taking a variety of approaches to the question of what Arab readers, translators, rewriters, producers, directors, critics, and audiences do with Shakespeare. Work has been done on global Arabic Shakespeare, facilitated particularly by Sulayman-Al Bassam’s adaptations, which move around the world, in and out of Arabic and English, and sometimes the local language of the territory in which they’re performed. Work has been done on local Middle Eastern Shakespeares, by for instance Mark Bayer, who has used Shakespeare to trace some of the tensions of politics and cultural geography between Israel and Palestine . Rafik Darragi has done work on early Arab Shakespeare adaptations. Work has been done within translation studies on the complex mediations involved in moving Shakespeare into Arabic and back out again (see the work of Sameh Hannah).  In 2007 Margaret Litvin edited the first collection of essays devoted to Arab Shakespeare in the journal Critical Survey, of which I am General Editor (19:3 [December 2007], Arab Shakespeare). Research students are starting to do PhDs on the topic, and so on.

So one way of looking at this is to say that Arab Shakespeare was just another domain of international, intercultural, Shakespeare reproduction that was waiting to be studied. And all that was needed was for some scholars in the west with an interest in the language and the culture, to meet up with some people in the east and to politely get a conversation going. And in a way that is true and it’s begun to happen. But if you look at the inertia that slumbered over this field for so long, and at the sudden urgency with which it’s now all happening, there is obviously a major ‘9/11’ catalytic factor at work here. The movement in Shakespeare studies is a mere symptom, we might say, of a paradigm shift in Western intellectual culture, which has energised itself in momentous ways to seek understanding of, and accommodation with, the sources of terrorist violence. And though it is perhaps regrettable that the international debate has to be conducted partly over that ground, it’s mere foolishness to ignore it, and indeed ignorance to see it as all that unusual, as if it’s the first time culture and violence have ever been formally introduced.

Let me now summarise some of the difficulties that have clearly constituted obstacles for the development of Arab Shakespeare studies, and that still make it a problematic field. These problems are mentioned not in the way of excuse or even explanation but rather to indicate what critical and theoretical tools we need to advance this vital field of knowledge.

The textual and performance history of Arabic Shakespeare is almost as old as the history of Arabic drama itself: but that’s not a very long history. Classical Arabic did not have drama as a genre. There is no equivalent Arabic word for ‘drama’; the Graeco-Latin term is phoneticized.   Dramatic form as it is known to Western audiences first appeared in the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century. The importation of dramatic works from the West was urgently required to help formulate an Arabic dramatic tradition. Shakespeare’s works, among others, were assimilated into the language and he, like other European playwrights, played a significant role in establishing an Arabic dramatic field of study.

Shakespeare entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893, and was immediately popular with local audiences, who had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness. Productions were based on translations derived from 18th century French versions of Shakespeare. Hence the play was radically adapted, with whole scenes deleted and songs introduced; with Hamlet making love to Ophelia in the language of Arab love poetry, and with all obscenity discreetly purged. Above all the play was converted from Shakespeare’s tragedy into a historical romance, in which Hamlet defeats his uncle, ascends the throne, and reigns with the Ghost’s blessing. In Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamlet flourished as a stage show, independently of textual scholarship, and appeared in radically revised, rewritten, and reconstructed adaptations.

Shakespeare’s absorption into Middle Eastern culture was not therefore by any means a simple process of imperialist transmission and passive colonial reception. ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Nadia Al-Bahar ‘was transplanted into Arab soil’.  ‘Transplanted’ indicates not a simple exchange but a cross-cultural migration across borders, in which the artefact becomes rooted in different soil, and there adapts itself to the local climate and conditions. Hamlet has been ‘assimilated’, said Mahmoud Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ . This performance tradition did not produce anything like a consistent ‘Arab’ interpretation of Hamlet. ‘The play’, writes Al-Shetawi, ‘has always been known to the Arab audience and frequently staged in the Arab world’; but it has also ‘always been adapted to suit the conditions of local Arab theatres and native culture’.  The “global” became “local” so immediately and wholeheartedly that it turned into something quite difficult for us tor recognize as really ‘Shakespeare’.

So insofar as Arab Shakespeare is a difficult field of study, the problems lie between the global, or at least the international, and the local. Behind contemporary theatrical practice in this region lies a complex set of histories that is still being researched and documented: histories of imperial conquest and national revival, of intercultural engagements, of complex international relations. Egyptian Shakespeare through a combination of Napoleonic conquests and Soviet influence, is in many ways closer to French and Russian cultures, than it is to anything English or British. Arabic is a global language, but its globalized form is bound up with classical traditions and religious institutions in ways that clearly cause problems for contemporary Arab dramatists as well as curious westerners. As a spoken language, Arabic has many local variants between different Arab countries. Local cultures are very diverse, so a Shakespeare reproduced in Tunisia or Morocco or Libya is unlikely to be the same as a Shakespeare reproduced in Iraq or Jordan or Kuwait.

So to pursue this work of Arab Shakespeare we need a lot of good, independent minded, cultural history of this region, its countries and its peoples. We need theoretical tools capable of handling cultural transactions of unusual complexity: we’ve used Marx, and Bourdieu, and some very good social science work on globalisation (e.g. in ‘Arabesque’). But we also need the language – let’s overstate the obvious again and affirm how much we Shakespeareans need Arabists ; and we need a local presence in the field to really get inside Arab Shakespeare. In order to write the paper “Rudely Interrupted”, which analyses the terrorist bombing of a theatre performing 12th Night in Qatar, I needed Bryan Loughrey on the spot, to talk to the people who’d mercifully survived the blast, as well as the global perspective we derived from the world media, and the in-depth understanding of Shakespeare which is our normal professional equipment (‘“Rudely interrupted”: Shakespeare and Terrorism’ [with Bryan Loughrey] Critical Survey 19:3 (December 2007), pp. 126-142.

Let me in the time that remains give just two examples from my own recent work that seem to me to symptomatise the key problem of “Arab Shakespeare”. These examples concern the presence or absence of Arab characters in two adaptations of Shakespeare plays, a novel and a film. Both are highly regarded, critically acclaimed, award-winning works in the West.

