The worst (wo)man in the world: the Arms Dealer in Sulayman al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit

This piece was delivered as a conference paper at the University of Craiova, as part of the European Directors of Shakespeare Conference held in conjunction with the Romanian International Shakespeare Festival 2016, and convened by Dr Nicoleta Cinpoes of the University of Worcester.

Arms Dealer: Glimpsed in the corridors of power, blurred in the backdrop of official state photographs, faceless at parties, anonymous at airports, trained as a banker, conversant in Pashtun, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew, feeding off desire: I am an Arms Dealer (Litvin 216)

[cited from the manuscript of Sulayman al-Bassam’s original 2002 version of The Al-Hamlet Summit, excised from Arabic and ‘definitive English’ texts]

Like many people in the UK, I was gripped by the BBC’s lavish 2016 adaptation of John le Carre’s 1993 espionage novel, The Night Manager. Originally set in South America amongst the drug cartels, it had been updated to the twenty-first century, and had its

The Night Manager (c) BBC 

 “theatre of conflict” relocated to the Middle East (Foster). Its opening shot is of Jonathon Pine, its protagonist[1], striding purposefully through the crowds in Tahrir Square at the beginning of what was once naively dubbed the “Arab Spring”. He soon finds himself embroiled with “the worst man in the world”: Richard Roper, a suave, educated, British businessman, who has discovered that he can make much more money from selling napalm and warheads than he can from farm machinery, and is indifferent to the human cost, particularly if those humans are, in his eyes, “brown rats” (Episode 6). Furthermore, he is doing so with the complicity of the British and US governments because his deadly, illegal activities advance their behind-the-scenes influence in the region. Despite Roper’s surface charm, anyone who gets in his way will come to a sadistically grisly end. When its adaptor, David Farr, was asked why he made these very specific changes, he said,

There’s a clear political anger in the book that attracted me, and I thought that would be blunted if we kept it in 1993/94. I had a simple instinct that it needed to be brought into our world and our day. The issue seemed to be broadly the same: exploitation of other parts of the world for western gain. It was true when I started adapting in 2013; it’s tragically more true now. (Wollastan)

David Farr’s background is in classical theatre and he is an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so it is not surprising that he conceived The Night Manager as a modern day Faust story as well as a political thriller. He saw his central character as

The Night Manager (c) BB

caught between the Good Angel of a lone British intelligence handler who will upset the system and risk the life of herself and her unborn baby in order to see justice done, and the Mephistophelian character of Roper who can offer Pine a world of endless pleasure in return for his conscience. A couple of years earlier, in 2013, Farr directed a stylish and intelligent stage production of Hamlet for the RSC. In the case of Hamlet, however, he was not interested in political takes.


Our age has a distaste for political heroes, even a distrust. Perhaps that is why Hamlet resonates for us. He is unsure if he wants to be a hero and unconvinced he has it in him. If our time is also out of joint, perhaps we would not want to be the ones ‘to set it right’ any more than he does. (Farr)

 This statement makes a number of assumptions: about “our age”, about who “we” are and, of course, about the nature of Hamlet, play and prince. Entrenched in an Anglo-American Romantic reading of the play, casting its hero as an individual paralysed by his own doubts, it ignores the potential for “clear political anger” in the tragedy and for that anger to be worked out through the politicized figure of Hamlet, and this has been the case for most mainstream productions in the UK. Not so a production by a sometime British director who has also worked closely with the RSC, however: the Anglo-Kuwaiti Sulayman’s al-Bassam’s self-consciously political The Al-Hamlet Summit (2002/04). Just over a decade ago, al-Bassam took Shakespeare’s play and transformed it into a parable that critiqued Western intervention in the Middle East and focussed on the rise of Islamism.

The text is a cross-cultural piece of writing in which I have tried to capture a sense of geographical context and contemporary resonance. When first performed in English in 2002 by my London-based theatre company, Zaoum Theatre, it aimed to allow English-speaking audiences a richer understanding of the Arab world and its people, and how their fates are inextricably linked to that of the West’s. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Sulayman al-Bassam started out as a new young voice in British theatre at the turn of the Millenium, although he would later refashion himself:  “I grew up between the UK and Kuwait.  As you can tell, I was educated here [in Britain] and first worked here.  Then, after the events of 9/11, I felt I needed to return to the Arab world” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), and his The Al-Hamlet Summit was pivotal to this shift. After the success of the original English language production at the 2002 International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was invited by the 2004 Tokyo International Festival to put the play into Arabic, a project which resulted in a team translation[2], transforming not only the language but also key content, and resulting in the creation of his Kuwaiti theatre company, Sabab, with a pan-Arab cast[3].  The central ideas in this production remained the same but the shifts in the detail were deeply significant. Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is initially a “spoilt young man”, educated in the West, but returning to his state – a non-specified Middle Eastern state – for his father’s funeral and mother’s wedding.  The usual disgust at his mother’s sexuality and the trauma of his father’s murder, lead in this case, not to the existential angst of the scholar prince or the Freudian self-loathing/woman-loathing of most English language productions, but a “decent into Islamic extremism in order to try to correct the corruption he sees around him” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East). “I am dazed by the stench of the rot” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 6), he tells Leartes, who is about to be made a general in Claudius’ army and sent to the mountains,  before Hamlet himself becomes leader of the opposition forces. Graham Holderness argues that

