Monday, December 5, 2011

Shakespeare at the Alwiya Club - a bygone Baghdad era

My colleague Kecia Ali alerted me to this beautiful reminiscence by Abdul Sattar Jawad, an Iraqi literature scholar who was forced to flee Baghdad in 2005. Titled "Shakespeare in Baghdad," it just appeared in Duke University's student paper, The Chronicle.

There are some spiky details under the surface of the piece.  For instance, "Iraq" functions as a metonym for everything in the Arab world (just as "Egypt" does for Egyptian intellectuals), including a late 19th c adaptation of Romeo and Juliet adapted by a Lebanese migrant for performance in Cairo.  Also there is curiously no mention of the great Palestinian-Iraqi poet-novelist-critic-translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who did so much for Arabic reception of Shakespeare (and of Abdul Sattar Jawad's other great love, T.S. Eliot).  But who wants to quibble?  The piece is a lovely evocation of a cosmopolitan Baghdad paradise very similar to Jabra's and now, unfortunately, lost for the forseeable future.
Here's the opening: 


Shakespeare in Baghdad

It has been nearly thirty years since I drove to Oxford to visit its celebrated university and pay tribute to Shakespeare’s mausoleum in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of England. I was greeted in what seemed unthinkable: “Hey Sheikh Zbair, how’d you do?”
It was really a surprise to me although I am well aware of the Iraqi myth alleging that William Shakespeare is an Iraqi from Zubair, an Iraqi city bordering Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This myth was disseminated by Iraqi scholar and poet Safa Khulusi, who did his Ph.D. at London University in the 1940’s and then settled in Oxford as Chair of Islamic Studies. Of course this funny theory was very popular among Iraqis from different walks of life, who loved Shakespeare through his plays and poems taught at high schools and colleges.
Similarly, when I first came to Duke in 2005, Bruce Lawrence, professor emeritus of religion, extended his hand to me at the John Hope Franklin Center and said: “Welcome Sheikh Zbair.” From that time I realized that the Iraqi myth had crossed the Atlantic and become a source of fun, if not laughter. To the Iraqis and Arabs, Old Will is perceived as a bringer of much delight and gladness to mankind and the only author read or staged everywhere. He is, as Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading critics, said, an international possession transcending nations, languages and professions. Through invention and originality Shakespeare has notched the highest popularity and survived migration from country to country.
Old Will always manifests himself as a force that continues to activate the potential of other languages, in terms of grammar, vocabulary, register, rhythm and tone. In Iraq, Shakespeare was received as the most popular playwright and poet who taught us how to understand the human nature. His plays were performed even in the Iraqi vernacular: Othello retrieved his Arabic name Utail, Iago was Arabized into Yaccoob and Romeo and Juliet took a new title, Martyrs of Love, to attract public attention and boost the box office.
Read the whole thing...

Or not to be original

In the lead-up to last week's polls in Egypt, not one but two English-language newspapers, AMAY and Ahram Online, ran the headline "To Vote or Not to Vote?" (Thanks, Amy Motlagh.)

Fahmi Al-Kholi's post-Camp-David "Merchant of Venice"

Sometimes, to be naughty, before the Arab Spring, a reader would ask me: "It's all very well what the Arabs have done with Hamlet. But what do they do with The Merchant of Venice?"  I have generally avoided focusing on this question; it's not my favorite Shakespeare play anyway.
And yet: Could it be the case that Arab theatre's response to the Camp David Accords challenges my basic historical claim that there was no space for "real" (i.e., aspiring to have an effect on policy) political theatre after about 1976? 
I met last night with the Cairo-based theatre director Fahmi El-Kholi, whose production of Shakespeare in Ataba I had written about in my book. Just wanted to (belatedly) check some hunches on scenography, allegory, and reception.  But before I know it, he launches into a description of a Merchant of Venice production he directed at Cairo University in 1978, right after the Camp David Accords, and revised/reprised in 1979-80 with amateur actors at the Workers' Theatre at the Nasr Automobile Company.  Recall the context: huge demonstrations against Sadat, and resolutions by most of the relevant professional organizations (Writers' Union, Cinema Union, Musicians' Union, Theatre Makers' Union) to condemn and oppose any sort of "normalization" effort that would involve cultural interaction with the Zionist Entity. Anyway, El-Kholi said it enjoyed an unbelievably warm reception, sliding past (probably sympathetic) censors and inspiring audience members to come see it with Palestinian flags on their lapels and keffiyyehs on their heads.
His description included:
  • Modern dress; Shylock, in black shirtsleeves "like an accountant or merchant" carried a calculator and used it to sell weapons to a long line of buyers from different nationalities. Later he would calculate the pound of flesh which was, of course, a slice of land.
  • The set was a bare stage punctuated by two crosses: one placed horizontally/diagonally (rising at a slight angle) from downstage to upstage; the second vertical, upstage, made of olive branches with a Palestinian keffiyyeh on top where the crown of thorns would be. At crucial moments in the play the keffiyyeh would start to drip little drops of blood thanks to a specially attached mechanism.  Because the Palestinians, you see, were crucified on the olive branches of the peace accord.
  • The actor playing "the big brother" Antonio impersonated the speech patterns of Nasser in Act I, then (after N's death) acquired a pipe and glasses to become Sadat in Act II. 
  • A young woman called Palestine, bleeding and fleeing her captors in a torn white dress, appealed for help to her fiance Yasser (Arafat), then to her big brother (Egypt).  They ultimately failed to help her.
  • Shakespeare's text (in translation) was used "word for word," except that loaded translations were chosen for certain key terms. E.g., Shylock's "bond" became اتفاق, which means "agreement" or (the term used for Camp David) "accord."
  • Shylock became, in the 1979-80 restaging, Shylock-Yahu in honor of (then also) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahyu.  
  • In the 1979-80 workers' restaging, the set included the dome of al-Aqsa mosque, with 14 men chained to it by ropes coming off different sides. (Ropes are a recurring element in El-Kholi's scenography.)  The ropes acted mainly as leashes (El-Kholi described them as "like umbilical cords"), but at the crucial moment (at the end, when the Arab world rises) were activated to allow the men to defeat Shylock.  Most of Shakespeare's script was dumped, leaving only the scene of Antonio's deal with Shylock and the trial scene.  Other parts of the script were taken from public recordings of UN and Arab summit meetings, historical documents, and Sadat's famous speeches leading up to his peace initiative. At other times, quotes from the Israeli news media and Israeli leaders' speeches were reproduced by actors dressed as rabbis, sitting on onstage toilets, evidently suffering from diarrhea, pulling the chain after every one-liner. In both productions the trial scene was played as a UN meeting, with the Duke a figure for the UN Secretary-General.
  • Oh, and did I mention that the play went all the way back to 1948? That was the scene with the torn white dress.  The 1967 defeat was figured as all the 14 men lying around sleeping with model planes balanced on trays on their bellies; Shylock fished for these planes with a fishing rod, and when he caught one, it blew up. The 1973 "victory" was figured too. 
  • "And I forgot to tell you," El-Kholi said. "I opened the play with a somewhat flashy opening scene. It was in Damascus, and a Muslim man disappeared, and a small Christian boy disappeared. This actually happened. And it was found that..." The scene he described was an enactment of the "blood libel" myth of Jews grinding up Christian boys to enrich their Passover matzoh (he called it "fateera"): the victims were hung upside down, dripping the same small red drops of stage blood, while a group of rabbis performed some kneading motions to the tune of (he hummed it for me) Hatikva. The matzoh they ate was, of course, supposed to represent the Arab lands, "from the Nile to the Euphrates." El-Kholi then added, unprompted (I wasn't even going to get into it - where would you start?): "Oh but we have no problem with Jews. Everything was fine before 1948. There were Jewish families in Egypt, Jewish businesses, department stores, everything."  
  • What about censorship, I asked?  Surely this blood libel scene would have violated two of the major state censorship taboos (politics and religion), especially in the volatile aftermath of the peace accords?  Well, he said, we took out the scene in the script shown to the censors, and then we reinserted it for the performance.
All this left me, as a scholar of theatre, with only one question: with so much strong imagery available, why enlist Shakespeare at all?  I asked him, and he didn't really give an answer. Not a ticket past the censors. Not high-cultural cred for a sketchy contemporary message. (In fact I think it was both those things. Despite every expectation that the audience and even the actors would not know Shakespeare's text, the big-name pedigree would impress them.) Fahmi El-Kholi said only: "Well, Shylock is generally associated with Israel, with Zionism, with the pound of flesh being the slice of Arab land."  He and I were both able to cite several plays along these lines, both by older (Ali Ahmad Bakathir, Shylock al-Jadid) and by younger (Ibrahim Hamada, Ratl al-Ard) playwrights.