My first example is a novel, Caryl Phillips’s The Nature of Blood. The book is constructed from separate narrative strands which flow in parallel. The novel begins and ends with Stephan Stern, a Jewish activist who at the beginning is seen working with displaced Jewish refugees held by the British on Cyprus in the late 1940s, and at the end is living in the newly-established state of Israel. Stephan is uncle to Eva, whose story, which carries strong echoes of the story of Ann Frank, takes us through the atrocities of the Nazi death camps in the later years of the Second World War.  Interwoven with these modern narratives is the true story of the Jews who were tried and executed for child-murder in Venice in the 1480s; and at the centre of the novel is the story of Shakespeare’s Othello which runs from his arrival in Venice to his successful mission against the Turks in Cyprus.  

The novel documents discrete historical experiences of racism and persecution involving blacks and Jews, and implies that they all share a common origin and cause. The experience of mediaeval and early-modern Jewry in Venice is framed within the 20th century experience of the Holocaust, the dispossession of European Jews and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.  The Jews herded in the 16th century Venetian Ghetto parallel both the 15th century Portabuffolo Jews, imprisoned in the Doge’s palace awaiting their trial and execution, and the 20th century victims of the Nazi extermination camps.

The Nature of Blood twins the African and the Jew. The Jew is located in the Ghetto and the Nazi death camp, both seen as parallel models of incarceration; and the black man, as in the dominant ‘Othello’ tradition, is associated with transatlantic slavery and with America. In Shakespeare’s time the term ‘Moor’ could mean generically, an African:  but  used in its most precise topical application ‘referred quite specifically to the Berber-Arab people of the part of North Africa then rather vaguely denominated as “Morocco”, “ Mauritania”, or “ Barbary”’ It could also be used as a religious identifier to signify a Muslim. Iago associates Othello with Mauritania in north-west Africa.

But in the course of the play’s stage and screen history, Othello became indelibly associated with the non-Muslim African, through defining performances by black African-American actors.   Laurence Olivier even gave Othello a West Indian accent, suggesting he went a very long way round to reach Venice. While in the West, Othello’s identity became mapped along the slave-trading routes between Europe and the Americas, in the Middle East, Othello is, and always has been, an ‘Arab’. The very first translation and production of a Shakespeare play in Arabic was of Othello in Egypt in 1884. The Arab Othello (At-Allah, or ‘Utayl, as he is called in different translations) has never taken that journey to the West

Nowhere in The Nature of Blood is Othello given any orientation towards the East. Nowhere is he associated with Arab ethnicity, or with Islamic religion. Yet the novel’s framing context, with which it opens and closes, is the violent founding and more violent defence of modern Israel.  Phillips depicts a world in which the Venetian prison, the British refugee camp for European Jews, and the Nazi extermination camp together symbolise a longue duree of persecution for the Jews. By insisting on repeated parallelisms between blacks and Jews  he implicitly claims this narrative of suffering as his own. He does not seem to see any trace of refugee camps containing Palestinians. By the same token, his Othello, despite the Shakespearean character’s marked associations with the Arab and Muslim East, is never accorded any potential connection with those dispossessed by the forced expropriation of Jewish settlement. Suffering is quarantined, confined to racial type, the black and the Jew. Othello the Moor, the Arab, is written out of the story altogether. Phillips’s novel presents a Jewish Shakespeare, and a black Shakespeare, but “Arab Shakespeare” is nowhere to be seen.

My second example is the portrayal of the Prince of Morocco in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is of course played here by Al Pacino, who invests the role with enormous tragic dignity and universal humanity, and who commands from the spectator, as one critic puts it, “unambiguous sympathy”.  The prince of Morocco however is very different.  As Morocco says to Portia ‘dislike me not for my complexion’ – Portia and Nerissa can barely keep straight faces, as if the idea of such miscegenation is hilariously inconceivable. Morocco sports Bedouin garb, turban and flowing robes, and carries a scimitar. His manner is exaggerated and pompous, the actor relishing the rhetoric assigned to the role, producing the comic effect of a foreigner overplaying his hand, impervious to the amused astonishment of his hostess. He speaks with a strong Middle Eastern accent, though Shylock never sounds like a Yiddish comedian, and Bassanio has no accent of Italy.

Morocco is accompanied by an entourage of turbaned, black-robed North African men, all armed with daggers and scimitars. These weapons are drawn and brandished as Morocco and his bodyguard march through the gardens of Belmont, disturbing the civilised peace, to the accompaniment of distinctively Middle Eastern, desert music.  The Arab is uncivilised, gauche, loud and overbearing. Much of his speech is directed to his men, as if his natural element is the male camaraderie of the battlefield, rather than the lady’s salon.

Over the silver casket, he smugly acknowledges his own deserving. Shakespeare’s text reads: ‘I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes/In graces, and in qualities of breeding’. But the film script substitutes for that last word ‘valour’, which prompts the prince and his men to draw and brandish their weapons with a loud war cry.

Portia herself is cleared of the more obvious signs of racism by the cutting of her line ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’. Much of Shylock’s racist language is also cut: his first verse speech, 1.3.35-47, is reduced to the one line ‘How like a fawning publican he looks’. But the parodic language assigned to the Arab Muslim is left intact as an extraordinary instance of directorial partiality. In Renaissance Venice the Muslim had as much, and as little, protection and liberty as the Jew. In Radford’s contemporary film, the Jew is all tragic dignity and universal humanity, while the Prince of Morocco is the butt of a broadly comedic treatment that caricatures the Muslim Arab.

Othello is described in the play as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere’. Othello is presented as a nomadic and itinerant figure, elusive and unreliable, unpredictable and vagabond. One knows not whence he came, or whither he is going; he has been everywhere and nowhere. Later Iago uses the same language of unrestricted itinerancy, calling Othello an ‘erring barbarian’: errant as well as meaningless (from the Greek barbaros, an unintelligible babble, the equivalent of blahblahblah), a wandering Arab crossing and recrossing the desert wastes.  The stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the ‘turban’d Turk’.  These examples suggest that the Arab in Shakespeare is just as hard to fix and identify as Othello is in the play.