Hamlet becomes wholly a man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence. (Holderness, Introduction)

In his chastisement of his mother, his language provocatively echoes a broadcast by Osama Bin Laden, very much alive at the time of the play’s performances, and who by this parallel arguably becomes a Hamlet figure as his words seamlessly interweave with the protagonist’s: “the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword… Do not pretend amazement! […] No more words, please, mother, words are dead, they died on our tongues” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 52).  Al-Bassam centralizes the live-ness of his work.

Visually, we are solidly located in a 21st century political universe, with the live-feeds and projection screen constantly reminding us of last night’s television address by George W. Bush, or last week’s summit in Bonn or Washington.  This arrangement allows Shakespeare’s words to take on an uncanny metaphorical resonance. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Yet it is not the contemporary dress nor staging that makes this production belong to this the al hamlet summit cover

21st century  political universe. After all, Farr’s production was also “modern dress”, his Danish court wearing the Sarah Lund jumpers that were all the rage at the time[3], yet that production remained traditionally “timeless”. Rather it was the interpolation of a single character that al-Bassam and critics identify as this anchoring feature in The Al-Hamlet Summit: “With the introduction of an Arms Dealer, desperately courted by each of the delegates, Shakespeare’s universe firmly enters the present day” (al-Bassam, Sabab).

So, who or what is this Arms Dealer, this Richard Roper in Elsinore, who transforms this production from being simply a modern dress appropriation with a nod to contemporary politics into an angry polemic on Western complicity and exploitation? In the original UK production, the Arms Dealer was played by a woman, Marlene Kaminsky.  She flirted with Claudius, and ingratiated herself with offers of female companionship to Gertrude, that woman trying to make it in a man’s world. “I wanted to tell you: I adore your shoes!” Kaminsky purred, knowing that nobody else would have noted them (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF). She even set herself up as a mentor to Ophelia, offering her careers advice before giving her a suicide belt. She befriended Hamlet in his rage and grief and

arms dealer

Marlene Kaminsky as the Arms Dealer in Zaoum’s 2002 English language production

dealt with the enemy, Fortinbras, too. In short, the Arms Dealer “will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents” (Holderness, Introduction). Perhaps it is more appropriate to say “especially if s/he is arming opponents”, because it is through playing the different factions against each other, be it within a family, a state or a region, that the Arms Dealer steers the action. Ophelia sums it up in the play’s first, English language incarnation:

Ophelia: Why do we entertain you here?”

Arms Dealer: I help to guarantee security.

Ophelia: What stability?

Arms Dealer: The one that allows you to carry on. Will you be going to university?

Ophelia: I don’t think we need you anymore. I want you to leave.

Arms Dealer: That’s not possible. (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF)

Nobody ever invited her; she just appeared after the funeral and moved herself in, knowing everybody’s weak points, failings or indiscretions. (There is a short montage of clips available here via the BU Global Shakespeares Seminar blogspot.)

In the later Arabic production, the Arms Dealer “morphed” into Neil Barratt’s linen suited English-speaking Englishman[4] . On the surface, this appears to be just another way to signify Otherness: where the Arms Dealer had been separated by her gender, now he is separated by language and race. Yet, as with  many of the other small changes between the two incarnations of this play, the gender change brings about significant new resonances too. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer used sexuality to ingratiate, Barratt’s to intimidate. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer is no less violent than her male counterpart, but the violence is  different. When challenged second and third time by Ophelia to “leave now”, she has no qualms about throwing Ophelia to the floor, twisting her arm behind her back and threatening to “spread” her “pretty face across the floor” (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF ). The same scene with Neil Barrett in role becomes sexually violent, however.

