*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.



Globe to Globe on The Space

As the summer of more than usually international Shakespeare came to an end, I revisited some of the Globe to Globe productions which were temporarily available on the Arts Council’s website, The Space.* If anyone from Shakespeare’s Globe is reading this – how about releasing them all as a boxed set? I’d certainly buy them!
 My personal highlights (in no particular order of preference) were:

(c) Yohangza/Globe to Globe

Yohangza’s A Midsummer Night’s DreamFrom South Korea, this is a global, intercultural company (their name means ‘voyager’), who have successfully proved that the language of theatre is more than linguistic and, without attempting to ‘universalise’ or ‘homogenise’, they have nevertheless shown how easy it is for a story well told to criss-cross cultural boundaries.  I was unable to get to London for the two days that it was playing at the Globe, but I saw it online.

I was a Groundling for the first time when I went to see the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre Company’s Richard IIStanding right next to Sami Metwasi when he sat on the edge of the stage as Richard and lamented the death of kings in classical Arabic – well, it was simply one of the most compelling moments in theatre that I have experienced.  I’ve blogged about it here, and I am currently co-authoring a journal paper on it.

(c) Globe to Globe

This was ‘balanced’ by the controversial invitation to Israel’s national theatre Habima, who against everyone’s expectations chose to put on The Merchant of Venice.  By all accounts, the political theatricals that took place around the production were as powerful as the performances on the stage, and raised challenging questions about whether or not artists and artistic ‘products’ should be boycotted.  Some Israeli commentators read it as a critique of internal Jewish racism, explaining that Shylock was represented as a Sephardic (Eastern/Mediterranean) Jew, while Portia and her coterie where Ashkenazi (European).

There were three powerful, cruelly absurd reconfigurings of Shakespeare’s ‘great’ tragedies.

The Belarus Free Theatre outdid any CGI technology by reproducing the storm with a simple blue tarpaulin and a bucket or two of water in  its scathing satire, King Lear.  The result: they left the audience stunned, and those of us at the front of the Groundlings, due to their extraordinary use of the elements, deafened and somewhat wet.  I’ve blogged on it. Kochanowski Theatre’s Polish Macbeth divided British audiences between those who were horrified and disgusted by the sexual violence in its postmodern deconstruction of corrupt contemporary politics, and those of us, myself included, who thought that to not represent the ugliness of this on the stage would be in itself self-censorship and a betrayal of the mise-en- scene.  Meno Fortas put on their famously ‘metaphorical’ Hamlet with aplomb.  Audiences were drawn both by its director’s stature in European theatre circles and also, as noted in my blog, by the fame of its rock star Hamlet.   Amongst all of this darkness, Marjanishvili Theatre from Georgia, put on a delightful and nuanced As You Like ItAs well as my blog post I have an autumn leaf as a reminder.

My interest is not only in Eastern European appropriation, however.  It was fascinating to see the deliberately apolitical Richard III by the National China of Theatre after spending so much time thinking about the more subversive work of Lin Zhaohua.  It wasn’t so much Shakespeare as a secret agent as ‘Let me entertain you’!  We were .

Two Gents (c) Globe to Globe

Others that I did not get a chance to see but wish I had included: Two Gents Shona language Two Gentleman of Verona (both hilariously funny and brilliantly dark, if it is anything like their English language version of the same which I saw on tour in Scarborough in 2009); Hong Kong’s Tang Shu Wing’s Theatre Studio Theatre’s Titus Andronicus;; and all the Indian subcontinent productions (Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest).  I managed to catch up on The Merchant of Venice and Oyun Atölyesi’s Antony and Cleopatra from Turkey through the Performance and Festival section on The Space website.  Unfortunately, many of the plays were taken off a day before its advertised end, so the time I had set aside for marathon Globe to Globe watching was in vain, and a shame for the students who had hoped to watch Hamlet the day before their lecture….

I’d be interested to hear you thoughts on any of these productions and also your views on the politics and economics of these types of festival.  I loved every minute of Globe to Globe, but it does raise important questions about cultural ownership, how festivals package and represent companies as ‘the Other’, and how theatre can reach new audiences.

As an afterthought, I really should get a goody bag after all this promotion for the Arts Council and Globe to Globe, shouldn’t I?!