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s An Arab Tragedy: Introduction

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in February 2007 as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Complete Works’ project. The repertory consisted of ‘mainstream’ productions and parallel or alternative versions (‘responses’). An Arab Tragedy was billed as a ‘response’ to Michael Boyd’s production of Richard III. The play was performed in Arabic (the first play in Arabic to be produced by the RSC), with the English text projected onto screens as surtitles, and with some scenes spoken in English. Later that same year the piece was performed in Athens and in Kuwait. It then  travelled to to America for a festival of Arab culture at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC after performances in Paris (May 2008).

Although the play is set in an unnamed ‘Gulf state’, Al-Bassam clearly did not want the play’s frame of reference restricted, as some reviewers suggested it was, to the Gulf monarchies.  Hence he broadens the scope of the piece: ‘the modern Middle East, like so many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, offers a painful plethora of examples of how not to rule’. Prompted by such parallels, reviewers saw the piece as a play of urgent topicality, ‘reconceiving Shakespeare’s tragedy for the jihadi age’. Shakespeare’s play is ripe for such analogies, replete as it is with arrests and executions, secret assassinations, political in-fighting and photo opportunities, hostage-taking, character assassination and show trials, religious hypocrisy, forced confessions, usurpation, invasion and civil war.

The staging accentuates these parallels further. Projection screens were used to contextualise the action to the Gulf War; back-projected images fleshed out the contingent context of despotism, military action, clandestine surveillance.    These ‘multimedia interventions’ were read primarily as documentary illustrations enforcing the contemporary parallels. Al-Bassam’s Buckingham is a double agent, secretly liaising with the Americans as he ostensibly supports Richard’s bid for the throne. The screens record his coded email communications. ‘Even as Buckingham does Richard’s bidding, he sends e-mail updates on the sly to the American ambassador, reporting on the latest political machinations’. Richmond is portrayed as a ‘platitude-spouting Christian US general who at the play’s conclusion announces the installation of an interim government’. At this final point of the drama, just before the theatre collapses its illusions and decants us back out into our own world, we are here transported from 1400 to 2003, from Bosworth Field to Afghanistan or Iraq in the embattled Middle East of the 21st century.

The true achievement of Arab Tragedy lies however less in its astute political parallels and historical comparisons, and more in the cross-cultural encounters it sets up between Western and Arab societies. The project was initially titled Baghdad Richard (tickets were sold for the play under that title) with the Gloucester-Saddam parallel clearly foregrounded. Al-Bassam changed the title in response to changing events, particularly the trial and execution of Saddam, but also out of a realisation that in this theatrical medium, oversimplification is a constant danger.

The new title An Arab Tragedy suggests a broader territory, not just Iraq, and broaches wider issues of concern to the Gulf States and the Arab world in general. Al-Bassam came to see the play as initially about ‘constitutional crisis’ which is a ‘very current’ issue for the Gulf region. The production programme quotes a passage from 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun on the dangers of dynastic succession in monarchy. The succession of a child protected by powerful ‘wazirs’ renders the state vulnerable, and this weakness is seen as a virtually incurable ‘disease of dynasty’.  This theatrical ‘nightmare’ goes well beyond the interpolation of agit-prop relevance, and has the capacity to take the spectator deeper not only into Arab culture, but into territories of myth and communal emotion where trans-cultural rapprochements can more effectively take place.

Although Al-Bassam’s adaptations of Shakespeare clearly are a form of political theatre, and offer themselves to be read as such, they are not restricted to this cultural register. The works aim to produce ‘a richly suggestive theatrical experience, not a piece of agit-prop’. Political parallels and historical comparisons are certainly drawn, but not in any simplistic or reductive way. Rather he attempts to ‘put contemporary figures in the political landscape, within the fabric of another world, a Shakespearean world, and thereby open up a space for dissent, or a space for another kind of annotation’. The Shakespearean dimension is there to provide a dramatic space in which contemporary events can be re-projected with something like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, so that the present condition is estranged rather than simply recognised. ‘Current political events – and our perceptions of them – hang like a misty landscape, half-perceived, in the backdrop of the play’. Al-Bassam wants his Western spectators to think again about contemporary political stereotypes rather than merely to identify (and implicitly endorse) them.

In making theatre in the Arab world and presenting it to the West (as is the case in this production) I am very conscious of not using theatre to make binary moral statements (we are right: you are wrong) as this process merely confirms prejudices and makes matters worse. I have tried to level the earth to make a space for this text and aspects of the contemporary Arab world to meet and make sense of each other.
The dramatist was also obviously steering a difficult course among a wide range of extreme and moderate opinions on the current condition of the Middle East. His focus is on the possibilities for cross-cultural linguistic and theatrical encounters, and for enhanced understanding between divided communities.

I think that there are sadly few Arab voices that are able to speak to Western audiences outside of a political or religious context and in that sense one has to find a way to steer between ideological cliché and antagonism but also to use those elements – because that’s what most people are familiar with – to open up new space for dialogue and meeting.

Shakespeare in Latin America

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

First broadcast as The Essay for BBC Radio 3.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus hoisted the Spanish flag on the island in the Atlantic Ocean which he called “San Salvador”. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral landed at the bay he called “Bahia de Todos os Santos”, in an unknown country later named Brazil, where he placed the Portuguese flag. When these two seamen took possession of the new found lands, William Shakespeare had not yet been born. But years later the English playwright’s voice would resound in a prophetic speech: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in places unborn and accents yet unknown?”

After three hundred years Shakespeare’s work appeared for the first time in Latin America. In Argentina, between 1822 and 1830, the actor Francisco Cárceres played Othello. Between 1839 and 1852, other plays appeared in Buenos Aires, in modified translations.

In Brazil, the first translation of a whole play by Shakespeare appeared in 1842, from the  French adaptation by Jean-François Ducis. Othello seems to have been the play generally preferred in the translations and productions of that time. The Italian actors Ernesto Rossi and Tommaso Salvini, and a few other European companies touring in South America brought their romantically performed Shakespeare to upper class audiences.