Arms Dealer: You’re so passionate! (He twists her arm and throws her  to the floor.) Oh, the sweet yelp of pain – angels of the night, hide your virgin faces; the devil has his cock up one of your flock! What do you want, Ophelia, tell me I’ll satisfy you, what is it you want? (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 34)

There is no subtlety in the analogy.  “The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer” asserts Holderness (Introduction x), in which case the West is a rapist.

male arms dealer

Mariam Ali as Ophelia and Nigel Barrett as the Arms Dealer in Sabab’s 2004 Arabic language version

Others believe they are happier bedfellows. “What do you know about phosphorous?” Hamlet asks in an unchanged scene in both versions. After the Arms Dealer has described the devastating effects of phosphorous on the bodies of a newborn baby and an old gravedigger, the prince does not hesitate: “Can you sell me some?” he says (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 21-22) Hamlet is exploited, Claudius is exploited, even Fortinbras is exploited, but these three, unlike Ophelia, raise little sympathy. Margaret Litvin notes that , represented by the Arms Dealer, “the villian […] is not Claudius’ regime but that of militarized global capitalism” (Litvin 2007), a capitalism that is thriving on willing sellers and buyers.

Identified as an interpolated character, an intruder from outside of Shakespeare’s imagined world, the Arms Dealer can, however, be seen as something more embedded in Hamlet’s Arab journey than at first meets the eye.  Sulayman al-Bassam concedes that “This is a new character, but s/he can be the Ghost or even Horatio.  He’s a combination of these floating figures that hang around Hamlet and have various agendas” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), agendas which combine to manipulate Hamlet into a man of action/destruction. For, of the major “minor” characters in the play, Horatio is conspicuously absent. Frequently played as a “loyal friend”  and “confidant”, nevertheless,  “the role has many inconsistencies”, from placing Horatio’s age to his national origins (Thompson 143). On stage so often he cannot be doubled, moving in and out of key scenes, his presence at Elsinore is never questioned. Horatio appears to support Hamlet, yet “the King seems to regard him as an ally” (Thompson 143). And like the Arms Dealer he is the only one who “remains in place at the end” (Holderness, Introduction 13). Thus, Al-Bassam’s replacement of Horatio with the Arms Dealer does not stray so very far from its source: s/he brings out all the ambivalences latent in Hamlet’s “friend”. Those ambivalences feed back into al-Bassam’s play. “S/he is explicitly described as unbounded, opportunistic, and voracious” (Litvin pp196-219), s/he blackmails, coerces and bribes. But s/he is always welcomed back, not because of those, but because s/he has on offer what people want.

And unlike The Night Manager, there is no cathartic ending, no retribution where retribution is due, good does not overcome evil despite the odds and the losses along the way. In the post-modern political theatre of The Al-Hamlet Summit, there is no promise of Spring. Instead, just the final stage direction,  the “Arms Dealer enters and walks towards Fortinbras incredibly slowly” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 56)

The Arabic production is available to view in full via the MIT Global Shakespeares website here.


[1] Played by Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston (Prince Hal/Henry V and Coriolanus)

[2] Al-Bassam worked with a team of translators. Fluent in spoken Arabic, he writes in English (REF)

[3] See the ‘Scandi Noir’ detective drama The Killing

[4] Barrat played Claudius in the 2002 Zaoum production.


al-Bassam, S., 2002. The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF (no longer available). [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 5 May 2012].

Al-Bassam, S., 2005. Shaikh Al-Zubair, an alibi for dissent. The Guardian, 24 July.

Al-Bassam, S., 2006. The Al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East Study Day: The Middle East. London: s.n.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East: the Middle East. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. The Arab Trilogy Lecture. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

al-Bassam, S., 2014. The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney: Bloomsbury.

al-Bassam, S., n.d. Sabab. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Farr, D., 2016. Metro. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Foster, P., 2016. The Telegraph. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Gardner, L., 2004. ‘Theatre: The Al-Hamlet Summit’. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 29 December 2014].

Holderness, G., 2006. Introduction. In: The al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘Silence Bleeds’: Hamlet Across Borders. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘SILENCE BLEEDS’: HAMLET ACROSS BORDERS The Shakespearean adaptations of Sulayman Al-Bassam. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2014. Introduction. In: The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury.

Kennedy, D., ed., 1993. Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance. Cambridge, New York, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Litvin, M., 2007. When the villain steals the show: the character of Claudius in post-1975 Arab(ic) Hamlet adaptations. Journal of Arabic Literature, 27 October.XXXVIII(2).

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Müller, H., 2001. The Hamletmachine, s.l.: s.n.

Schechner, R., 2006. Performance Studies: An introduction. 2nd edition ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, P. J., 2004. ‘Under Western Eyes’: Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism. Shakespeare Bulletin, Winter, 22(4), pp. 65-77.

Thompson, A., 2006. Introduction and Notes. In: A. Thompson, ed. London: Arden Shakespeare Thompson.

Wollastan, S., 2016. David Farr interviewed by Sam Wollastan. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 14 April 2016].






