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].






*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.


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

Pamela Lombari on playing Liddell’s Ricardo/Richard III in Argentina: El Aňo de Ricardo/The Year of Richard

Earlier this year, I blogged on an appropriation of Richard III by Spanish playwright and performer Angélica Liddell called El Aňo de Ricardo (The Year of Richard) which was performed at the Habemus Theatre in Pergamino, Argentina (July 2014). Here, I interview the production’s lead actor, Pamela Lombari, on her experiences with this play. Questions and answers translated by Adriana Lombari Bonefeld.

Interview with Pamela Lombari on El Aňo de Ricardo 

Can you tell us about your role in El Aňo de Ricardo? Who do you play?

Argentinian actor Pamela Lombari

Argentinian actor Pamela Lombari

In The Year of Ricardo by the Spanish author Ricardo Angelica Liddell, I played Ricardo. The author based her character on Shakespeare’s Richard III. The character is transferred into the contemporary world, presenting a sinister and dark view on the weakness of democracy, on religion, on politics, on genocide. It challenges these values from a stand of fragility but also from the stand of the play’s perverse proposition.

What drew you and the company to Liddell’s play?

Raul Notta, the director, was attracted to the proposition put forward by Angelica Liddell: her play is a provocative, and self-reflective critique of established social conventions.  The playwright  challenges and destabilizes these social conventions. As a perfomer, I felt drawn to the text as it conveys a seductive understanding of contemporary western society … I fell in love with the dramatic structure. As soon as I read it, I felt passionate about performing it. I did not want to miss the opportunity to play such a text.

How did you prepare for such a role? How did it differ from other roles you have played?

To enter into ‘Ricardo’ meant a lot of work and preparation. It entailed an organic commitment where intellect, emotion and body interplayed. In this and all my work I surrender. I trusted both the director’s and my own instincts. I listened to what he had to say but I also listened to my body. ‘Ricardo’ requires the body’s involvement and physical work, but also emotional preparation and energy. All this is necessary to get into and out of a variety of dramatic and diverse situations. I can say that Ricardo goes through my body so that I can express his voice not only with words but with all my body. It has been, indeed a huge challenge … after 25 years this is my first one person show. After Raul Notta chose me to perform this play,  we worked intensely for five months creating, researching – and enjoying!

What is the significance of gender in this interpretation?

With regard to gender, Liddell at no time indicates if she thought the text should be interpreted by a man or a woman … she just named the character Ricardo. [Liddell herself did originally play the role, however.] The director thought of me when he read the script. As a performer I did not think about the character as having one specific gender …I work ‘organically’ investing my resources in the character … I guess the character can be played by a man or a woman. I would like to think that both of my masculine and feminine identities were invested in the performance. Moreover, I think I made good use of my irrational aspects – what I can describe as the ‘animal inside me’. All aspects [of the self] are required when ‘entering’ such complex characters. As a performer, I draw on high levels of consciousness to get rid of my prejudices that may limit the creative process. The gender perspective is somehow less central in ‘The Year of Ricardo’.

How does Liddell’s Richard relate to Shakespeare’s Richard?

There is a relationship that lies in his schizophrenia, his ambition for autocratic power, his sinister irony, his wicked seduction used to achieve his lifelong aim to dominate others.

There are many striking images from the production and from the video that was part of the production. Can you elucidate some of these for us? For example, what did the burning books represent? And the broken dolls? And the string wrapped around the woman’s face? (Significantly, this was translated as: And the thread sewn around the face of the woman?)

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The burning of the books is closely linked to the original text of the play, it is a sign of the destruction of poetry, the death of poets and writers who challenge the power that Ricardo pursues. [Adriana Lombari Bonefeld glossed this further: ‘Liddell’s play references ‘Nazism and dictatorships current and past. Knowledge has to be burnt and destroyed as it poses a threat to power,’ she explained.  So, did she think that the play related to the Argentinean situation, past or present? ‘It relates to all dictatorships, and in Latin America unfortunately there is a sad and long history of that!’]

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The broken dolls represent life’s devastation. Not only is life devastated in the imagination of Ricardo, but in Angélica Liddell’s view and – I have to confess – in mine too. The broken dolls led to the idea of fragmented bodies, sick bodies, corrupted bodies. The unfinished desires fill the flesh of venom. (“He who desires but does not act, breeds pestilence” Milton).

