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

landscape-1451930457-9748884-low-res-the-night-manager
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

Mephistopheles
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.

hamlet2013

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.

Endnotes

[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.

Bibliography

al-Bassam, S., 2002. The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF (no longer available). [Online]
Available at: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit
[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: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit/
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Farr, D., 2016. Metro. [Online]
Available at: http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/21/rscs-david-farr-people-have-a-distaste-for-political-heroes-thats-why-hamlet-resonates-3552205/#ixzz45YYtoJMt
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Foster, P., 2016. The Telegraph. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/bbc/12165661/John-Le-Carre-admits-that-The-Night-Manager-needed-updating-for-modern-audiences.html
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Gardner, L., 2004. ‘Theatre: The Al-Hamlet Summit’. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/mar/13/theatre2
[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: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/21/night-manager-david-farr-q-and-a
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

 

 

 

 

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