#YSJEngLit Coriolanus in Iran, Titus Company 2017 by Rachel Atkin

Coriolanus in Iran, Titus Company 2017

It’s now two months since the Iranian Titus Company production of Coriolanus DIDN’T come to the York International Festival – or, at least, not in the embodied sense of live actors on the stage we had prepared for them. We quickly move on from last month’s news, but as we continue to watch the news and to debate who should have the freedom to move and where, this is just as relevant now as it was in May. Here is a link to Rachel Atkin’s piece for York St John’s Point Zero blog, followed by a link to a piece in the York Press

On Monday 15th and Tuesday 16th, I had the pleasure of being invited to see an Iranian production of Coriolanus, performed by the Titus Company from the University of Tehran. Though the company themselves were absent, due to the British Embassy’s decision to not provide visas, we were provided with a recorded version of an alienating, experimental, and yet hugely emotive piece of theatre. In a Letter of Grief, director Hamed Asgharzadeh wrote: “Eventually we humans someday will meet each other through human drama and we will share our experience to improve our situation”. One of the goals of this festival is to provide a voice to those who are denied it. Though unable to meet the company in person, through the organization of York Theatre Royal and Philip Parr we were still able to see some images of this ground-breaking production. Theatre, no matter where it is done and in what language, provides that voice, and the recording was able to provide it too. Despite the bad news, the audience that came to watch became an outlet for all the hard work the Titus Company had put into their production. In our age, one has to remember not to deny the importance of the arts and the spoken word, even at times when it does not affect us directly.

York Press reported on this, noting the local MP Rachael Maskell’s response

“The Government have hardened their stance, making the assumption that despite all the paperwork being in order and people do not want to stay here, they should not be granted short-term access to the UK,” she said. “This is having a detrimental impact on sponsoring organisations, and in this case, on the cultural opportunities of the city. “Rather than making general assumptions about individuals and organisations, the paperwork should be examined in detail and each case dealt with on the basis of whether it fits the criteria.”

*UPDATE* Iranian Production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus coming to York St John University

If you are free, please come along to support this event. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are now screening the production and having a talk by the Festival Director, Philip Parr, founder of the Parrabbola artists collective, to discuss the importance of trying to bring work by young international artists from ANY country to festivals such as the York International Shakespeare Festival. York St John Student volunteer: “”I support this event more than ever as it is important, especially in the arts, to share cultures and people in a community.”

*Please note: this production is now a screening with accompanying talk and Q&A, not a live performance*

Coriolanus 1

I’m delighted to once again be involved in the York International Shakespeare Festival. After its very successful involvement with the first Festival two years ago, YSJU’s Department of English Literature will again be putting on two events as part of the second YISF programme this May in conjunction with the University of Tehran and YSJU’s department of Drama and Theatre. Both events are free but ticketed. Please check the external link regularly as they will be available shortly as the York Theatre Royal adds events to its system. You can do this by clicking on the event titles below. Please re-tweet and re-post.

“Shakespeare’s play is a significant demonstration of the deployment of the state apparatus, which never discloses the strategies through which power is imposed. When Coriolanus reveals these strategies, the state, together with those who think order is the only guarantee of survival, literally delete him from society. Hence, Coriolanus reflects the current democratic crisis in our region” Adaptors Hamed Asgharzadeh and Javad Ebrahiminezhad

Coriolanus performed by Titus Theatre Group, Iran

Temple Hall, York St John University 2pm – 3:15pm, Monday 15 May 2017

After the performance of Coriolanus there will be a short Q&A session.

Performing Shakespeare Workshop

QS/015, York St John University 11.00am – 1.00pm, Tuesday 16 May 2017

Drama and Theatre at York St John University offer a workshop based around their production of Coriolanus. *The workshop will now be led by Saffron Walkling and David Richmond from the University of York St John, as Titus Company are unable to join us in person.*

Images of 2015 workshop © Greg Veit

The York St John student production, Coriolanus “and they hunt for the truth that is ‘behind it all’” (Brecht 1957, text by William Shakespeare, Kurt Cobain, Charles Olson and the company) will be presented on 11 and 12 May 2017 at the Stained Glass Centre at St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate, York.


Not a motiveless malignity: Iago, Othello and Desdemona at the RSC

Othello dir. Iqbal Khan, performed by the RSC at the RST, 26th August 2015, live cinema broadcast at the City Screen, York.

I was shocked by my own complacency toward race when I first saw this trailer for Iqbal Khan’s RSC production of Othello a couple of months ago. Othello is speaking to Desdemona, but as the camera swings from him to her and back again, something has shifted – the tone of voice, the words, the face. Was I really confused who was speaking for a moment? That was a directorial intention, I hope, because there is only room for one minority leading actor in Othello, right? Wrong.