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The thread that binds is a prison, the barbed wire hair, it is like a concentration camp. Ricardo is a prisoner of himself, of his own folly; psychopathy and his thinking do not set him free. His heinous acts are not cathartic: they only imprison him to his obsessions, which spin all the time about the same (the genesis of his insanity).

To what extent does this production take on new meaning when transplanted to Argentina?

The dimension is very moving for the universality of the themes that the author raises, it can be performed in Argentina just as it can in Japan.

How would you sum this production up for audiences who have not had a chance to see it?

The Year of Ricardo is a proposal for reflection and questioning about moral aspects such as good and evil, about religion, racism, human foolishness, politics etc.

What else do you think it is important for audiences to think about in relation to your production?

For us it is important that our proposition challenges the audience on the human level and, also, that they can enjoy a theatrical approach that integrates different stage languages.

Press Release – The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski): 19 September 2014

Gdansk logo

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

Theatre Website and Festival Website (click on Union Jack icon for English translations)

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

On the 19th September 2014 the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place. It is one of the most unusual venues in the world and the only modern theatre building with an opening roof that allows the staging of plays in daylight, in the tradition of the Renaissance. 

This is an exceptional event as the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre is the only dedicated theatre building that has been constructed in Poland for almost forty years. Therefore the Grand Opening ceremony will gather many notable persons from the world of culture and business, as well as government and local authorities.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The idea of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan-style Gdańsk playhouse, where English travelling actors performed in the seventeenth century, was born under the patronage of HRH Charles, Prince of Wales. Other notable supporters of the project include renowned Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, celebrated British theatre director Sir Peter Hall and many leading British and Polish actors, among them Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Allan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Krystyna Janda, Jerzy Stuhr, and many others.

Because the building cannot accommodate all the guests we would like to invite, the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place in two stages: a closed ceremony will take place inside the theatre with VIPs, sponsors, foreign guests and journalists. All other festivities will take place outside the building for other guests wishing to take part in the celebrations. 

The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will start in the evening, at 8.30 pm. It will begin with a celebratory performance outside the Theatre that will last approximately 30 minutes. It will

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

include a Spanish fencing show and a performance of aerial acrobatics. The performance will close with a march of all the spectators, led by the fencers and actors, through the Theatre’s Main Hall, where they will be welcomed by Shakespearean characters. 

The design of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre by renowned Italian architect Renato Rizzi has been recognised as one of most interesting architectural projects of the twenty–first century. The outside brick construction, reminiscent of Gdansk’s Gothic churches, contains a wooden, early modern playhouse interior, and is thus an architectural dialogue with the building’s past. Rizzi’s design uses the seventeenth century Fencing School in Gdansk – said to be the first public theatre in Poland – as its inspiration. At the same time the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre provides a real glimpse into the future of theatre

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

design with its unique architectural and technologically advanced elements – created with daring and ambition – such as the opening roof which provides daylight during performances and a retractable modular stage design providing both an Italian box stage and Elizabethan thrust stage. 

The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will become a vibrant centre for culture and the arts. Its forthcoming programme of events will include: a series of week-long events celebrating European culture (starting with the British Week from 20 until 26 September), a series of month-long events devoted to Polish theatre, an extensive educational series for primary and secondary schools, and finally the annual International Shakespeare Festival, currently in its eighteenth year, which will take place from 27 September until 5 October 2014. 

The distinctive combination of historical tradition and modernity makes the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre not only a unique tourist attraction but also a new international cultural platform dedicated to theatre innovation and artistic creativity.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska

London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London




Magdalena Hajdysz

Press Office, Poland

tel.: +48 691 08 22 77

The Year of Ricardo: Richard III in Argentina

The Year of Ricardo by Angelica Liddell at the Habemus Theatrum,  Theatrum, Pergamino, Argentina, with Pamela Lombari, directed by Raul Nutta, video directed by Fabian Diaz. Performances on  5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 July 2014

Ricardo publicity

Versión española/Spanish version of Rolandelli's review (without my introduction).