And then the conversation moved on to other things.  Have you seen his latest Shakespeare effort, Measure for Measure, produced in Doha in 2006?  Reviews here and here.  Or what about Jerusalem Will Not Fall, an elaborate agit-prop historical starring Nur El-Sherif, in 2002?  El-Kholi was also honored with this year's State Distinction Award in the Arts in a surreal mid-revolution awards ceremony in July.
El-Kholi's current projects? Either a play called Hulagu about the U.S. occupation of Iraq ("as soon as I can find a good person who will fund it" - sounds like this one has been on the drawing board for some years now) or, responding more immediately to the 2011 Egyptian "revolution" and its uncertain aftermath, a revival of Salah Abdel Sabur's play Leila and the Madman (1970).

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Shakespeare, friend of Arab democracy"



Thanks to all who helped organize or who attended my recent talks at Cairo U, Ayn Shams (Al-Alsun and Drama Dept), and/or AUC. It was humbling and mind-sharpening to do them in light of everything that was happening in Cairo. And is still happening. Happy (to the limited extent possible) Election Day!
Thanks also to Sameh Fekry Hanna from whose dissertation I lifted the 1912 image at left: "Shakespeare, the democratic English dramatic poet."
One more talk coming up at Helwan U on Dec 8.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gary Wills on Shakespeare and Verdi

No Arab connection per se, and kind of unexpected to find Wills (brilliant polymath though he is) writing about this, but check out this great NYRB piece on the authorship of Shakespeare and Verdi, and the day-to-day theatrical work that was inseperable from it in both men's lives.  Theatre shaped by actual conditions: not only sponsorship but available talent!  What a great idea.  (And what a frequent reality in Arab companies as well.)
Of course Verdi -- whose work inaugurated Khedive Ismail's opera house -- was an even earlier and more decisive influence in Arab theatre than Shakespeare has been.

Chutzpah

Anyone for a night at the movies? Films about bloody dictators, perhaps?
As government troops fire on Eid demonstrators in cities including Hama and Homs, a Syrian newspaper announces a film festival in Damascus.  To wit: a festival will be held November 13-16 at the Al-Asad House for Arts and Culture, "under the patronage of Minister of Culture [and one-time respected playwright] Riad Ismat," devoted to the films of Shakespeare.  The newspaper notes that hundreds of Shakespeare-based films have been made, "among the most prominent of which are Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Qaddafi as Macbeth one last time

Robert Worth in the NYT:
That is what made the Libyan revolt such a riveting spectacle: unlike the other embattled Arab Spring dictators, Qaddafi showed no doubt, no instinct for compromise and self-preservation. He never really tried to stave off the end with half-hearted “reforms.” He seemed to know he was plunging himself and Libya down a tragic path, and, like Macbeth, to embrace it. Perhaps he understood that he had gone “so far in blood” that there was no turning back. In retrospect, his whole 42-year reign seemed to follow an inexorable arc toward ruin. From the handsome young revolutionary who inspired such hope in his people he transformed into the drugged, puffy-faced madman howling for slaughter in the streets of his own cities. Many Libyans told me they believed Qaddafi used black magic to keep himself in power for so long. I was almost tempted to believe it. I found Chadian witchcraft amulets in some of the weapons depots abandoned by his loyalists. Before his death, he behaved like someone who had sold his soul to the devil, and, like Faust, was waiting to be dragged down to Hell.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Video of our conversation at BU

BU's media services people used a new program called Echo 360 to capture the conversation in Boston last Wednesday between Sulayman Al-Bassam, Graham Holderness, and me.  Watch it here: : http://echo360.bu.edu:8081/ess/echo/presentation/7a568a3f-fce4-45ba-b2a1-9c119488e55e
Apologies for the weird focus on the video - I think everyone is still getting the hang of the new technology.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Preview - Speaker's Progress in Boston

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Coverage of Al-Bassam's Speaker's Progress in New York

Very favorable New York Times review of the New York performance of The Speaker's Progress at BAM last week; Al-Bassam's own "wonderfully dry performance" gets special praise.  In Richard III he played an implausibly slick and charming U.S. Ambassador (later edited out to make room for Mister Richmond in the US performances); now he has switched sides, playing an Arab director and performing in Arabic (at least in the draft of the script I saw). 