*All of the 37 plays in 37 languages were hosted in full with the exception of the Afghan Roy-E-Sabs’ exuberantly defiant Comedy of Errors, presumably because it has been unsafe for the actors, particularly the women, to have too high a media profile.  An Afghan actress was murdered this summer just for being an actress.  Shakespeare’s Globe have also not included any pictures of the women in their production photographs, apart from the US exile – the one who left Afghanistan after her husband was killed because he ‘let’ her work in television drama.

Richard III of where?

Short Presentation Outline: Richard III workshop, YSJU

Watch the National Theatre of China’s Globe to Globe Richard III at The Space (No longer available)

See a clever clip from Sabab’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy at Global Shakespeares (Available)

Watch the London Olympics Opening Ceremony on the BBC (No longer available)

Branagh reads ‘The Tempest’ (c) Entertainment Weekly

Danny Boyle framed his Olympic Opening Ceremony with two bastions of British culture: Mr Bean and William Shakespeare.  In fact, in some circles (China, Palestine) the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad, has been renamed Shakespeare’s Olympics… This year of sport has also been a year of the arts, in the shape of the London 2012 Festival, and at the heart of this has been ‘our’ National Bard.  Not only did the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies use The Tempest to showcase our culture to the world, however; it also assumed that the world would respond to this because Shakespeare is somehow ‘universal’.

There is a very important conversation to be had here about colonial indoctrination, cultural ownership, and Shakespeare as a global brand: however, I cannot do this justice in 15 minutes, and for the time-being at least I want to celebrate the brilliant carnivalesque of this festival, which attempted to recreate – in reverse – the experience of the English Players who took Shakespeare into Europe in the 17th century and performed in English to audiences who, often-times, could not understand a word that was being said!  Yet many of those cultures now claim Shakespeare as their own. Not so much a National Bard as a bard of many nations.

Globe to Globe was part of the larger WSF, and presented all 37 plays – in 37 languages.  Artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, and Globe to Globe director, Tom Bird, set out their understanding of what this festival signified in the festival programme: ‘Shakespeare is the language that brings us together better than any other, and reminds us of our almost infinite difference, and of our strange and humbling commonality’ (Dromgoole and Bird, 2012). Shakespeare is a universal or shared language, they imply – yes, he reminds us of difference but mostly he emphasises our commonality.  However, in an article in the same programme, the academic Dennis Kennedy challenges this idea of universality.  Shakespeare has travelled so far, he argues, because of his ‘flexibility.’  We use a specific word to describe Shakespeare adaptation in this context: appropriation.  Much as Shakespeare did with the European and Classical sources he appropriated for his own plays, theatre practitioners across the world have taken Shakespeare and used him for their own purposes.  Part of this transformation often involves leaving the language behind, challenging the claim that Shakespeare is his language.

Richard III’s coronation (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

First of all, let’s look at the National Theatre of China’s production which wowed audiences at the Globe last April (see my long review here).  This was another extremely rainy month, as some of you will remember, nearly as rainy as now, and as flooded.  I mention this because the company had found itself without costumes and props.  Having sent them ahead by sea 7 weeks earlier, the English weather prevented the container ship from entering Felixstowe harbour, so the actors had to make do with borrowed robes – and a couple of costumes hastily run up, such as this yellow coat.  Not quite the Imperial silk that had been planned, but its colour still  indicated to anyone who knows anything about Chinese history that whoever wore it was the Emperor.

Yet critics unanimously agreed that the performance was so strong and so innovative that the lack of costumes made little difference.  For this Sinocized appropriation relocated late medieval England to ancient China. Nimbly side-stepping some Western commentators’ hopes that the production would critique the power politics of modern China, it instead entranced British audiences with its clever interweaving of Shakespeare’s story with traditional Chinese theatre.  Although largely ‘spoken theatre’, it incorporated Beijing Opera traits: during Richard’s brilliant seduction of Lady Ann (when she spat in his face he rubbed it in as if it was aftershave), she sang a stylized aria in the high-pitched voice of female roles.  Later, the same actress doubled as the young Prince Edward.  Now she danced with a riding crop, indicating that the prince was riding on horseback.  This non-naturalistic technique of Beijing Opera influenced the theory and practice of a certain German dramaturg at the beginning of the 20C – Bertolt Brecht’s defamiliarization/alienation effect, which you’ll recognise in much experimental theatre. Two other characters were borrowed from Chinese Opera. The murderers were chou, or clown figures, engaging in Chinese style cross talk and acrobatics as they debated whether or not to murder Clarence.  This worked well with Shakespeare’s text as there is a grotesque comedy in this scene on the English stage, too. However, they added a twist to the usually sinister Tyrell when they reappeared in this role, one sitting on the other’s shoulders. Again grotesquely comic, this time in tension with a traditional Western interpretation of the character, they acted in conscienceless unity.