Adaptations by native authors started being made then. In Brazil, the renowned romantic poet Gonçalves Dias wrote Leonor de Mendonça, published in 1868. In his play, Dias recreated Shakespeare’s Othello though saying it was based on a true story he had found in the Portuguese chronicles of 1512. Nevertheless, in the preface to the published text of Leonor de Mendonça, he says he was inspired by the English playwright. It is a play with liberating ideas about women’s freedom in a macho man society. As the Duke’s complexion is white, there is no concern for the Eurocentric view of the other found in Shakespeare. And Iago is omitted.

A few plays were then translated in other Latin American countries. Perhaps the most important work of translation, due to its comprehensiveness, was Dramas de Guillermo Shakspeare,  by the Peruvian  José Arnaldo Márquez , in two volumes, first  published in Barcelona, but later on in Argentina, Mexico and Peru.

At the end of the 19th century Shakespeare’s presence in Latin American arts began to find new paths, when the adapters were more aware of the differences and similarities in the cultures appropriating him, and of the possibilities to expand it. That seems to be what the Mexican Manuel Pérez Bibbins and Francisco López Carvajal did, in 1886, in their Hamlet, arreglo a la escena espanõla del célèbre drama tragico de William Shakespeare. It had cuts of scenes and characters – Fortinbras and the first scene in act 1, for instance, are omitted. The play ends with only Polonius, Hamlet and Claudius being killed. And it is Horatio who kills the king, not Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s influence reached other arts, especially prose works. The Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis started by quoting him in short essays on topical subjects published in newspapers, and in short-stories. He gradually increased his loans from Shakespeare, until he transmuted him in his major novels. Shakespeare’s presence in Quincas Borba, published in 1891, is unquestionable. But Machado’s  greatest “mirror up to the Bard” is  Dom Casmurro, published in 1899.

There was a shift of focus with the modernist ideals of national identity. At first, Caliban occupied the position of the voracious oppressor. The young Nicaraguan nationalist, poet and journalist Rubén Darío, after having visited New York in 1893, would equate Caliban with North Americans. To him, New York was the land where “Caliban soaks up whiskey as he soaked up wine in Shakespeare’s play”.

With The Tempest as source of inspiration for nationalistic ideals in Latin America, Caliban became the capitalist oppressor and Ariel the representative of the virtuous oppressed. This symbolic opposition had its impact in 1900 through Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó’s essay Ariel.

Rodó sees Prospero as a wise teacher surrounded by his young followers whom he guides in their intellectual search for elevated life; and Caliban, as a rude, destructive materialist embodying North American civilization. Rodó says: “Ariel is this sublime instinct of perfectibility through whose virtue he is converted into the centre of things. [….] Triumphant Ariel means idealism and order in life, noble inspiration in thinking, disinterested morals, refinement in art. […….] Subdued a thousand times by Caliban’s unconquerable rebelliousness, proscribed by conquering savagery, asphyxiated in the fumes of battles, his transparent wings being stained as he touches Job’s everlasting garbage, Ariel resurrects even more immortal, Ariel recovers his youth and his beauty and nimbly assists all those who really love and invoke him, as he used to do with Prospero.”[i]

Rodó’s symbolism pervaded  socio-political and literary thinking until the first half of the 20th century. When the United States endeavoured to impose their interests in Central and South America, new Latin American voices saw in Caliban the legitimate representative of the oppressed and exploited colonized people in their continent. And “Caliban, the Latin American,” was born. In 1969, on the Caribbean islands, there appeared three different reconstructions of that play: Martinican Aimé Césaire’s La Tempête; Barbadian Edward Braithwaite’s Islands, a collection of poems that has a poem entitled “Caliban”; and Cuban Roberto Fernández Retamar, whose book Caliban: Apuntes sobre la cultura en nuestra America was published in 1971.

Retamar’s Caliban became the symbol for the Latin American peoples oppressed by North American power. He was then transformed into the hybrid representative of Latin Americans, the “mestizo: “Our symbol”, Retamar said, “is not Ariel, as Rodó thought, but Caliban. This becomes particularly clear to us, mestizos who inhabit the same islands where Caliban lived: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, turned Caliban into a slave and taught him his language so that he could communicate with him. What else can Caliban do but use this same language – as there is no other nowadays – to curse Prospero, to wish that the red plague devoured him? I do not know any better metaphor for our cultural situation, for our reality.”

In 1979, during the military dictatorship, the Brazilian thinker, actor and theatre director Augusto Boal, exiled in Lisbon, wrote A Tempestade (The Tempest). Boal conflated his theories on theatre and his view of the Latin American plight, and offered a new reading of Shakespeare’s text.  In it Prospero portrays North America; the other noblemen, Europe; Ariel, the submissive intellectual serving the oppressor; and Caliban, Latin America. Politically subversive, Boal also transgresses the canon, by means of a simple dramatic structure with his Manichean strategy of good/Caliban/oppressed versus evil/Prospero/oppressor. Such simplification, plus the use of fourteen songs that serve as a choric element explaining situations, characters’ behaviour, and ironically commenting upon the dialogue, subverts Shakespeare’s text. As he said in the epigraph to the play,”it must be made clear, very clear that we are beautiful because we are ourselves, and no imposed culture is more beautiful than ours. [….]It must be made clear that we are Caliban.”

In the forties, when Latin America was beginning to find its own image, the United States ruled over the contemporary mass media market and Hollywood was the centre of interest of actors, directors and audience. Shakespeare, the great icon of culture, became a target of capitalist cinematic productions. It was then that two appropriations of Romeo and Juliet appeared as parodies of the canon and of the Hollywood film enterprise: the Mexican 1943 Romeo y Julieta, and the 1949 Brazilian Carnaval no Fogo  with its anthological parody of the two balcony scenes in Shakespeare’s text.

Romeo y Julieta was written by Jaime Salvador and directed by Miguel M. Delgado for the comedian Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas. Cantinflas’s art developed in the tradition of a Mexican lively performance called carpa that did not work well on the screen. This Romeo and Juliet, a blatant parody of both Shakespeare’s play and George Cukor’s 1939 film, focuses more on the actor/carpero than on the appropriation of the canonical text.