 A brief write-up an audio interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS' NewsHour, who also did a long segment on Al-Bassam when his Richard III: An Arab Tragedy played Washington and New York in 2009.  The first segment's headline had Al-Bassam "take inspiration" from Shakespeare; the current one has him "taking inspiration" from the Arab Spring.  And there is something to this: it does seem that the source text Twelfth Night plays a relatively insignificant role in the logic of Al-Bassam's new play -- it could have been any other play, or even another type of iconic performance.  Whereas his Hamlet was really a Hamlet.  This is not a criticism.

These things are being posted on SABAB Theatre's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/sababtheatre/

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Al-Bassam at BU

Excited that this informal event at BU is actually happening!


The “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy”:
Staging a Region in Tumult, 2002-2011

A conversation with dramatic examples:
Kuwaiti theatre director Sulayman Al-Bassam
and Prof. Margaret Litvin (MLCL)

Born in Kuwait and educated in Britain, Sulayman Al-Bassam founded the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) in Kuwait in 2002. He has directed his Shakespeare adaptations on four continents, including at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Kennedy Center, and BAM. SABAB productions are characterized by a radical approach to text, bold production styles, and playful, provocative combinaons of content and form. The Speaker’s Progress, the final play of Al-Bassam’s “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy,” opens at ArtsEmerson in Boston on October 12.

   Wednesday, October 12, 12-2pm
The Castle, 225 Bay State Road
Lunch will be served before and during the talk

Sponsored by the Peter Paul Development Professorship, the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, and the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Honors College

Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare on Palestine on Fox News

Here's a totally unreadable piece on the Fox News web site by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center published in the runup to Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the United Nations.  Cooper recycles all the old cliches - "backed by Iran," "they teach their children to hate," etc. As though it were a matter of Palestinians recognizing Israelis' rights! Of course no such screed would be complete without an appeal to Shakespeare (the only universally agreed-upon scripture we've got on this planet) to buttress the opinionator's authority.  In this case, he invokes both Julius Caesar and Hamlet.
In Shakespeare’s words, “The fault lies not in our stars, but ourselves.” The Palestinians might as well be relying on astrology rather than looking in their cracked national mirror.
Despite their attempted charade at “unity” by Fatah and the Hamas a few months ago, the Palestinians (like Hamlet) are fatally unable to make up their minds. There are two Palestinian presidents, two prime ministers, and a legislature that neither meets nor passes laws.
As it happens, the context is interesting. Julius Caesar and Hamlet were written one after the other, and what is striking (as I learned from David Bromwich in his excellent Yale seminar on "Political Shakespeare") is the similarity between the two plays. The sulky insurgents Brutus and Hamlet, at varying speeds, both "make up their minds" to - hello, Rabbi Cooper! - take up arms against a corrupt, unaccountable, increasingly arrogant autocrat.  Here's the speech spoken by Cassius in Julius Caesar 1.2:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Both plays, alas, end with the death of the hero and various other corpses littering the stage as well.  So I'm not endorsing that approach. I just want to point out that the general intellectual laziness of rote-Zionist discourse extends to its sloppy citation of Shakespeare.

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

Sympathetic review of The Speaker's Progress in The Daily Star suggests that the overall design works but there are still some surtitle glitches to be ironed out.  I'm not surprised, since Sulayman Al-Bassam, a compulsive editor and re-editor, was probably tinkering with the script until ten minutes before the curtain went up.
...the surtitles are projected above and to the back of the stage. This is a problem as one cannot possibly simultaneously read the translation and observe the on-stage action. Forsaking either diminishes the viewer’s experience of the performance, because the strength, wit and entertainment of this play definitely lie in its combination of text, acting and set design.
The envoys commence the performance nervously, on a stage surrounded by bureaucratic apparatus and presided over by The Speaker and a censor who sounds an alarm whenever dialogue is improvised or the action drifts from its state-sanctioned course.
A meter stick is amusingly employed to ensure that the official 90-centimeter distance is maintained between male and female players at all times.
As the play progresses, the spirit of the theater begins to take over. Digressions from the approved performance increase in regularity. The set, lighting and costumes evolve from bleak greys, whites and blacks to colorful oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually the cry rises, in English, “Defect!”
While the momentum is building, alas, the surtitles are falling apart. As they lapse several lines behind the onstage dialogue, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand who is saying what, especially when there are more than two members of the 10-man cast engaged in conversation. It becomes frustrating.
Meanwhile the progressively absurdist nature of what’s happening beneath the translation also grows challenging to follow.
Ironically, Beirut may be a less welcoming audience for this show than Boston and New York (coming up next month!).  In Lebanon, from what I gathered last May, no one wants to hear too much about the Arab Spring.  Further, Al-Bassam doesn't get any "exoticity discount" (do you know what I mean?) for directing a show in Arabic.  And he has discovered before (with an ill-fated musical Tartuffe adaptation that was cleverly intended for Gulfi audiences who were summering in Lebanon but that ended up playing instead for sophisticated Beirutis, who were underwhelmed) that it can be a tough market to gauge.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Tempest performed in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem...

...in English, by a British company called Jericho House Theatre.



The Independent's coverage reproduces the familiar trope of third-world and especially non-Anglophone audiences as Shakespearean "groundlings."
True there were no mobile phones, a few of which trilled during the performance, in Shakespeare's time. But close your eyes and you could just about imagine that the children sucking ice lollies running up and down the steps of the Aida refugee camp's open-air auditorium, were behaving much as the Globe's younger groundlings would have done four centuries ago.


Is this Prospero in the photo above, dressed as an English colonial gentleman? The Independent (which covers the performance as an event, not a show) does not say.  But it seems the director, unsurprisingly, has some political ideas about the play and its relevance to the situation in Aida:
For Jonathan Holmes, The Tempest has a particular relevance to the Middle East. He is careful not to suggest any exact parallels. But without repeating a fashionable "post-colonial" reading of Caliban as the rebellious, and Ariel as the more collaborative victim of exploiters from outside, he believes the play, set somewhere between Western Europe and the Levant, "becomes a contest for territory between people of different cultures, and between people of the same culture. Shakespeare uses this to explore different systems and ideas of political resistance."
Aida camp is literally right under Israel's separation wall. I haven't visited, but my good friends Amahl and Nidal made a very cool documentary about it.  You can hear them on NPR, too -- click here and scroll down to July 7.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Titus Andronicus and 9/11

This is not about the Arab world per se, but... there's a fine article by Nick Schifrin in Foreign Policy about revenge-seeking and its consequences. Framed with David Scott Kastan on Titus Andronicus.  Nicely titled "Reading Shakespeare in Kandahar."  (Thanks to my friend Justin for sharing.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Not all the world is a stage...