Khan’s production, broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Thursday, ‘made history’ (in the UK and for the RSC at least) by casting Lucian Msamati as Iago opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Quarshie has long expressed ambivalence about the depiction of ‘the Moor’ not only on stage but by Shakespeare’s representation itself, famously questioning whether black actors should even play the role (although he never definitively concluded that they shouldn’t: see also Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 2004 Guardian piece, ‘My Problem With the Moor’). The subtle ways in which Khan’s casting recalibrated how we perceive Othello as the ‘race play’ has been explored by many reviewers, with Dr Peter Kirwan noting that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself’.  Both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black but because they both held rank. As Quarshie notes, in both early modern ‘Venice’ and supposedly ‘post-racial Britain’, the general is one of ‘the only black men […] who isn’t either a cleaner, a soldier or a servant’. Thus Iago’s sense of betrayal at being passed over for promotion for the less experienced, white Cassio makes total sense.  The contemporary, 21st century setting allowed for a reading in which this Venetian society, disturbingly familiar, appeared to think that it was ‘colourblind’ – the Duke’s own daughter would be allowed to marry a ‘Moor’ if he was like Othello, apparently. Yet a feckless young white man didn’t think twice about referring to a high-ranking military leader as ‘the thick lips’ to his black friend and everyone was a bystander to casual and institutionalised racism when it came down to it. Even the righteous Desdemona compromised herself from the outset. ‘”I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”? Really??’ repeated Quarshie/Othello incredulously, only half teasing her. Although the casting of Msamati problematised what is now seen as a simplistic interpretation – that the motivation for Iago’s malignity is racism – it is important to remember that as late as the 1980s critics were pointing out that overlooking racism as a motive and a context in the play was itself deeply problematic (see Roger Day ‘Reading Othello‘ in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon 1996). And Quarshie made his Othello either vocally challenge or reallocate lines that he argues that no black man, if there had been a black man in Shakespeare’s company, would ever had said. Thus Desdemona’s reputation was as ‘begrimed and black’ as Iago’s face, not his.

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Msamati, however, does not believe ‘that what drives Iago is anything racial at all‘. When he improvised on Roderigo’s imagery, moving rapidly from the derogatory ‘thick lips’ to the bestial Barbary horse and ‘old black ram/ […] tupping your white ewe’, he did not seem to be expressing self-loathing; rather, he grasped at an opportunity to exploit the animalistic stereotypes still prevalent in a society where white masculinity sees itself threatened by black male sexuality, and he did this simply in order to ensure that Brabantio would be enraged and disgusted enough to curtail the elopement of his daughter. Msamati sees Iago’s motivation as something ‘deeper, more dangerous, [and] emotional’: he behaves like a ‘jilted jealous boyfriend’ he says in the pre-streaming material. This gives an utterly convincing and confessional edge to Iago’s sudden claim to Othello that ‘I lay with Cassio lately’.

The scene in which this dialogue takes place is central to Khan’s re-visioning of the play, and it was a scene that raised many questions. It is usually performed as a paint by numbers demonstration of how Iago ‘[…]put the Moor/Even into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure[…]/And practising upon his peace and quiet,/Even to madness’. But, as I have already said, this was a production that sought to disrupt complacencies. The ‘noble Moor’, after all, is as problematic a stereotype as ‘the old black ram’. Quarshie’s Othello was neither. Instead he was a complex man who thrived on power and control: verbal, emotional and physical. The production’s emphasis here is on the culture of militarism: Othello was a mercenary general, a man who fought wars as much for his own personal gain (money, status, reputation). The implication was, he could be relied on to get results for Venice regardless of any rules of engagement or human rights conventions. And so, previously, we have seen a nameless, faceless man dragged on stage, tortured with drills and waterboarded, clearly under the command of Othello. Then, in a shocking and graphic reversal of power roles, Iago was presented not as the auteur of the tragedy but as a victim of his own machinations, a man who had already lost control of the plot by act three. When Othello demanded to ‘Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it/That the probation bear no hinge nor loop/To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!’ Iago was strapped to the same chair as the general’s last victim. Again tortured with the contents of the tool box and nearly suffocated with a plastic bag in a scene worthy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, what else was he supposed to say?’ In this production, it was Msamati’s Iago who became human and vulnerable.

On one level, I found this scene extremely effective. Firstly, I like grotesque violence in my early modern stage plays – the tearing out of a heart or a tongue, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes on stage. Sanitizing man’s inhumanity to man is a dangerous thing. If it happens off-stage, out of sight, we don’t have to face the fact that we are complicit in it. It also made sense of Othello’s breakdown, in which the routine violence and abuse of his day job inevitably spills over into his personal life. Quarshie’s charismatic but deeply unpleasant Othello critiques the ‘nobility’ that is often unquestioningly bestowed on ‘our’ military personnel, as we turn a blind eye to, or even excuse, their sometimes illegal and murderous actions. What bothers me, however, was the peripheral nature of these allusions to the crimes committed by western forces at places such as Abu Ghraib. They weren’t centralised enough to make the production a political allegory, as in the work of Sulayman al-Bassam. I felt the production needed to have the courage of its convictions and much more overtly address the connections it appeared to suggest between militaristic masculinity/ entitlement/violence (domestic or otherwise), and western foreign policy in the wake of the First Gulf War. This was nearly political theatre, but not quite. We remained too wrapped up in what would happen to our star-crossed lovers (even if one was a violent narcissist) to remember to care what happened to the faceless man once he was hauled off stage. As Kirwan argues, there was a danger that the torture scenes became a device.