Richard and Maragaret (c) National Theatre of China

In Li Ruru’s review on the Shakespeare’s Globe Blog she explores how this production, combining both spoken and sung theatre traditions is not only intercultural, however – it is also intracultural. She also discusses their interpretive choice to present Richard without any physical deformity.

Director Wang Xiaoying spoke of his influences and aims in an interview he gave in China:  “I saw the original Richard III play last year in Beijing starring [Hollywood actor] Kevin Spacey, which was fabulous and remained true to Shakespeare’s original work. However, the WSF is a platform for different countries to showcase their own culture. I believe that other countries will also fuse unique cultural elements into Shakespeare’s plays”( cited in Wang Shutong, Global Times, 2012).

The production had been specially created for Globe to Globe to “bring Chinese culture out to meet with the world’s different races, different languages, and different cultural backgrounds, to interact and communicate with one another under the banner of Shakespeare.”  (Wang Xiaoying cited in Lee Chee Keng, Shakespeare’s Gobe Blog, 2012).

I would like you to stop and think about this idea of being ‘under the banner of Shakespeare’.  What do you think he means?

Square Word Calligraphy: look carefully and you’ll see it’s in English…
(c) National Theatre of China

The second production was introduced by Anglo-Kuwaiti director, Sulayman Al-Bassam, as part of the ‘It is the East’ study sessions.  Al-Bassam was brought up in the UK (his mother is English, his father Kuwaiti) but since the 1st Gulf War he has increasingly felt he should fashion himself as an Arab voice.  Originally adapting Shakespeare’s plays into an Arab setting, but still in English, his RSC commissioned Richard III: An Arab Tragedy was performed in Arabic.

As Kennedy noted of Shakespeare under communism, he can often be an agent under deep cover…. (Foreign Shakespeare, 1993) Because Shakespeare’s texts are classic and foreign they can be a way to sneak messages to audiences without the censors realising. Al-Bassam discussed how in the Arab world there is both political and cultural censorship at times.  Shakespeare is about Britain and the British, right? Or at least, about Westerners? There can’t be any harm in that?



Fayez Kazak calls for a horse (c) Jonathan Player NYT

Al-Bassam’s Richard III, performed by his company Sabab, was overtly political and Richard looked very like a Saddam figure.  In fact, he loves to announce, he once had Syria’s Bashar al Assad in the audience.  When al Assad heard the name of an imprisoned Syrian dissident mentioned by one of the actors, he had a Claudius moment, almost calling for ‘Lights!’ before he and his entourage stormed out. ‘Hence the utility of our friend, William Shakespeare, you know? It’s William Shakespeare who’s saying this, not us.’ (Al-Bassam in interview with Brown, for PBS, 2009)

This adaptation was much, much darker than the comically entertaining Chinese appropriation – and when the Western funded ‘Tudors’ took over at the end there was no sense of order being restored. This production has been written about by Graham Holderness here and blogged on by Margaret Litvin on her fabulously wide-ranging and up-to-date Shakespeare in the Arab World (put Richard III into her blog’s ‘search’ box and it will take you through to several posts).

At the It is the East Study Day at the Globe, Al-Bassam also talked in great detail about how, if these reconfigurings  were going to work in the new context, the equivalences had to be very carefully thought through. How can you present Clarence drowned in a butt of malmsey wine if you are presenting him as a devout Muslim?  In a chilling clip, he showed us exactly how. As the muezzin called worshippers to prayer, Clarence entered carrying a suitcase.  He paused, knelt down and opened the suitcase, which was full of water.  Then he began his ritual ablutions, cleansing himself for prayer. The murderer had no shifting consciences as he held his victim’s head under the shallow water. As one of our students noted, this parallels the religious significance of wine in western culture: as the blood of Christ, wine creates communion with God through atonement.

So don’t believe it when people say Shakespeare is irrelevant in today’s world… Or that he’s the Bard of Britain…

This is just a taster of some of the productions that are out there, and some of the discussion points around intercultural Shakespeare. My article on WSF Arab Shakespeare is available on the Year of Shakespeare blog, as well as being archived here under Globe to Globe.  Please add comments to this blog post if you have any.