The sign reads: "A Living Egypt is Not a Play"
 
(In Arabic the two expressions, "living Egypt" and "theatre play," differ by just one letter.)

Tahrir graffiti

Among many, many, graffiti in Tahrir today. Most were in Arabic and were much more specific. But still, here's the "to be or not to be" thing. Look at the very top in the center.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Tunisian-themed Macbeth

Thanks to my friend Scott Newstock for alerting me to this Tunisian-themed Macbeth added to the roster of the global Shakespeare festival on the occasion of the 2012 Olympics:
Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History – Artistes, Producteurs, Associes from Tunisia combine Shakespeare with film and reportage (LIFT at London's Riverside Studios, Northern Stage – in Arabic with English surtitles).
There are not a lot of Arabic productions of Macbeth, for whatever reason, and even fewer adaptations. (Low prestige? High censorship?)  But the time may be ripe for a production keyed to ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abdine Ben Ali and his widely reviled wife Leila.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Shakespeare After 9/11" issue of Shakespeare Yearbook finally out

A lot of events, some very sad, intervened to delay this issue.  But at least the heroic editors got it out in time for the tenth anniversary!
http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8357&pc=9
I have an article in here about Sulayman Al-Bassam, complete critical history of his work up to and including the Richard III project.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

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

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

BAM Presents THE SPEAKER'S PROGRESS, 10/6-8
A condemned 1960s staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night has become the focal point for political resistance blogs and underground social network movements. The state, eager to suppress this dangerous mixture of nostalgia and dissent, commissions The Speaker, a once-radical theater producer now turned regime apologist, to mount a forensic reconstruction and public denunciation of the work. As The Speaker and his group of nonacting volunteers delve deeper into the "reconstruction" they find themselves increasingly engaged with the material they are supposed to be condemning. They soon discover-in the act of performance and the growing participation of their audience-a solidarity that transforms the gathering itself into an unequivocal act of defiance towards the state.

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saadi Youssef poem: Elsinore, Hamlet's Castle

Elsinore, Hamlet's castle
The trench with green water
is criss-crossed by twigs and birds,
by the shoes of tourists
and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors . . . 
I cross it too
feeling the moat's wooden boards,
soft, and water-logged.
Like blood within blood,
the castle resides within itself.
But now you will not caress a wooden board
or a stone, you will not enter history
to enjoy the paintings exhibited in the hall
while you listen to the
swashing sea.
Now you will withdraw into yourself
like a snail into its shell.
You will listen to footfalls in a distant night.
To stifled breath, to the staircase
rising toward the questions.
So,  then, beware!
Translated by Sargon Boulus. Reprinted from Banipal No 15/16.  With thanks to the Arabic Literature (in English Translation) blog.

ٍSee also Youssef's very long poem "Hamlet's Balcony" - شرفة هاملت - (in Arabic).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Adonis' translation of Hamlet - produced in Baalbek, 1967

Does anyone know anything about this production?  I was just working on a reference book entry on Arabic Hamlet and came across some remarkable photos from it in an an old article by Suheil Bushrui (Middle East Forum, Spring 1971, pp. 54-64).

The production is mentioned on the festival web site (click on 1967), but no detail or photo is given.  Here's what I know.
Translation: Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said)
Director: Mounir Abu Dibs (the legendary Ba'albek Festival founder - more here)
Production: Ba'albek Theatre Troupe
Locations: Byblos, Deir al-Kamar, and Ba'albek
Date: 1967 -- apparently at that year's Ba'albek summer festival? Right after the 1967 war??

Cast: will post more as I find out.  For now all I know is that Michel Naba'a played Hamlet. Choreographer/dancer Georgette Gebara did the choreography and played the Player Queen in the play-within-a-play.

Apparently the show enjoyed a very involved audience, as this joke repeated online testifies:
Years ago, a performance of Hamlet in Arabic took place in Byblos with Michel Naba'a in the lead role (Directed by Mounir Abou Debs in Arabic). During the scene when the Ghost appears and advises Hamlet on what to do, as he is leaving, he says to Hamlet in Arabic "LA TANSANI YA HAMLET". [Don't forget me, Hamlet.] Hamlet shrieks out "ANSAAK????". [Forget you???] Whereupon, the audience joined in : "Da KALAAM??".

(Here is "Ansaak, Da Kalaam?" [Forget you? What an idea!], the Umm Kulthum song the joke is referring to.)

But it seems not to have been new in 1967, but rather (and this would make much more sense, both war-wise and Shakespeare-quadricentennial-wise) in 1964 or earlier.  A Mounir Abou Debs adaptation of Hamlet is mentioned as early as 1963 in a UNESCO report, as an example of the televised drama in Arabic that was raising the overall cultural level of Lebanese TV programming.

Another UNESCO report, this one a book-length 1981 study by Joseph Abu Rizk titled La Politique Culturelle au Liban, cites the production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (among a long list of other prestigious works) as evidence of "le niveau atteint par le theatre [libanais]." (67-68).

If you're in Lebanon at the moment (though you probably have other things on your mind), you might be able to find more info and/or some photos of the Hamlet production somewhere in here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mohamed Sobhi's Hamlet - video now online

The Global Shakespeares web archive has put up QuickTime video of Mohamed Sobhi's Hamlet, a landmark production first staged at the Art Studio Theatre in 1971 and then reprised and filmed for television in 1976-7.  Filming was directed by Nur al-Demerdash.  The full-length video is here - it runs over two hours.  Helpfully, they've posted some excerpts too -- individual scenes that are more convenient to use in class.

I should say, "landmark" does not mean it's great theatre. Critic Hani Shukrallah memorably summed it up in a 2001 column about Sobhi on the occasion of the latter's controversial (and awful) Ramadan mini-series dramatizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 
Meanwhile, we are supposed to look forward to Egyptian "character actor" Mohamed Sobhi performing no less than 14 roles in a TV serial dramatising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which apparently has had millions spent on it and is to be broadcast in many parts of our glorious Arab nation. The casting is apt. Sobhi is symptomatic of "the state of the nation" -- or is it civilisation? Several years ago I had to suffer through a Hamlet performed by this man, hailed as one of our great actors. I'm no drama critic, but even I could recognise that Sobhi's acting skills seem to lie precisely in "saw[ing] the air too much with... [his] hands" and "tear[ing] a passion to tatters." Little wonder, perhaps, that he is so well admired; tearing a passion to tatters seems to be a particular predilection of "our civilisation" these days.