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Nonetheless, this was thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling theatre. The power play between the central characters and the larger society was nuanced and complex, as was the prejudice around both race and gender. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona was particularly strong, rejecting the often infantalised, over-feminised interpretations that still dominate productions, although her fabulous dresses (somewhere between Game of Thrones and Frozen)  didn’t quite ring true. Surely this was a woman who wore trousers? Her death also seemed slightly on the traditional, tame side in a production that was not traditional or tame. Yes, she fought back, but I anticipated more disturbing violence after Othello put out the light with his boot. A man killing his wife should not be prettified.

Having said that, although I’m sometimes slightly disappointed by the predictability of the RSC’s work, directors like Khan and Aberg are bringing an engaging and energizing perspective, and although I’ve criticized Greg Doran before about his ‘colourblind’ casting practices, productions commissioned by him like this are beginning to remedy the fact that the RSC itself often presented a world where minority actors were routinely servants, soldiers or five-line dukes. Listen to the Male, Pale and Stale RSC debate 2015 here.

See Andrew Dickson on Othello and race here.

RSC theatre trailer

Other reviews: Poppy Brady Voice reviewPaul Edmonson The Stage reviewHolly Williams Independent reviewFiona Mountford Evening Standard reviewMichael Covenay What’s On Stage review

First Weekend of the First York International Shakespeare Festival: A Musical Interlude

And so the inaugural York International Shakespeare Festival has begun. This first weekend had somewhat of a musical flavour, as I took in a Kabuki Ophelia, a not so silent ‘silent’ Hamlet, a baroque mock opera and a discordant Feste in a garden shed.

Two Shakespeare Heroines performed by Aki Isoda at the de Grey Rooms, Friday 8th May, 2015

To describe Aki Isoda’s performances as a ‘cultural curiosity’ is deeply problematic, but this seems the best way to sum up this extraordinary evening. Mrs Isoda, now 85 years old, has been performing Lady Macbeth and Ophelia for about 50 years, and her performances seem frozen in time, museum pieces capturing the gestures and sounds of a theatre of the past. Indeed, both parts of her production, Lady Macbeth ‘performed in the Western style’ and Ophelia ‘performed in the Japanese style’, brought to life for the researcher the grainy early twentieth century images of Shingeki New Theatre and traditional Kabuki.

From the reviews, it seems that Isoda’s Lady Macbeth was the hardest for European audiences to appreciate, leaving Lily Papworth ‘a little disappointed’. Lady Macbeth, in red wig and ‘whiteface’, her eyes enlarged with bright blue eye-shadow to mimic Western features, evoked the typical representation of Europeans on East Asian stages until as late as the 1970s.  This first originated in Japanese Shingeki, or New Theatre, which adopted the plays and the realism of Western drama as part of the educational and cultural reforms of its modernisation movement in the period leading up to the First World War*. Isoda’s stylized realism, with its rigid gestures and melodramatic frozen postures, reminded my friend Elizabeth Sandie of silent film, and me of the traces of traditional theatre forms, and it is likely that these were both factors in the development of this aesthetic.  Indeed, in 1904 and 07 there were the first Shingeki Shakespeare productions, featuring for the first time since the age of Shakespeare, actresses in the women’s roles.

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Isoda’s performance was largely a solo affair, in a tradition inherited from noh, as she enacted key scenes from Macbeth to an invisible, silent husband: reading his letter, scolding him for not leaving the daggers to incriminate the king’s guards after his regicide, reassuring his guests that he was simply having a funny turn as he saw visions of these daggers and his murdered friends. She also progressed through a series of spectacular costumes, one minute in the bright red gown of a Queen of Hearts, then in the ghostly white of her night gown as she tried to wash away the damned spot. I have tried to find archive footage of this performance in its early days, for I imagine that her speech, now quavering, once contained great power. Or perhaps the quavering was also because she was engaging in onnarashii (女らしい), the traditional behaviours and speech that is gendered as ‘feminine’ or ‘gentle’ in Japanese culture. I am not a Japanese speaker, so that is only conjecture.

I said that this was largely a solo performance, but there were also three young actors performing as the weird sisters, in a not entirely successful incorporation of a contemporary Western aesthetic. The juxtaposition jarred, but perhaps this was intentional, underscoring the difference of the two approaches.