The 1949 Brazilian parody, just a short intervention on the film directed by Watson Macedo, was played by two well known comic actors, Oscarito and Grande Otelo. With Grande Otelo, a male negro actor, playing Juliet, the scene was from the start based on the carnivalesque “world-upside-down” of parody in which travesty has a strong appeal. The dialogue between the two “lovers” transmutes Shakespeare’s language when it uses imagery from the source text simultaneous with verbal puns accessible to Brazilian audiences. This scene in a popular entertainment caters for the “mob” while subverting the ideals and presumptions of the upper class, and strongly ridiculing Holywood through its hints at American films then well known in Brazil.

From the four last decades of the 20th century onwards Shakespeare’s work has flourished in complete freedom in Latin America, now more than ever crossing boundaries, geographically, artistically, and in different media.

In literature, the 20th century saw Shakespeare mainly through the eyes of two renowned writers: Chilean Pablo Neruda, with his translation of Romeo and Juliet, in 1964. And the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges with various recreations of themes and ideas, such as his  tales Everything and Nothing and La Memoria de Shakespeare, and  his   poem The Thing I Am.   

Neruda’s translation, a beautiful poetical construct, is practically turned into another text, as political ideology and aesthetic constraints induced him to omit various passages and avoid puns and bawdy language. He conceded that he had been constrained by the need to render Shakespeare’s text into an understandable poetical drama in Spanish, when he said: “Preserving poetry was the hardest part. […] I had to tackle one all-encompassing, definitive problem: the poetry’s comprehension and survival. That was the major problem, and this is the question I essentially tried to resolve: how to preserve Shakespeare’s poetic expression while making the tragedy comprehensible for everyone.”[ii]

Borges used to liken himself to Shakespeare’s liar Parolles and Shakespeare to God, in creative power. He saw such real life in the playwright’s characters that to him Shakespeare the man becomes nothing. In Everything and Nothing, for instance, Shakespeare asks God to let him “be one and myself”, but is denied his request, as God defines his role as creator: “Like me, you are many and no one”[iii]

Among 20th century recreations some are noteworthy for their innovative assimilation of Shakespeare’s plays. In Argentina, Richard III has launched adaptations related to strong regimes. Some of these are Marcelo Arbach’s and Franco Cuello’s 2009 production that set the play in the 40’s, during the deposition of Peron’s government; Guillermo Asensio’s, 2007/2008 multimedia Richard III in which the tyrant  used a remote control to choose which scenes the audience would see on a big plasma screen. And Laura Silva, in 2006, adapted and directed a version of the same play with clowns as characters highlighting the evil inherent in tyranny.

In 2001, Rubén Pires directed El Romance del Romeo y la Julieta (The Romeo and Juliet Ballad). This new version had one hundred and fifty tango songs that told the story of Romeo and Juliet making practically no change in the source plot. Tango, then, with its rhythm representative of the country, creates a cultural bridge between two different places and long distanced times.

Before this production in Argentina, and also using regional music as a complementary device, in 1992 Gabriel Vilela directed Grupo Galpão, in Brazil, in their Romeo and Juliet, winner of some international awards. In this adaptation for street theatre, music accompanied Shakespeare’s words interspersed with speeches in the style of the Brazilian novelist Guimarães Rosa.

In Colombia, the Teatro Libre de Bogotá, founded in 1973 by a group of young actors and under the guidance of Ricardo Camacho, offered some rich productions based on Shakespeare. Politically oriented at first, in 1977 El Teatro Libre de Bogotá changed from politics to art for art’s sake. Ricardo Camacho said in an interview[iv]: “This decisive moment in the life of the group was marked by the life giving and critical presence of William Shakespeare’s theatre, with a sort of strength that has followed it throughout its story.”[v] It was then that the Teatro Libre performed King Lear. That production met with a huge success, providing the group with means to have their own theatre house and create the Escuela de Teatro Libre (Free Theatre School) that has already produced fifteen plays by Shakespeare.

In contemporary Latin America the influence of the screen has allowed Shakespeare to be acted over in even newer accents though the countries where they emerge are no longer unborn.So where are we now in your opinion? That is, for instance, the case with Lípkies’s 2003 Mexican film Huapango, and Grisolli’s 1980 and 1983 Brazilian recreations for Globo TV, Otelo de Oliveira and Romeu e Julieta.

So, in Latin America, the rest has not been silence.



[i] My translation into English from the Brazilian version of Ariel: Breviário da Juventude, adapted by Hermes da Fonseca Filho. Rio de Janeiro, 1926.

[ii] Quoted in Racz, 2005:79.

[iii] Translated from Borges’s Obras Completas. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974.  vol. 2:182.

[iv] Interview with Patricia Jamarillo.

[v] My translation into English.

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Boal, Augusto. A Tempestade. Lisboa:

Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras Complets. 4 vols. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974.

Dias, Gonçalves. Leonor de Mendonça. Belo Horizonte: Vega, 1976.

Modenessi, Alfredo Michel. “The Rogue and Will”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:219-241.

Racz, Gregary J. “Strategies of Deletion in Pablo Neruda’s Romeo and Juliet”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:71-91.

Rodo, José Enrique. Ariel: breviario da Juventude. Hermes da Fonseca Ada. Rio de Janeiro, 1926.

Santos, Marlene Soares dos. “Theater for the Oppressed: Augusto Boal’s A Tempestade”. Aimara da Cunha Resende ed. Foreign Accents: Brazilian Appropriations of Shakespeare. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002:42-54.

Tiffany, Grace. “Borges and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Borges”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:145-165.

Tronch-Pérez, Jésus. “The Unavenging Prince: A Nineteenth-Century Mexican Stage Adaptation of Hamlet”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:54-70.

 

Vaughan, Alden T. “Caliban in the ‘Third World’: Shakespeare’s Savage as Sociopolitical Symbol”. Critical Essays On Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST. Virginia Mason Vaughan; Alden T. Vaughan eds. New York: G.K. Hall, 1998:247-265.