Later I'll try to comment on particular scenes, either here or in the metadata on the Global Shakespeares web site.  Meanwhile, I just wanted to tell the story of how I obtained this video.

Sobhi has, in case you didn't notice from the quote above (he played all the parts in his own miniseries!), a certain sense of his own importance. And Egyptian society has rewarded this attitude with all kinds of celebrity and adulation. When I made a trip to Cairo in 2007 while working on my book, a theatre scholar friend managed to find me Sobhi's cell phone number.  Someone else tried to give me Sobhi's number too, but it was incorrect.  Anyway I called and made an appointment to meet and talk about his Hamlet.  But he wasn't in Cairo.  He had built himself a studio complex way out in the desert along the Cairo-Alexandria road.  He had called it Sonbol City for the Arts, after a character in one of his films. Okay.  I hired a car-and-driver and made the trek.  It was about an hour and a half.

Sonbol City included film editing facilities, a swimming pool, health club, various meeting rooms, etc. But it was a pretty surreal - sprawling and empty, except for Sobhi himself, who was editing his latest Ramadan series, attended by a skeleton staff of a couple of dozen people. I don't know if it has filled up since then.
 I don't know if you can see the images of Sobhi in these photos - they were everywhere.
 Along with comedy/tragedy masks and vignettes from his films, etc., including from the period of his collaboration with Egyptian playwright Lenin El-Ramly (the two split up quite a while ago).
 Plaster casts of the greatest Egyptian entertainers: that's Umm Kulthum second from right with the sunglasses.
 And on the walls, stylized portraits of Sobhi in his most famous roles...
 ...including Hamlet.  (You can see in the film... he looked a little better than this.)
Anyway, I waited for a while and then the man himself came out to talk with me. He was tired and unshaven, in the middle of that Ramadan serial. But he gave me a great interview - we talked for over an hour, discussing many details of his Hamlet production -- of which, at that point, I had only read reviews.  Most reviewers had focused on the play's opening scene: it starts with the epilogue, Hamlet's funeral. Sobhi said he did this in order to make the audience think: "I didn't want them to sit there wondering what would happen, but asking themselves why it had to happen."  When I remarked that this sounded like a Brechtian desire, he said: "No, it wasn't Brechtian or anything."  Finally I asked if he could share a recording.  Yes, he said.  There was an old videotape.  It was from the 1970s.  It was film but then had been converted to VHS.  He didn't have it with him.  Could I meet him in Cairo in two days?
I could, but stupidly I somehow spent the whole day calling the incorrect cell phone number.  When I finally called  the right one towards evening, it was too late -- he was already back at Sonbol.  But he had taken the VHS tape with him.  Could I come pick it up?
Fortunately, the driver remembered the location and was able to go without me.  He picked up the tape and brought it back to Cairo.  Then he nearly refused to accept money, so thrilled was he to be able to meet the great actor in person, to actually shake Mohamed Sobhi's hand. Back in the US, I had it converted to a DVD, and now the good people at Global Shakespeares have posted it online for your delectation.  Enjoy!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Jihadist Hamlet": Western commentators catch up to Hamlet's political dimensions

In a Counterpunch piece with the bizarrely alluring subtitle "Anders Breivik, Amy Winehouse, Hamlet and Tahrir Square," commentator Caroline Rooney (who holds some sort of academic position in Kent, with the enviable title of "RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow") finds some striking similarities between the character of Hamlet and that of the contemporary militant Islamist jihadist. Her point in making this perhaps "odd" or "to some, discordant" claim is to humanize the jihadist, to show that far from being some kind of brainwashed automaton with a very shallow subjectivity quite unlike our own, can quite possibly be a deep character, on par with the quintessential deep character of western civilization.  Excellent observation!  (And I make a very similar point in my book...)
One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance.  In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.
The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.
 You can see where this is going, and it's praiseworthy.  Not only as a reconsideration of violent Islamism (highly salutary) but, I would argue, as a reconsideration of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  It's only a few years ago (starting, say, about 10 years ago?  Around September of 2001 perhaps?) that Anglo-American critics, led by figures such as Linda Charnes and Margreta de Grazia, have begun to write about the political dimensions in Hamlet, which had been long obvious to critics and audiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Arab worldAnd now, since our times have gotten far enough "out of joint," also to us.
Rooney takes this mirroring as her explicit subject:
While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.
From here it gets rather weird, though: it turns out the Crusader is just the Jihadist in a funhouse mirror. 
In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.
 I'm not saying she's wrong, just a bit too breathy perhaps.
Anders and Amy [Winehouse] may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism.

Still, nice to see Hamlet taking his rightful place in that conversation.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Call for papers - journal issue on "Global Shakespeares"

A special issue of Shakespeare: Journal of the British Shakespeare Association
on "Global Shakespeare"
Deadline: September 30, 2011

Editor: Alexander Huang, acyhuang@gwu.edu

The Arab world is not yet represented in this issue!

He invites two types of submissions:
• Research article: criticism (5,000-8,000 words)
• Short performance reviews (1,000-2,000 words)
Full CFP available here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eating your politics: dates for Ramadan

From one site that collects Shakespeare quotations related to various foods:
The Winter's Tale, IV, 3:
CLOWN: I cannot do't without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice,--what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. She hath made me four and twenty nose-gays for the shearers, three-man-song-men all, and very good ones; but they are most of them means and bases; but one puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to horn-pipes. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?--none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o' the sun.
Sounds like the shopping list for an iftar feast, doesn't it?  (Never mind about the puritan.) What got me curious about Shakespeare and dates in the first place was a prior curiosity about the Cairo dried fruit market. Every year at Ramadan, merchants name their wares after politicians and other celebrities, both to attract customers and to show off their sense of humor.  So I wanted to see what they were calling them this year.  Disconcertingly, no individual names seem to have emerged - the principle of "the revolution" has not yet produced any actually plausible leaders.  Still, it's nice to see the post-Mubarak spirit finding its way into the market, according to this article published on July 26:

   One brand of dates is called ‘Revolution’, another ‘Martyrs’, a third “January 25” and a fourth ‘Freedom’.
   “All the brands are expensive, because they stand for something special,” [one customer] told the Egyptian Mail in an interview. 
This year, as Ramadan approaches, dates have assumed proud revolutionary names, which show that this revolution, for which people were longing for decades, has developed a commercial flavour. The most expensive dates on the markets, the above-mentioned ‘Revolution’, sell for LE15 ($2.50) per kilo. 
The cheapest dates are called ‘Tora Prisoners’, reflecting the popular anger at scores of former officials and ministers who are now in Tora Prison in southern Cairo. 
But none of the brands is named after the former president, who is hospitalised in Sharm el-Sheikh, or his wife and his two sons, although the latter are indeed Tora prisoners.
Well, Egyptians can have very short memories sometimes - at least that's what the Date Market Index suggests. In 2009, Gulf News reports, the most succulent and expensive dates were named after President Obama

