World Shakespeare Festival: Three Arabic Shakespeares, Putting Words into our Mouths

Imogen in South Sudan’s ‘Cymbeline’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Cymbeline directed by Joseph Abuk and Derik Uya Alfred and performed by South Sudan Theatre Company, Globe to Globe, London, Wednesday 2nd May matinee.

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad directed by Monadhil Daood and performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company, RSC Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, Friday 4th May evening.

Richard II directed by  Conall Morrison and performed by Ashtar Theatre, Globe to Globe, London, Saturday 5th May evening.

These three Shakespeare appropriations deserve individual blog posts, of course, and I will be posting these in due course.  However, because all three productions were taking part in the World Shakespeare Festival in one week, their combined effect has prompted me to think about what the word Arabic conjures up for me, how diversely Shakespeare can be appropriated, translated and presented, and how the World Shakespeare Festival is trading in/constructing images of the Arab speaking world for its audiences. The latter is not necessarily as ethically dubious as it sounds, and I will attempt to unpack why a little later, but it is important to note that at least two of these productions were commissioned by the festival organisers.

The first production I saw was the South Sudan Theatre Company’s  Cymbeline.  This has been much-hyped as a performance from the world’s newest country – and why not hype?  After all, that is how theatres get audiences. I doubt very much whether the company were asked to choose a play from a group containing this one by chance.  One of Shakespeare’s strangest Late Plays (my personal favourite), it is set in this country’s ancient past and is part of its foundation history. Ironically in the North/South Sudan context, which separated into two countries last year, Shakespeare uses Cymbeline to reflect not on England alone but on James I’s proposed united nation of Britain (Shapiro, BBC4, 7/5/2012).  The London-Juba South Sudan Theatre Company was actually founded to put on this production, making it perhaps the most significant appropriation in terms of national identity in this festival – and indicating, aside from any claims about the ‘universality’ of the Bard, the power and currency of the Shakespeare brand in a rapidly globalising world. He is fast becoming the Coca-Cola of the arts, some might argue.  However, it is productions like these that ensure that does not happen. “Literature is combat,” declares Jospeh Abuk, the play’s translator. “Literature is a warfront against those aspects of society that don’t help humanity.”

The doctor, South Sudan ‘Cymbeline’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Cymbeline was translated into Juba Arabic by Abuk, and the play’s relocation to a Sudanese setting was a sharp reminder that Arabic is also an African language and has an existence outside of Middle Eastern and Muslim culture.  The  Guardian review explains that Juba Arabic is a colloquial form of Arabic spoken as a lingua franca between different tribes, and the Juba Cymbeline certainly sounded contemporary and informal to my untrained ear, the language matched by the dynamic, street theatre style of acting. And like street theatre, mystery plays, and typical Globe productions, it played to and played with the audience.  The production’s visual surface was a non-specific ‘tribal’ setting (perhaps an ancient kingdom, or perhaps a contemporary Sudanese village).  Its dynamic action kept the non-Sudanese on board, but there were many jokes that only the Juba-Arabic speakers could get (see Margaret Litvin’s blog post on her attempt to follow the dialogue, which turned out to be very far removed from the Egyptian Arabic she can speak).  A young Sudanese sitting next to me, there for the patriotism of the moment rather than the play, was texting on his mobile phone, but kept looking up and laughing when he heard the funny bits, his attention momentarily captured. Many others were captivated throughout. To ensure that the non-Juba speakers were not left out, the cast slipped into English at key moments, anchoring the plot for its London audience, and also maybe indicating how one language is often a tapestry of many.  Juba Arabic, I imagine, must also contain many words and phrases from indigenous languages.

This production set out to make this an African story in form as well as setting.  Interspersed and framed with songs and dances, the ‘play’ itself opened with the cast taking turns to summarise the story for the audience, suggesting an oral story-telling tradition.  The play’s ancestors returning from the dead to call on the gods to intervene in the lives of their descendents also played to Western preconceptions (or misconceptions) about African religion and beliefs, because of course, the ancestors came from Shakespeare’s text and the gods were Classical (Roman). However, the play’s translator felt this also found equivalence in Sudanese tradition. If you read the  company’s blog, you can follow the process of how this troupe of global, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and mostly young people took sophisticated ownership of what some may see as a post-colonial project.

Ashtar Theatre, Palestine, ‘Richard II’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

The Palestinian Ashtar Theatre took an entirely different approach.  They were commissioned to do a play they hadn’t heard of: ‘Shouldn’t it have another 1 on the end?’ one of the creative team quipped at the between-performances discussion on 5th May.  Ashtar had asked if they could do The Taming of the Shrew, ‘because we’re really interested in gender’.  However, the Festival director, Tom Bird, had other ideas; he wanted them to do Richard II because, in his eyes, its tale of a weak and vain king overthrown by popular uprisings spoke to the Arab Spring.  In fact, in the Globe to Globe Festival programme, he rather naughtily implies that it was the company that made this connection itself: ‘The festival has found itself at the mercy of international politics (Cymbeline from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, The Comedy of Errors from Afghanistan, Richard II from Palestine).’  Whilst fully embracing the spirit of the festival, Ashtar nonetheless maintained its own integrity, refusing to construct an overt allegory and creating a largely non-specific, pan-Arab mise-en-scene.  In fact, if this had been in English, not Arabic, the fair-haired Richard could have been king of anywhere.  Only the gardeners wore an identifying local dress. The translation, down to every name and place, located the action to England.  ‘It’s not Palestine,’ the creative team insisted, ‘and it’s certainly not Syria, as some people are suggesting.  No, it’s not Syria.’ When they said this, I think they really meant that it was not Syria and that the spectators should not be looking for such allegories: ‘We wouldn’t presume to speak for Syrians.’  However, by constantly reiterating that it wasn’t Syria, the result was that I could only see Syria in the production, of course…  The young king too confident that God was on his side, oblivious to the fact that his people no longer loved him, and had never loved him just because of who he was, seemed terribly like President al-Assad, and his low-key but ever so chic Queen, not approving of his foolish and destructive behaviour, but always putting her love for him first, looked a little like Asma. And although place and allegory was not fixed, when the protesters ran onstage, faces covered and waving blood-stained flags, it conjured up Damascus or Cairo’s Tahrir Square rather than London’s looting.  Judging from the cheers from the highly politicised audience, people saw what they wanted to see. Or perhaps the cheering was because, as my friend Sheksper pointed out later, ‘the flags were in the component colours of the Palestinian flag,…’