Her second performance, after the interval, was better appreciated by the audience. This is perhaps

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

because, as noted by academics such as Alexa Huang at the BSA conference on Local/Global Shakespeares in 2009, the ‘cherry blossom exoticism’ is somehow more accessible to Westerners. The irony is that because it is more strange it is less strange, comfortably meeting our expectations of cultural Otherness. As Lily Papworth put it, ‘I realised that this was what I had been hoping for. Performed in typical Kabuki fashion, Isoda’s Ophelia was beautiful’.  And she is right, it was oddly beautiful. We have a cult of youth and realism, so it was very strange to see an octogenarian Ophelia with trembling hands sketch out the fan dances of her youth. Perhaps this was what it was like for the audiences who watched the great Victorians perform their Hamlets and Ophelias into old age. Elaborate scene changes, by the ‘invisible’, black clad kuroko stage hands and accompanied byJapanese shamisen music, became part of the performance as the Kabuki actress changed her kimonos and headpieces offstage. By half closing my eyes, I could semi-transform her into a young girl again.

But dare I say it? In concept and delivery, I couldn’t help thinking of Miss Havisham. ‘So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!’ (Great Expectations)

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

*This in turn influenced the drama of the Chinese Reform Movement,  huaju, or spoken theatre, as Chinese students returned from studying abroad in Japan and Europe.

Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance screened with live musical accompaniment by Robin Harris and Laura Anstee at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, Saturday 9th May, 2015

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

I have written before on this wonderfully weird 1921 German Expressionist film version of Hamlet, in which Prince Hamlet is really a princess, a travesti performance by the extraordinarily, androgynously beautiful Danish actress, Asta Nielson.  See Girl Interrupted. So in this review I will simply focus on the sound. Judith Buchanan, in her introduction, noted what a misnomer ‘silent film’ is: it is anything but silent if screened in context, with a musical accompaniment. Robin Harris and Laura Anstee provided a stunning score, played live by them, that gave emotional depth and texture to a medium which is, in many ways, as removed from modern understanding as Kabuki is removed from Western realism. Nielsen’s nuanced performance ranged from skittish flirtation with an unsuspecting Horatio, ‘voiced’ through a recorder, to manly swashbuckling, the rhythm percussively beaten out. For her clowning scenes at the expense of the hapless Polonius, we slipped into a jazzy little number that reminded me of the escapades of Harold Lloyd (I watched these regularly on Saturday morning children’s telly in the 70s). The exaggerated gestures and expressions of silent cinema can seem like caricatures in less stunning limbs and faces than Nielsen’s, but Anstee’s cello further anchored our identification with Hamlet’s trauma in its haunting alto. The music at this screening also hinted at other elements in Nielsen’s biography, perhaps :-

(c) Silents Now

(c) Silents Now

Harris and Anstee met whilst working on another silent film, Hungry Hearts, about the Jewish immigrant experience in America.   They were both part of the She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble. There were echoes of traditional Jewish music in their Hamlet score. Ophelia was played by a Sarah Jacobsson. Nielsen herself sent money to assist Jewish refugees in World War II.

Shedspere performed by my daughter’s friend’s mother’s friend’s son of the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in a garden shed, King’s Manor lawn, Saturday 9th May, 2015

In this little piece, small audiences of three or four were invited into garden sheds by members of the youth theatre, who then delivered monologues based on a Shakespearean character. I joined a teenaged Feste, who exuded middle aged world weariness in his faded jester’s velvet as he swigged vodka, bemoaned his displacement by Malvolio in Olivia’s house of mourning and discovered he now could neither play his lute (well, banjo) nor sing his songs.  It was really rather good.

Pyramus and Thisbe performed by Opera Restor’d at the National Centre for Early Music, Sunday 10th May, 2015

And to end it all was the bonkers baroque mock opera of Pyramus and Thisbe, featuring all the characters of the mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but instead of the Athenian court, the ‘English’ opera troupe had to prove to the foppish Mr Semibreve and his friends that they could perform as well as any Italian. The full opera (an hour long) was prefaced by a recital of instrumentals and songs from various 18th Century musical adaptations of The Tempest, faithfully reconstructed by Opera Restor’d. I’ve never seen any of these 18th Century afterlives of Shakespeare that I’ve read about and they were hilarious and moving by turns.  I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves (they are from a previous production, but the costumes, if not the performers, are the same).