Living in York, I have to be careful how I respond to a question like ‘How do English people think of Richard III?’ After all, this city has a museum dedicated to righting the wrongs of the Tudor propaganda that came out of London… Yet, despite Philippa Gregory’s and the BBC’s recent attempts to repackage Richard sympathetically as a smouldering heartthrob, manipulated and maligned, to most he is still the ‘poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ of Shakespeare’s play. My friend, Adriana, who originates from Argentina, had a specific reason to ask such a question: her sister had been cast as Richard in a production of Angelica Liddell’s free appropriation El Aňo de Ricardo (The Year of Richard).  In this monologue, part of Liddell’s ‘trilogía de actos de resistencia contra la muerte’, or  ‘trilogy of acts of resistance against death’ , the Spanish playwright and performer re-imagined him as everything that is dark and twisted within the world. The authenticity of a historical Richard is irrelevant here: it is the symbolism that counts. “We identify with him. Ricardo shows us how democratic mechanisms are used to abuse power, cause suffering, and compensate for personal faults,” said Liddell.  As the prison of Denmark becomes a parallel for any totalitarian regime in global Hamlets, so the figure of Richard can be seen to stand in for any dictator, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, but also in Liddell’s work the implication is that he stands in for all that is dark and twisted in the self: we too are complicit, perhaps?

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

Striking in the images released by Lombari and the Fratacho Company is the burning of books. Liddell’s play references ‘Nazism and dictatorships current and past. Knowledge has to be burnt and destroyed as it poses a threat to power,’ explains Adriana.  So, did she think that the play related to the Argentinean situation, past or present? ‘It relates to all dictatorships, and in Latin America unfortunately there is a sad and long history of that!’

Currently running at the Habemus Theatrum in Pergamino this theatre isn’t afraid of putting on challenging productions and its lead actor, Pamela Lombari, is no stranger to challenging roles.

This review of the production by Carmen Rolandelli, translated by Adriana Lombari-Bonefeld, gives a flavour of how Shakespeare’s play transforms across time, place and gender.

The Year of Ricardo

Pamela Lombari’s  performance in “The Year of Ricardo” excels. It can be argued that this is her best work but that would detract from the many other important projects that this actress has faced throughout her career. Yet, in this play she has come of age, overcoming her own goals. It is a difficult performance, splitting the action from the word, that Stanislavsky himself considered was so important, when words become alien themselves, displaying the subtext, the cross action of the word. A stark text by Angelica Liddell that is difficult to digest, it is uncomfortable and angry. A ruthless criticism of the social system that goes beyond the disappointments of Liddell, it arrives at a place of absolute disbelief and scepticism, a place that does not give rise to hope.

“Dying is as close to the truth as  we get,” says the author and from that position generates anxiety in the audience, from that place challenges power. Who speaks in the voice of Ricardo? The perverse capitalism, which excludes, which preys, which feeds his more egregious greed? It presents a cynical look at the only tool capable of transforming reality, politics. But is it not, that voice that mocks the ideology and power of the masses, is not speech the right of the last man? And after that, what? The author does not tell us what after that. Or maybe this, its revealed truth, is nothing more than a desperate cry. “Uninterrupted pessimism makes me distrust the human being,” says the Spanish author but also adds that the overwhelming desire to side with the loser appears. This is, in my opinion, a reaffirmation of the political. It would be good to open a discussion with the public, and that is who Liddell questions and challenges.

(c) Grupa Fratacho

(c) Grupa Fratacho

Raul Notta, responsible for an impeccable adaptation of the play, proves once again his ability to translate complex plays into stage language. His work and drive, keeps the spectator in awe from the beginning. Here, I can say that the concept of “spectator” is present because it is impossible not to be swept away by the action. The message confronts us, making it impossible to remain as passive subjects. On the contrary, it is impossible as a subject not to feel thrown to the depth of the swamp, that makes us angry and uneasy. Beautiful and deep is the intervention of Fabian Diaz, with his aesthetics of the margins, the unspoken words and what underlies his images. Could this be the beauty of the unhappiness and the anguish of Liddell? Hence, this is a confrontational text that leads us to the discussion of our own ideas anchored politically and collectively, and shows the excellent level and place of honour that the theatre in our community must occupy . The year of Ricardo achieved this.

By Carmen Rolandelli, translated by Adriana Lombari-Bonefeld


Versión española/Spanish version of Rolandelli's review.