Ashtar Theatre, Palestine, ‘Richard II’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Ashtar resisted having words put into their mouths by the festival organisers, quite literally. Following the linguistic vision of the Globe to Globe project, ’37 Plays in 37 Languages’, they had been asked to translate the play into Palestinian Arabic.  ‘We tried,’ said Shbib, who also played the Queen, ‘but it didn’t work.  You can’t have Richard II sounding like he’s on the bus!’ Because it’s a play in which imagery and rhetoric is so central, they decided to work from an existing translation in classical Arabic, by an Egyptian.  It was then modernised by a Palestinian poet, and reworked to give it dramatic and psychological force by the actors themselves and their Irish co-director.  This added a certain frisson to Richard’s campaign to Ireland, I can assure you. But the Festival still promoted it as Palestinian Arabic on the flyer.

Whatever type of Arabic they were speaking, when Richard, played by the mesmeric Sami Metwasi sat on the edge of the stage and lamented the death of kings, I felt the tears spill down my face.  The woman on the other side of him was clearly struggling to hold back hers, and Richard’s eyes filled to the brim.

Sandwiched between these two productions at the Globe, I took my sixteen-year-old daughter to see Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.  This production by the Iraqi Theatre Company had been commissioned by the RSC for the World Shakespeare Festival.  This took a different approach again.  Unlike the Globe’s approach, the production was closely surtitled.  Translated and transformed from Shakespeare’s English into Arabic, it was then translated back into contemporary English and projected on two screens on each side of the stage.  This allowed those of us who were non-Arabic speakers to see exactly how the text had been reconfigured, and be absorbed into the new language and imagery.  Before attending the Globe’s productions I would have backed this RSC approach 100%, but now I found a dilemma.  Whereas at the Globe I was completely drawn in by the performances, noticing the minutiae of expression, the choreography of the blocking, hearing the music of languages I cannot understand, here my mind was constantly divided between the performance and the screens.  I didn’t dare ignore the written word (what if I missed something important?), but for the first time I understood the tyranny of surtitles…

Iraqi Theatre Company ‘Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad’ (c) Royal Shakespeare Company

This was nonetheless a simple, stunning, shocking production. Appropriated into a contemporary Baghdad setting, the production used Shakespeare’s play as a frame in which to hang its own story, a tragedy of modern Iraq.  Again there appeared to be a mismatch between what the RSC envisioned and what the Iraqi Company chose to do.  The World Shakespeare Festival publicity and the local news touted it as a love story set in the Sunni/Shia divide, but there was no reference to this in the programme or the surtitles, suggesting that director Monadhil Daood’s reconfiguring was more nuanced. Montague and Capulet were blood brothers, sharing the same father but mothered by different wives. Fuelled by jealousy over family hierarchies and parental favouritism, the family’s dislocation was exacerbated by the war and exploited by the local muhajadeen, Paris.   Key characters, scenes, and images remained: Juliet’s nurse flirting with the Montague boys, Romeo and Juliet clinging to each other on a balcony, but many of the details were fundamentally different.  The lovers embraced life and looked to find a way to live a future.  The only suicide was that of the bomber that killed them.  Again, in the process of translation, the creative team searched to find equivalences.  How could Mercutio’s tale of Queen Mab speak to an Arab audience? Whereas Bas Lurhmann made sense of this difficult and now alien speech through the image of a small hallucinogenic pill on the tip of cross-dressing, party-going Mercutio’s finger, Daood turned to an old folktale about a beetle, a rat and a radish seller, and the pointless destruction of war.

Deborah Shaw’s poetic introduction in the programme notes likewise deals in most Westerner’s limited perceptions of the Arab world by dwelling on the only two reference points many of us have, war and the ‘stories, stories’ of the Arabian Nights. Margaret Litvin has pointed out that the World Shakespeare Festival seems only interested in the political hotspots of the Arab speaking world.  It is possible to argue that this is deeply problematic, even orientalising, particularly in the context and presentation of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad.  This production presented audiences literate in global current affairs with predictable images and allegories.  However, I would argue that this was the very thing that made this production so powerful. Watching the reactions of my daughter confirmed this for me.  She jumped in terror at the bomb blasts and gunshots and clung to my arm for much of the second half of the play.  Yet the fact that it was Romeo and Juliet gave her a way into this world.  It is a play that, like every other teenager in Britain, she has studied at school, and she has played the role of Juliet  drama class.  This appropriation of a familiar story defamiliarised made the news stories that she gets on her iPod news app suddenly seem relevant, real and close.  The retired couple sitting next to us stopped to talk on the way out of the theatre. ‘That wasn’t just a play,’ the husband said. ‘That was real.  I couldn’t stop thinking, this is really happening out there in the real world.’


One thought on “World Shakespeare Festival: Three Arabic Shakespeares, Putting Words into our Mouths

  1. Pingback: Globe to Globe on The Space « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

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