The Failed Literary Revolt: Shakespeare and the Early American Left

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

“We cling to the old culture, and fight for it against ourselves.  But it must die.  The old ideals must die.  But let us not fear.  Let us fling all we are into the cauldron of the Revolution.”[1]  Mike Gold, arguably the most influential figure in the American communist movement, said this in 1921 to initiate an American proletarian literary tradition.  Gold’s declaration that old culture must die—a reaction against bourgeois heritage in art—exemplified the general attitude of the communist-affiliated American Left during the 1920s.  With the commencement of the New Masses a few years later, Gold reiterated this message in greater detail: “Let us forget the past.  Shakespeare, Dante, Shelley, and even Bernard Shaw—for here are virgin paths that their feet could not have trod in time and space.”[2]  Rejecting past literary influences, however, proved to be a challenge when confronted with Shakespeare.  The American Left never could completely dissociate itself from Shakespeare.  This was in part due to the fact that Shakespeare had become naturalized as a national poet in America during the nineteenth-century.  It was also because the American Left’s Soviet and German counterparts, despite observing him with mixed feelings, never detached themselves from Shakespeare.  To this end, Shakespeare continued to be a part of exchanges regarding the future of politically-committed Leftist culture and art.  Ultimately, the American Left’s persistent battle with Shakespeare not only ended in defeat, but it actually reinforced Shakespeare’s cultural authority.

Shakespeare reached iconic status in the Soviet Union by the mid-1930s, but he was not always openly welcomed by revolutionary Soviet artists.  It was not until Maxim Gorkii publicly praised Shakespeare at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 that he was commemorated by Stalin and on a national level.  At this venue, Karl Radek too acknowledged Shakespeare’s genius.  Comparing the millions of Soviets that could access culture to the “small section of society” with access during the English Renaissance, Radek claimed that the Soviets “have one hundred times better chances that more Shakespeares, more geniuses” would be found among proletarian writers.[3]

Conversely, in the years immediately following World War I and into the 1920s, Shakespeare was the center of convoluted Soviet literary and cultural politics that traversed national boundaries.  These debates dressed Shakespeare in disparate forms: “as representative of ‘bourgeois’ artistic traditions; as indispensable classic; as alien, foreign text; as Renaissance precursor to new Soviet society; as valuable box office draw; as dramatic master; and as outmoded sympathizer of aristocratic circles.”[4]  These debates likewise preoccupied the American Left during the 1920s, so much that Gold felt compelled to address cynics who made accusations that proletarian art was mediocre at best because of the absence of a single great writer like Shakespeare.  When asked the question, “[W]here is your Shakespeare,” Gold responded, “Wait ten years more.  He is on his way.  We gave you a Lenin; we will give you a proletarian Shakespeare, too; if that is so important…we promise you a hundred Shakespeares.”[5]  The reference to Lenin illustrates the American Left’s link to international socialist and communist politics, and addressing Shakespeare in the plural demonstrates an opposition to bourgeois individualism.  Nonetheless, using Shakespeare as an archetype for gifted writers highlights the Bard’s pervasive bearing on the American Left.

The Shakespeare topic often framed larger American Leftist literary debates.  V.F. Calverton, a rising literary critic during the nascent stages of the American proletarian movement, offered a sociological approach to literature in his book The Newer Spirit (1925).  His criticism provided a strong Marxist foundation for Leftist theorists.  To make distinctions between different historical epochs, Calverton argued that Shakespeare was outdated by the 1920s.  Furthermore, he claimed that as time progressed, Shakespeare’s dramas would continue to face a “distinct diminution in value:”

Shakespeare’s attitude toward the working man, and his depiction of his characteristics, has far less value than it had in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  This means, of course, that his dramas as a whole, and no critic can judge a drama aside from the social forces that created it, have a different value today than they had during the whole period of feudalism.[6]

Even if it was not Calverton’s intention, by using Shakespeare as an example in a critical argument, Calverton reinforced Shakespeare’s cultural authority among the literary Left. Moreover, Calverton’s sociological method is quite similar to those theories of more well-known critics.  Early writings of Bertolt Brecht, who has reached canonical status in present-day Shakespearean performance studies, depict a comparable attitude towards Shakespeare’s body of work.  In 1927, Brecht endorsed the abolishment of bourgeois aesthetics in Germany and praised the sociological approach to literature: “[Y]ou, the sociologist, are alone in being prepared to admit that Shakespeare’s great plays, the basis of our drama, are no longer effective.”[7]  Calverton and Brecht represent international backlash against bourgeois cultural influences.  Still, the specter of Shakespeare hovered over Leftist criticism.

Shakespeare also remained a constant factor in the “style versus content” debate.  Joseph Freeman, conceivably the father of proletarian literary theory in America, incorporated Shakespeare into his criticism as well.  But for Freeman, Shakespeare retained literary value.  Freeman spent a great deal of time in Moscow during the 1920s, and on multiple occasions he heard that reading Shakespeare was criminal.  He agreed that Shakespeare should be read critically, but maintained that Shakespeare should be read.  Freeman, like most American communist writers, was repulsed by the art for art’s sake idea; however, he believed that Shakespeare effectively implemented creative stylization while expressing socially-relevant content.  In personal correspondence with fellow critic Paris Irwin in 1921, Freeman wrote,

“Shall I kill myself or shall I not kill myself” is an idea similar to the idea “to be or not to be—that is the question.”  But it is not the same idea.  Shakespeare has said what my prose sentence has said; but he has said much more in addition; there is a whole hinterland of thought and emotion behind Shakespeare’s phrase which the prose sentence misses.[8]

In this instance, Shakespeare served as a model for the practice of creating a relationship between style and content.  Even though Freeman valued content over style, he understood that if content was not compromised by “charming” aesthetics, then talented formalist techniques could strengthen a piece of literature.  In an article urging workers to become writers, even Gold could not avoid turning to Shakespeare.  Gold adapted Hamlet’s line “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (Hamlet 3.2.85) to make a theoretical claim of his own: “Technique has made cowards of us all.”[9]  This quote was published a month after his proposed Leftist program outlined in “Towards Proletarian Art.”  The American Left may not have wanted to hold onto the past, but Shakespeare proved to be an asset for Freeman and Gold to propose literary formulas.

