Sulayman Al-Bassam’s An Arab Tragedy: Introduction

By July 25, 2013 essay

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.

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