Quite a change from 2001-2, when I last lived in Egypt.  At that time, Ramadan was in November-December, date prices were very high, and Al-Ahram Weekly had this report:
There are six kinds of dates to be found at the market: Sakouti, Baladi, Gandillah, Gargoudah, Malikani and Bartamouda. Others, Nashed says, are given names by their sellers who often draw on current events or famous people. As the attack against America and the war in Afghanistan are today's main topics of conversation, "Osama Bin Laden is the king of the market," one merchant told Al-Ahram Weekly. According to this seller, the price of a kilo of Bin Laden has reached LE16 [at that time about $4.50] within the market and LE20 outside. And what about Bush? "He has no place in the market," was the final and decisive answer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

شكسبير في التحرير (Shakespeare in Tahrir)

You knew it was coming, but here it is. As the post-"revolutionary" (I still think it was largely a military coup) situation in Egypt becomes more intense, with a tug-of-war between the military and the protesters, between secular-state and Islamist protesters, and between different branches of Islamists (traditionalists vs. neo-fundamentalists) -- as all this heats up, could Hamlet be far from the conversation?

Tweeted about three weeks ago at http://yfrog.com/kil04ngj

Spacey's Richard III to come to the Gulf

Ok, but this is interesting.  From an interview with "UAE-born social entrepreneur Badr Jafar" on the occasion of the release of the charity single song "Bokra" (Tomorrow), produced with Quincy Jones:
I also feel that we need to further develop theater in the Middle East, which is why I recently launched the Middle East Theater Academy with famous actor Kevin Spacey who has dedicated a lot of his life to working with children and nurturing their creative talents with theater. We already conducted a number of workshops in the UAE and Qatar and will bring the first major production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to the Gulf later this year, with Kevin Spacey himself playing Richard III.
Presumably (and accurately) this puts Sulayman Al-Bassam's RIII in the category of "minor production."  Still, if someone is on site, it would be interesting to compare the UAE reception of the two shows.

Spacey again - art imitates life imitates art

From a Sydney Morning Herald interview with Kevin Spacey, on playing Richard III:
But in the meantime, it is Shakespeare's king who absorbs his attention, in a production that carries fresh relevance in the light of the revolutionary Arab protests.
''It's interesting looking at these dictators around the world,'' Spacey says, ''[and seeing] how their idea of what a king looks like is very much based on English monarchy.''

Huffy "expert" on Shakespeare and Middle East tyrants

Forgot to blog about this HuffPost column when Google alerted me to it a couple of weeks ago.  Who is this (self-anointed?) "expert" Shai Baitel, and why do his dyspeptic ruminations on Kevin Spacey as Richard III (under the pompous title "Power and Downfall -- Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants") merit placement as political analysis?  Ah, but this is the magic of invoking Shakespeare to discuss contemporary politics.  Any hint of today's political violence adds the spice of perceived relevance to a simple run-through of an old history play.
But can Shakespeare's Richard III, in Mendes's thoughtful interpretation and irresistibly brought to life by Spacey, compare to the ilk of the rulers of Iran, to Bashar al-Assad, to Hassan Nasrallah, to Muammar Gaddafi?
And referring to Shakespeare's plays automatically gives depth to otherwise incoherent ponderings on the Middle East.
But unlike Richard III our Middle Eastern despots have a larger arsenal at their hands: they are a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. He did not hesitate to kill, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III's opinion or argued with him went to prison -- at best -- or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.
Whatever.

Is Asian Shakespeare "worthy"?

What the hell does this mean?  From an Edinburgh Fringe Festival preview in the New Statesman:
The International Festival is exploring links between east and west, hence a Chinese Hamlet, a Korean Lear and a new stab in Arabic at One Thousand and One Nights. Yet it need not be that worthy. Under Stephen Earnhart, a Japanese company has adapted Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (20-24 August). Buy me a drink and I'll tell you what I know: that he is, at least, an excellent novelist.
Would be interested in any reports on Tim Supple's 1001 Nights (with text adaptation help from Hanan al-Shaykh!), if anyone gets to see it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Greetings from Prague

Greetings from Prague. The World Shakespeare Congress here was really lovely in every way. But did I remember to take a picture of our seminar on "Shakespeare on the Arab Stage" this afternoon? I did not. I was too busy enjoying the amazingly fast-paced and fruitful conversation with Rafik Darragi, Sameh Hanna, Jacqueline Jondot, Francis Guinle, and auditors including Mustapha Fahmi, Abdallah Al-Dabbagh, Poonam Trivedi, and others.  We have a long way to go toward fully developing this field -- especially as regards involving scholars of literature and theatre and theatre practitioners from a broader range of Arab countries -- but it's encouraging to see that some dynamic scholars are already doing really interesting work.

More details on the content of the research later.  Meanwhile, instead of the picture of our seminar, here is a photo of me with my friend Alex Huang, who works on Chinese Shakespeares, at the farewell reception hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Opening of first "soliloquy" in Tanyus 'Abdu's Hamlet, 1901

أبتي أين أنت تنظر ما تم            صار عرصاً ذاك الذي كان مأتم
وغدت بعدك المآتم اعياداً           وذاك الثغر الحزين تبسم.

Why are the publishers having so much trouble getting this quotation to appear correctly in Arabic in the forthcoming issue of Shakespeare Studies?  Right-to-left issues are a pain.  My article on 'Abdu will be in Shakespeare Studies Vol. 39, accessible via full-text humanities search engines as well as Google Books and the like.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shakespeare... at a Damascus bus stop

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

Friday, June 24, 2011

Global Shakespeares electronic archive

I spent yesterday over at MIT working with Belinda Yung on the Arab world section of the  "Global Shakespeares electronic archive.  I'm the "regional editor."  We've already put up skeletal production info on a few Arab productions and adaptations of Shakespeare - you can expect a lot more in a week or two, including extensive clips from Mohamed Sobhi (محمد صبحي)'s melodramatic 1970s Hamlet production with the Art Studio company. 

If you have text or video materials on more plays, please send them to me so we can get them posted!