While Gold and Freeman were establishing an American model for proletarian literature in the 1920s, Brecht was in Germany developing a theory for a political theatre that stressed the importance of content.  Brecht suggested that “[t]he proper way to explore humanity’s new mutual relationships is via the exploration of the new subject-matter” and “[o]nce we have begun to find our way about the subject-matter we can move on to the relationships, which at present are immensely complicated and can only be simplified by formal means.”[10]  These thoughts preceded the development of Brecht’s epic theatre, but they show early traces of Brecht’s later stance that audiences should contemplate real living conditions when leaving the theatre, rather than indulge in personal emotional responses.  Brecht’s emphasis on subject-matter complemented his own anti-heritage sentiments.  Like the American Left, he too set up Shakespeare as the quintessence of the old bourgeois world.

In brief, Gold, Calverton, and Freeman provide a strong representation of the direction of the American Leftist literary tradition in the 1920s.  Gold claimed to be an internationalist while simultaneously believing that American writers “ought to set sail for a new discovery of America.”[11]  But the role of Shakespeare in international leftism affords us the opportunity to recognize the American Left’s cultural agenda.  Its failed attempts to eradicate Shakespeare from the American proletarian tradition also reveal the overpowering cultural authority of Shakespeare.  Moving into the late 1920s and the 1930s, American proletarian writers began to accept Shakespeare’s place in the proletarian tradition and included him more freely in creative work rather than solely literary criticism and political propaganda.  Therefore, it is safe to say that the revolt against Shakespeare failed.

 

———————————————

Jeffrey Butcher is a doctoral candidate in English at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.


[1] Mike Gold, “Towards Proletarian Art,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 62.  This article was originally published in the February 1921 issue of the Liberator.

[2] Mike Gold, “A New Continent,” Communism in America: A History in Documents, Albert Fried (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) 70.

[3] Karl Radek, “Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art,” Soviet Writers’ Congress, 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism, Maxim Gorky et al., ed. H.G. Scott (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977) 148.

[4] Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph G. Price, “When Worlds Collide: Shakespeare and Communisms,” Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism, eds. Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph G. Price (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006) 4.

[5] Mike Gold, “Proletarian Realism,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 204.  Gold published these comments in his editorial column “Notes of the Month” in the September 1930 issue of the New Masses.

[6] Calverton, V.F., The New Spirit: A Sociological Criticism of Literature (New York: Octagon Books, 1974) 131, 132-133.

[7] Bertolt Brecht, “Shouldn’t we Abolish Aesthetics,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 20.

[8] Freeman, Joseph, An American Testament: A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics (New York: Farrar and Rinehard, 1936) 213.

[9] Mike Gold, “A Little Bit of Millennium,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 78.  This article was originally published in the March 1921 issue of the Liberator.

[10] Bertolt Brecht, “On Form and Subject-Matter,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 30, 31.

[11] Gold, “A New Continent” 70.

Listening to Global Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Music has always been an important element in Shakespeare’s plays, assisting the audience in understanding the setting of a film, the atmosphere of a scene, or the tone of an entire act. The productions documented on Global Shakespeares display a wide-ranging use of diverse types and styles of music, all intended to enhance the audience’s experience with a play. Listening closely to the music of a production can be as profitable as studying the text, costuming, scenery, and physical acting in a play, and open up new depths of understanding the meaning present in a performance. Here I’ll briefly discuss some of the kinds of music found in works provided by Global Shakespeares, and how they participate in creating what Umberto Eco calls the fictional world of the text.[1] Such listening requires no musical training, only a desire to more fully understand a production through all of the thresholds it gives us as viewers and listeners.

Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses, dir. LU Po-sheng (Taiwan, 2007)

Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses, dir. LU Po-sheng (Taiwan, 2007)

In Po-Shen Lu’s Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/macbeth-unplugged-lu-po-shen-2007/), a 2007 adaptation of Macbeth, a cabaret-style band consisting of piano, winds, and strings is used to establish the surrealism and musical nature of the production. Lu feels that the music is integral to the production; in a 2003 interview, he commented that, “Too much entertainment now is visual. We want people to start listening again.”[2] Of his Unplugged Series, of which Sonata is a part, Lu says that he wants to “return the theater to the actors and actresses, and to focus more on the voice and the body language of the performers rather than on theatrical techniques.”[3]

The production opens with the three witches on stage, singing in counterpoint with one another and the piano in a minor-mode piece whose chant-like aspects signify something(s) quite old. As this changes mode and mood and becomes rather more lighthearted and dance-like, the witches’ attitudes shift as well, suggesting that mischief and chaos, albeit violent mischief, is their end goal. This opening number is based on a four-note motif that will run through all of the music in the play, musically reminding the audience that everything that occurs stems from the witches’ meeting with Macbeth and Banquo at the beginning of the play. It comes back when Macbeth goes to the witches for more prophesying, and as they make him “wash” his hands in the traditional manner of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth “washes” her hands too, but has her own musical motifs that develop over the course of the play. The witches’ music is heard for the last time played on tubular bells—replicating church bells—when MacDuff arrives to kill Macbeth, while the witches watch. The witches return to their earlier, chant-like musical material, staring at Macbeth’s body and finally shrieking with laughter.

Dramatic rolling arpeggios in the piano that also include the witches’ four-note motif enter at the end of Lady Macbeth’s first scene, representing her driving of Macbeth to the killing of Duncan and the instability that her desires and demands will create, not least of which in her own mind. Each time Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth towards her goals, this rumbling, minor-mode music heightens the atmosphere of danger and evil. It returns, varied, as Lady Macbeth watches Macbeth on his way to the slaying of the King, grasping at a dagger borne by the witches, and again when she expresses her dismay in his behavior after the banquet scene. This music for Lady Macbeth makes a poignant turn when, as she stands alone at the table after the banquet, it first mimics and then uses actual material from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8, the “Pathetique,” turning the forceful and tyrannical Lady Macbeth into a figure of pity. We hear, though the piano, her descent into anguish and overwhelming pain.