Richard seduces Anne (c) Ellie Kutz, WSJ

Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

This free afternoon public symposium at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, sounds a treat and is exactly my area of research… However, the new semester will have just started, and I’m teaching the day before.  Forget the fact that a round trip ticket from York, UK, would cancel out the freeness of the event! Which is a shame – I quite fancy the King in the morning and the Bard in the afternoon!

(c) Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

But the Global Hamlets Symposium , for anyone who is in the area, is not to be missed.  Two of the speakers, Alex (Alexa) Huang and Margaret Litvin, have been at the forefront of promoting awareness of Chinese and Arab Shakespeares respectively in Western scholarship.  Huang‘s Chinese Shakespeares is a fascinating, eclectic study of how Shakespeare was appropriated by Chinese activists, novelists, playwrights and filmakers over the course of the 20C.  It inspired me to pick up  a Peking Foreign Languages Press paperback that had been sitting on my bookshelf since the early 1990s, when I first went out to teach in Mainland China: Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son: a Sojourn in London.  The ex-pat son is an ineffectual  Hamlet figure, a metaphor for the dilemma of modern China between the world wars.  My favourite bit of the book, however, is when the traditionalist Old Man Ma, at a loss for something to do on a wet afternoon, decides to go to the theatre, as he would have done in China.  He then changes his mind because he remembers that in England theatre is just a group of people walking about on a stage and mumbling… Litvin‘s Hamlet’s Arab Journey charts how an idealist young ‘Arab hero Hamlet’ ends up an ineffectual Islamist Hamlet in her detailed and illuminating case-study of Hamlet on the Egyptian stage. Both books are terrific reads, even if you’re not an intercultural performance scholar! I don’t know the work of the third speaker, David  Schalkwyk, but I believe he will be speaking on South African appropriation.

There will also be an array of Hamletian song, spoof and martial arts in performance and on film…

If anyone has any feedback on it, feel free to use my comment boxes!

Next Post

Here is an extremely interesting summing up of the Globe to Globe Festival by my friend Duncan (known in the Twitter world as @shaksper) – we met at a Globe to Globe event, It is the East! My comment is added below.

Margate Sands

The Globe to Globe festival lasted six weeks and comprised thirty-seven Shakespeare productions, each in a different language. Theatre companies from around the world presented a wide variety of interpretations of Shakespeare in a range of theatrical styles.

The individual characteristics of these productions proved endlessly fascinating. But some common features emerged from this disparate collection of drama.

1. Women

Productions from a wide variety of cultures took characters written as male outsiders and recast them as female tricksters.

The Māori Troilus and Cressida had a female Thersites. Her tied-back hair and thin angular features were complemented by a shrill nasal voice that she used aggressively to mock everyone around her.

In the Hindi Twelfth Night the often dour figure of Feste became a sprightly young female whose mockery had none of the sad emptiness that comes to a peak in Feste’s concluding song.

The clownish Bottom became an old…

View original post 1,238 more words

Globe to Globe ‘Comedy of Errors’ from Afghanistan: Carry On Kabul

Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian, directed by Corinne Jabber and performed by Roy-E-Sabs, Globe to Globe Festival, Thursday 31st May: Evening

حالا دست در

دست برویم نه

پشت به پشت

‘Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’
*Comments are reconstructed from memory and not recorded verbatim.

*’One of the paradoxes of doing a festival like this is that you end up asking people to tell their own story, and then have to tell them that they can’t do the play of their choice as somebody else is already doing it,’ said Tom Bird, the Globe to Globe festival director, at his talk at their Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium.   ‘Another thing is, that you can’t second guess what play a particular company will feel allows them to tell the story that they want to tell.  For example, we offered the Afghans a choice of history plays.  We thought that they would find that a play about civil war really spoke to the Afghan experience… But they wouldn’t have it. “No, we want to do The Comedy of Errors”, they insisted!’

This until recently little-performed play thus became the Afghan offering, and the director of Roy-e-Sabs had certainly caught the Shakespeare zeitgeist as there have also been two or three high-profile British productions this year, including the National Theatre’s starring comedian-turned-Shakespearian actor, Lenny Henry, and Lucian Msamati, Propeller’s touring production, and the RSC.