Trailer: Richard III: An Arab VIP

When I saw Sulayman Al-Bassam at the Kennedy Center in March 2009, there was a documentary film crew hanging around. Their presence was just another comic detail in the backstage buzz: technical glitches, dressing-room jokes, a bit part Sulayman had to play because a Kuwaiti cast member couldn't get excused from his day job as a Ministry of Education employee even though Kuwait's government had given $1 million as sponsors of the Arabesque festival, etc. etc.  So then there were these random guys with movie cameras.  Anyway, here's the lovely trailer for the film they've made (I've already posted one review):

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

ٌRichard III coming to Kurdistan

Update (in Arabic) on 66-year-old Iraqi director Salah al-Qasab's plans (which I've mentioned before) to stage Richard III with Kurdish actors in Sulymaniya, Kurdistan. Funded by the Kurdish region's Ministry of Youth and Sports. Hmm, wonder what this one will be about?

Review of documentary on Al-Bassam's Richard III

Layla Ahmad's review (in Arabic) of the documentary Richard III: An Arab VIP says the film is "worth watching."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shakespeare for the blind in Lebanon

Can anyone help with this most worthy query from the leaders of Empowerment through Integration, Inc., an NGO that works with the blind  (http://www.eti-vision.org/)?
This summer we are running day camps for blind kids ages 6-16 in Beirut and Tripoli, Lebanon. As part of our curriculum, we are having the kids rehearse and perform some short plays and a puppet theater.


I would like to have the older kids "watch" an Arabic-language version of a Shakespearean play.
Do you by any chance have video recordings of theater productions that would be suitable for a young audience? I need the media itself (i.e. DVD) in order to show it.
Please send any leads to me or, better, contact the organization directly.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Early registration deadline for World Shakespeare Congress

Prague! Shakespeare!  Tuesday is your last chance for discounted early registration at the World Shakespeare Congress, to be held July 18-22.
Rafik Darragi and I are co-organizing what promises to be a small and interesting seminar on "Shakespeare on the Arab Stage."  Scheduled for the last afternoon of the conference, so if the discussion gets really exciting we can adjourn directly to the pub.  Stalkers and gawkers welcome!  Download the draft program here: http://www.shakespeare2011.net/repository/doc/shakespeare2011-prague-congress-programme-matrix.pdf

Monday, May 23, 2011

Raja Shehadeh channels Hamlet

I first began studying Arabic fourteen years ago in part because, on my first trip to San Francisco, I had randomly met Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh's cousin Nabil and immediately afterwards, walking into a used bookstore, stumbled on a copy of Shehadeh's memoir, The Third Way.  That's part of what helped inspire my interest in the language and, eventually, in Arab appropriations of Shakespeare.
I want to quote Shehadeh here to illustrate how deeply the imagery of Hamlet -- particularly but not exclusively the young angry Hamlet of Act I -- has become interwoven with formulations  of Palestinian identity, Arab identity, and the conflict over Palestine.  This is from Shehadeh's interview in David Grossman's 2002 book The Yellow Wind  (also reviewed here).  He says:
Of the two ways open to me as a Palestinian -- to surrender to the occupation and collaborate with it, or to take up arms against it, two possibilities which mean, to my mind, losing one's humanity -- I choose the third way. To remain here. To see how my home becomes my prison, which I do not want to leave, because the jailer will then not allow me to return.

I believe it is no stretch to read Shehadeh's refusal to "take up arms" as related to Hamlet's hesitation during the "to be or not to be" soliloquy -- how to commit oneself to fighting an evil so huge that, like a "sea of troubles," it will simply swallow up the humanity of anyone who engages with it?  Shehadeh's "to surrender... and to collaborate" are symbolically identical, in Arab political discourse, with Hamlet's "to die, to sleep." 
Two unsatisfactory options which leave him searching for a "third way," one that lets his essential humanity be recognized and gives him (at least) a voice in shaping how his history comes out.  You can see where the impulse comes from.  Even if you question its efficacy.  (And now his latest book, ever searching for a place to stand, seems to be harking back to the Ottomans.)

Documentary about Al-Bassam's Richard III

A documentary about the international tour of Al-Bassam's Richard III: An Arab Tragedy premiered last month.  Would love to hear from anyone who has seen it. Press release here, film website here.
Co-directed by Kuwaiti businessman and arts producer Shakir Abal with British TV director Tim Langford, Richard III “An Arab VIP” is a topical and timely documentary that melds Middle Eastern politics with onstage drama and offstage reality. In the film, the camera follows a pan Arab troupe of actors as they travel the world between the USA and the Middle East rehearsing and performing a highly acclaimed version of Shakespeare's Richard III as conceived from a contemporary Arab perspective by renowned Kuwaiti dramatist Sulayman Al-Bassam. In addition to the highly dramatic performances by the exemplary troupe of actors, the 70 minutes film also includes interviews with the cast and crew as well as behind-the-scenes footage that shows what it is like to tour a top-notch stage play in sometimes less than perfect circumstances. The film is in English and Arabic with subtitles.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tanyus 'Abdu's "poetry" from Hamlet

Some high-cultural aspirations to enliven your rainy Wednesday.
These "poems" are from the slim 1925 diwan published shortly before his death by Tanyus 'Abdu (طانيوس عبده), with a brief but glowing preface from none other than Khalil Mutran.  These are not really very poetic -- not even soliloquies so much as arias meant to be sung by Shaykh Salama Higazi (who later recorded some of them for Odeon Records).
Hamlet's "monologue of the skull" (bottom right):
Another version of "Monologue of the Skull" as well as two poems for Ophelia, "Wada`a Husna'" (Farewell, Beauty), and "Bayn Narayn" (Between Two Fires, which stands in for the clumsy "Doubt that the stars are fire" poem Hamlet includes in his letter to Ophelia):
Finally, most famously, "Hamlet and his Mother," an aria about which Muhammad `Awad Muhammad reminisces in his introduction to his own Hamlet translation as late as 1972.
Here is the man himself:

Al-Assadi's "Forget Hamlet" in Kuwait

A production of Jawad Al-Assadi's "Insuu Hamlit" (first performed 1994 in Cairo, published 2000 in Beirut) directed by Issa Dhiab is touring Kuwait.  Recently performed at Gulf University in Mushrif.  Al-Siyasa newspaper has details here (in Arabic).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tunisia "To be or not to be"

Another 2B moment from the rhetoric of the Arab revolutions.  This one's a Facebook group called
Tunisie To be or not to be - شعب تونس نكون او لا نكون

'To Be or Not To Be' in Lebanon?