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

Free Popular Shakespeares 1 & 2 events at York St John, Friday 15th May, as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival

YISF8-17th May 2015 sees the First York International Shakespeare Festival and York St JohnYork-St-John-Logo-2-267x116 University are proud to be hosting two great events.  Leading multi-cultural company Two Gents Productions are bringing their interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew to York, and their founder and director, Arne Pohlmeier, will be working with a small group of primarily YSJU students in front of an audience to demonstrate their unique methods (however, we have a few extra places so contact me via Arts Events if you would like to be involved in the demonstrating: Working with a cast of just two actors of migrant /cross cultural backgrounds, their work was hugely successful as part of the Globe to Globe Festival in the Olympics celebrations in 2012, and Arne is now also working with Shakespeare’s Globe on a regular basis. This is an amazing opportunity for participants and audience alike and is a FREE but TICKETED event.

Friday 15th May 2015, Temple Hall, 10-12, Popular Shakespeares Part 1: book here

taming of the shrew

In fact, why don’t you make a day of it and attend the discussion panel in the afternoon, featuring among others, the Festival organiser, Philip Parr of Parrabola, Dr Aleksandra Sakowska of British Friends of the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, Natalie McCaul of the York Museum Trust on curating the First Folio, Maurice Crichton, York Shakespeare Project, David Richmond on his current student production, They Kill Us For Their Sport, a response to the students’ recent visit to Auschwitz, and Shakespeare: Perspectives lecturers, Saffron Walkling and Julie Raby. Also FREE but TICKETED.

Friday 15th May 2015, Temple Hall, 2-4,Popular Shakespeares Part 2: book here


Both of these events will be suitable for the general public, including young people. You can book tickets for the shows themselves, including The Taming of the Shrew, at the de Grey Rooms or the York International Shakespeare Festival website:

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Event organizer, Saffron  J Walkling, Senior Lecturer in English Literature (Part-time)

Faculty of Arts

York St John University


YO31 7EX

York International Shakespeare Festival Launch 2015

YorkShakes banner ‘Shakespeare: Internationally, Nationally, Locally’ #YorkShakes The first York International Shakespeare Festival  (or YorkShakes) was launched on Wednesday 25th February, 2015, at the de Grey Rooms in the city.  It brought together many of the principal players (both on the stage and behind the scenes) in this exciting venture, and I am honoured to be a part of it, convening the events Popular Shakespeares 1 and Popular Shakespeares 2 on 15th May at York St John University. Unlike the RSC’s Complete Works Festival in 2006-07 or the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, and LIFT’s World Shakespeare Festival  for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, YorkShakes is not a one off affair*, but an annual festival modelled on the other major European Shakespeare Festivals such as the ones in Gdansk (Poland) and Craiova (Romania), and YorkShakes is part of the European International Shakespeare Network. The brain child of director Philip Parr, his company Parrabbola partners with York Theatre Royal and Prof Judith Buchanan at the University of York. The Festival is very much local as well as global. The headline performance is Yorkshire’s own Northern Broadsides, a company with an international reputation for re-claiming the classics. Its founder, Barry Rutter, will play the titular role in King Lear at the University of York, directed by Jonathan Miller, one of Britain’s leading directors and thinkers. However, it is many of the other performances, talks and events that run alongside this that make this Festival really special for York.  With a focus on multicultural, intercultural or community theatre, it offers 10 days of fare, from productions such as Two Gents’ cross-cultural Taming of the Shrew , Aki Isoda’s solo performance of Two Shakespeare Heroines in which she contrasts Eastern and Western performance styles, Parrabola and Denmark’s Hamletscenen’s Prince H. Universe, Poland’s H(2)O, York Shakespeare Project’s  Timon of Athens, and the Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre’s Shedspere, to name but a few. Silents Now present a live music screening with a specially commissioned score of the silent, 1921 German expressionist film of Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance , which stars Asta Nielsen in a ‘mesmerising’ performance as a female Hamlet (see my blog post here).  Both universities contribute performances, with York St John University’s A Response to ‘King Lear’: They Kill Us For Their Sport, which grew out of students recent ‘secular pilgrimage’ to Auschwitz, and the University of York DramaSoc’s Richard III. There are also series of workshops and lectures that reflect on productions and themes that come out of the festival. For Popular Shakespeares 1 and 2, I invite Zimbabwean director Arne Pohlmeier, whose two man production of Two Gentleman of Verona was chosen to be part of the 2012 Globe to Globe (see The Guardian Review), to give a demonstration of how his cross-cultural company works, and I convene a panel talk with festival founder Philip Parr, York Museums Trust, the British Friends of Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, York Shakespeare Project, York Explore and other guests who are actively involved in popularising Shakespeare at a local and global level. The University of York are also running an exciting lecture series. Most of the workshops, lecture series and panels are free but ticketed. For further information and booking, see here. Book soon to avoid disappointment and we look forward to seeing you, your friends and your family there: there is something for everyone! Watch the official trailer: *Globe to Globe in a more modest form has become embedded into Shakespeare’s Globe’s annual season, however.