The music for this adaptation of Macbeth tells the audience at once that it is not meant to be realistic or traditional, with singing and dancing witches; nor is it meant to be an adaption that merely transfers the action to a different time or place. It suggests a fantasy on themes of Macbeth, a treatment of the materials of Macbeth without a full staging of the play. The mix of minor and major keys (often heard as “sad” and “happy”) during the witches’ scenes hints that their sense of morality, good, and evil, may not be the same as that of the mortals they affect or the audience who watches them, while Lady Macbeth’s music leaves no doubt that her role is a dramatic and tragic one.  The cabaret-style music and small ensemble locates the production in an intimate space—indeed, the stage and cast are small—and the thirteen scenes of the work focus on the relationships in the play. The use of clearly delineated individual music motifs to characterize the witches and Lady Macbeth emphasizes the role of women in the play, and follows their actions and the results thereof through the work.

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (2007)

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (2007)

In Sulayman Al-Bassam’s 2007 Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/richard-3-al-bassam-sulayman-2007/), two kinds of music are at work. On the Global Shakespeares site, the video is introduced with a sinuous line played by the violin from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, but the music inside of the world of the play is Arabic-style music written by composer Lewis Gibson and performed onstage by an ensemble of Kuwaiti musicians. The arabesque line from Scheherazade promises the audience a fairy-tale-Arabian-Nights-kind of production, full of enchantment and exoticism. The music used in the play itself brings a far more realistic and location-specific aural landscape to its viewers and listeners. As Ben Brantley, reviewing the play in The New York Times wrote, it “has the timeless, propulsive sound of centuries passing to a steady, ominous beat.”[4] The contradiction established in these two musics is made all the more powerful by the play’s score. For Western audiences, the timbral resonances of this music, similar to that used in countless documentaries and news reports about the Middle East, conjures up images of both the past and the present: ancient ruins and modern palaces, camel trails and the luxury cars of the Shah and Saddam, the chaos of unstable, dictatorial governments both old and new. Some of the music locates the play in a modern Arabic country: drumming and electronica are mixed to create musical intros for news bulletins shown over a television screen, and Gibson creates a popular-music based march or rally song for the soldiers who come under Richard’s control and strut on screen, the troops for Richard’s declared “war on terror.” Drumming is also used in a traditional dramatic way to foretell and build tension at moments of crisis—we hear it as the executions of Rivers, Grey, and Hastings approach, and their beheadings are signified with a sharp, sudden “stinger” of loud sounds.

The music does not only set the scene for Al-Bassam’s modern-day Arab Richard, but is also used to underline and emphasize the adaptation’s most dramatic scenes. Edward’s death is announced by sung prayers, cymbals zing when Richard announces a death sentence, and small, high-pitched bells ring at the ends of lamentations by Elizabeth and Margaret. The final battle is accompanied by a rich and multi-textured score that calls to mind the calls of the muezzin and the sounds of modern warfare together, the sounds of an Arab tragedy.

Macbeth, dir. Yukio Ninagawa (1985)

Macbeth, dir. Yukio Ninagawa (1985)

Other plays and films on the Global Shakespeares site offer numerous other musical materials that locate the productions, create a tone for the direction of the play, help identify characters as themselves and in disguise, and add to the verisimilitude of the fictional worlds the performances create. The opening scene of Yukio Ninagawa’s 1985 Macbeth (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/ninagawa-macbeth-dir-yukio-ninagawa-1985/#clip=1) combines the sounds of Buddhist gongs with the ethereal sound of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, creating an atmosphere of concommitant mourning and peace that, as Alexander Huang comments on the production’s main page (see also his chapter on Ninagawa in The Great Shakespeareans vol. 18), “compels the audience to dwell upon memories of the dead and the fault line between the sacred and the secular.” The same production uses Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings during the final fight between Macbeth and MacDuff (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/ninagawa-macbeth-dir-yukio-ninagawa-1985/#clip=6), again musically referencing death by way of Barber’s work, which was played at the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and has been used in countless films and television shows to signify tragedy.

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score. Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Kenneth Branagh (1993)

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score. Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Kenneth Branagh (1993)

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score for Much Ado About Nothing (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/much-ado-branagh-kenneth-1993/) uses memorable melodies that accompany the film from start to finish, suggesting through its major and minor key variations the emotions and tenor of each scene. In this clip, we hear the light dance music of the revelers turn dark and foreboding as Don John’s men seek to trick Claudio for the first time, identifying Don John as the villain and creator of unhappiness amongst the otherwise merry festivities.

As a final example, Danny Boyle’s Closing Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics in London (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/2012-london-olympics/) connected Shakespeare musically through two of the country’s best-known piece of musics: the hymn “Jerusalem” (0:00-0:37) which has stood to represent Britain in everything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to military memorials; and Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations (0:50-2:03), a work which is played at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and has been used to signify the British Isles and character in films such as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth.

Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and reciting Caliban's speech at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics

Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and reciting Caliban’s speech at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics

Even without knowing the names or backgrounds of these pieces of music, audiences can understand the flavor and mood of each piece, what they convey in terms of their connections with a particular scene or character, and how they enhance a production. Close listening—for character, style, and even the instruments used—can add worlds to the understanding of a performance, and takes away nothing. When Hamlet asks, “Will the King hear this work?,” he speaks not just to the text, but to the music that accompanies, surrounds, and supports it, all part of the whole.

 

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About the Author

 

Kendra Leonard is a musicologist whose work focuses on women and music in twentieth century America, France and Britain; music and screen history; and music and disability. Her current research projects are on American composer Louise Talma and music and the English early modern period on screen. Her book Louise Talma: A Life in Composition will be published by Ashgate Publishing in 2014. She is the Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive (SFSMA.org). She is the author of The Conservatoire Américain: a History and Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations.

More at Dr. Kendra Leonard’s website


[1]    Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 81.

[2]    Ian Bartholowmew, “Tainan Jen gets Macbeth talking,” Taipei Times, May 23, 2003. Accessed at http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2003/05/23/2003052339.

[3]    Hermia Lin, “In Shakespeare we love and play—Tainaner Ensemble,” culture.tw, March 31, 2009. Accessed at http://www.culture.tw/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1189&Itemid=157.

[4]    Ben Brantley, “Gloucester’s Emir, Handsome This Time,” The New York Times, June 11, 2009. Accessed at http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/theater/reviews/11brantley.html?_r=0.