Here's the slide from my AUB talk that the Daily Star reporter was alluding to. I took this photo in late Feb 2005 - it's the graffiti around Martyrs' Square (later Liberty Square) in downtown Beirut, where people were commemmorating the Valentine's Day 2005 car-bomb assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Can you see the faint writing, in English, right at the bottom of the photo? 
"To be or not to be now is the time."


And here's another example of Lebanon-related "to be or not to be" rhetoric: Walid Jumblatt (this was before he broke with the March 14 grouping) saying a rally was absolutely crucial to the existential future of Lebanon
"Notre combat c’est “être ou ne pas être.” No hyperbole or anything.

Flew home from glorious Beirut yesterday.  Sigh.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Daily Star covers our Shakespeare conference at AUB

Under the nice headline "Was Shakespeare an Orientalist?" Beirut's Daily Star covers  our just-concluded conference on "Shakespeare's Imagined Orient" at AUB.  Splendidly organized by Francois-Xavier Gleyzon of AUB's English department, the conference staged a conversation some of the most important scholars working to remap Shakespeare's relationship to the Muslim world.  Five men were at the center of this conversation: Jerry Brotton, Dan Vitkus, Gerald Maclean, Jonathan Burton, and Gil Harris.  My talk was really marginal to the whole thing (I'm not an early modernist), but for obvious journalistic reasons (even if she is not Arab, her readers are), the Daily Star reporter seized on it.  She thus ironically supported Ferial Ghazoul's thesis (in "The Arabization of Othello"), which my talk was trying to problematize: the idea that when Arabs look at Shakespeare, "their point of view" (many Arabs, one point of view) leads them to an immediate and almost exclusive focus on the representation of people like themselves.  Well, perhaps such narcissism is only human. Which of us can pick up a friend's book without looking up our own name in the index?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Boston trailer for Al-Bassam's "Speaker's Progress"

Swear to Allah, it's not theatre!  ArtsEmerson in Boston has officially announced its 2011-12 season, and Sulayman Al-Bassam's pseudo-post-but-actually-meta-theatrical The Speaker's Progress, a dark and jam-packed take on Twelfth Night,  is on the schedule for October 12-16.  Details and a video clip here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If you happen to be in Boston...

FREE Shakespeare PARADE, PERFORMANCES and SLAM! 
Join us to celebrate the birthday of the Bard this Saturday in Harvard Square!
Shakespeare Party
  
Actors' Shakespeare Project, Harvard Square Business Association &
ORFEO Group are pleased to once again announce 
a birthday extravaganza for Mr. William Shakespeare and the Bookish Ball: 

Saturday, April 30th
in Harvard Square
from 12:00-4:30 pm.
 
Timeline for the day:
12:00: Parade starts at Hotel Veritas, One Remington Avenue
12:00 - 6:00: Bookish Ball at participating bookstores 
12:30 -3:30 - Activity tables in Harvard Square on Palmer Street
1:00-3:00 - Performances at the Palmer Street Stage
3:00-4:30 - Shakespeare SLAM! at Redline (14 JFK Street) - tickets can be reserved on April 30th at ORFEO Group's activity table

All events are FREE and all ages are welcome!!
Parade and SLAM! will take place come rain or shine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monadhil Daood to produce Romeo and Juliet in London 2012

Among the works commissioned for the RSC-produced World Shakespeare Festival, directed by the RSC's Deborah Shaw and coming up next year (April to September) as part of the London 2012 Festival associated with the Olympics:
Romeo and Juliet, directed by Monadhil Daood - Iraqi Theatre Company, Baghdad
Shakespeare’s great love story, set against a backdrop of conflict between families, communities and generations, finds new purchase in the soil of contemporary Iraq, where sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia, ignited and fuelled from outside, has left its population exhausted by a cycle of violence and revenge. Baghdad’s Iraqi Theatre Company will create a Romeo and Juliet for a new generation, infused with Iraq’s rich traditions of poetry, music and ritual.
For Monadhil's previous work, see the Baghdad Iraqi Theatre's web site.  He also played a hammy Polonius in Sulayman Al-Bassam's Al-Hamlet Summit and a terrifying Catesby in Al-Bassam's Richard III.

UPDATE 7/8/11: Full details of the RSC's World Shakespeare Festival to be announced in September, but it seems the RSC is one of the collaborators in the London 2012 festival; it's listed as a partner on this show and others. There's also going to be an RSC production that is explicitly international, provocatively titled, "What Country, Friends, is This?"

Comparing Iraqi politicians to Othello

Writing on the Sotaliraq (Voice of Iraq) web site, op-ed writer Majid `Anqabi compares Iraq's governing elite to Othello (in Arabic). The headline is "Shakespeare's play Othello and the Fear of the Liberation Square Demonstrators."
`Anqabi mentions the theory "held by specialist scholars" that Othello was insecure about Desdemona because he was unable to satisfy her sexually, and thus became vulnerable to jealousy and had to kill her. His analogy is that the ruling Iraqi elite, unable to satisfy its people (e.g., by providing normal state services) is insecure and feels forced to crack down brutally when they demonstrate in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. A new twist to the woman-as-nation analogy.  Also more evidence that most Arab readings of Othello are concerned with the spousal relationship, NOT the West.
Incidentally, the writer also invokes Safa' Khulusi and his nickname for Shakespeare, Shaykh Zubayr.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Clips from Al-Bassam's Twelfth Night adaptation

Sulayman has put up a few clips of Speaker's Progress, with surtitles. Some version of this show is coming to BAM and Boston's ArtsEmerson this fall.
(Sorry I can't quite get the video to be the right width - working on it. Link here.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Shakespeare Day

يوم شكسبير سعيد - Hope everyone had a fabulous Shakespeare Day!

I saw that the Biblioteca Alexandrina is celebrating with a film festival. Anyone else do anything special? Did you talk like Shakespeare today, for instance?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Syrian student "Twelfth Night" production

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

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

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

"I'm Hamlet" to play in London 2012 Festival

Young Egyptian director Hani Afifi will stage his Hamlet adaptation, انا هاملت or I'm Hamlet, as part of the London 2012 festival around the Olympics, reports the Seventh Day site (in Arabic).  The play premiered at Cairo's Creativity Center in the summer of 2009 and was well received at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre that September; Muhammad Fahim, in the role of Hamlet, won the festival's Best Actor prize.  My favorite line is where Hamlet asks Ophelia (in the equivalent of the nunnery scene, which takes place at Cairo's upscale Cafe Cilantro: "But how can I date someone who has 500 friends on Facebook?"