From the India Times

I could see why the Afghan company wanted to do this farcical comedy, as it simultaneously flew in the face of preconceptions about ‘The Afghan experience’ whilst, in its darker moments (all three of them!) it still remained true to the realities of contemporary Afghan life .  For example, singing, dancing, drinking and sexual innuendo (lots of seaside postcard innuendo) were all foregrounded and celebrated.  The production opened in music, which is judged un-Islamic by certain, more Puritan schools of thought, and was banned by the Taliban.  The women showed their hair, ironically only covering it as they headed offstage into the play’s ‘outdoors’.  As for the kitchen maid, she was played by a bearded man in drag…   All the characters had been renamed and the action was relocated to contemporary post-war Kabul.  Yet the father Eshan (Egeon in the English) faced a very real death threat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the two-sets of long-lost brothers had added significance in a  nation where families are torn apart by war. As Andrew Dickson has noted in his Guardian review, even some of the funniest comic moments are ‘uncomfortable’.  For instance, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio, renamed as Arsalan of Samaqand and his servant Boston, arrived from Uzbekistan in western outfits and panama hats.  Arsalan had expensive leather shoes and Boston sported designer trainers.  They stopped to take photos of themselves on their digital cameras, posing with the ‘locals’: lying down on the stage, Boston put an arm around Groundling Laura.  Then a shopkeeper helpfully suggested that they change their clothes into local garb if they didn’t want to get found out by the authorities.  He handed them  traditional ‘Perahan Tunban’, or baggy trousers and loose, long tunics, which men had to wear by law after the Taliban outlawed western clothes in the 1990s.  However, instead of fearfully changing clothes, the two émigré sophisticates mocked the clothing first – could they both fit into one pair of trousers, for instance?!  The shoes also became a motif throughout, hinting to the various players that all was not as it seemed. Suggested by looks alone, Sordoba was surprised that her husband, Arsalan of Kabul, should suddenly have such good taste in footwear, and Arsalan of Samaqand wondered why his servant would have swapped his trainers for a pair of battered old sandals. (You notice feet when you’re a Groundling).

Thus, mostly, this production was a hoot, in true Carry On style.  Sordoba (Adrianna) pursued the bemused Arsalan of Samaqand with great energy: a younger and slimmer Hattie Jacques, she rubbed her calf up and down his leg whilst he tried to extricate himself.  He was not quite Kenneth Williams, however, as he himself lustily pursued the prudish but ultimately willing Rodaba (Luciana).

Meanwhile, the real Arsalan of Kabul could bluster and rage as much as he liked, but he could not gain entry to his own house, the doors barred and bolted against him.

I say Carry On, but as the director was French, perhaps the flavour was equally that of Gallic farce.  Several productions in this festival involved intercultural exchanges in the creative processes as well as in the audience reception of the shows.

Image of the Courtesan temporarily removed.

The highlight for some young Afghans behind me was clearly the appearance of the Courtesan.  Played by the same actress as Rodoba, she had swapped her shalwar kamiz for tight, tight jeans and a red leather jacket, and shimmied across the stage in her high-heeled boots.  Whatever song she was singing (something about zum-zum-zum), the audience clearly knew it and joined in. As she left to uproarious applause, the young people shouted out ‘zum-zum-zum’ again, willing her to come back.  She looked a little surprised, and then obligued.

Much of the comedy, as I have said, was farce and slapstick.  Luce the kitchen maid was a pantomime dame rather than an original practices boy-player.  Yet there were moments of extraordinary emotion as well.  At the very end, in the chaos of the denouement, as all the identities are revealed and all the confusions are cleared up, one recognition stood out.  The Abbess, who had been giving sanctuary to the Samaqands (it’s a long story – you’ll have to watch the play for yourself!) was standing centre stage in her long white robes.  Eshan faced death, because he was rejected by his Kabul son, who he believed was his Samaqand son, and who didn’t recognise him.  He looked up in despair, then met the Abbess’ eyes.  Slowly, slowly they moved towards each other, reached out their arms to each other, then sat quietly on the floor amidst all the commotion as the audience realised that Eshan had found his wife and she realised that she had found her children, and every one realised that all would be well.

The blurb on the performance flyer announced that it wanted to show daily life as it is in the back streets of Kabul, and if this performance is to be believed, it is not so different from the goings-on in many back streets all over the world – early modern Italy, or post-modern London…

Yet that is only partly true.  Roy-E-Sabs rehearsal premises in Kabul came under attack, the company had to rehearse in India, and on BBC Woman’s Hour, one of the actresses revealed how some in her community saw her as no better than a prostitute.

But to that, Roy-E-Sab say zum-zum-zum…

See more on this context in Stephen Purcell’s review on the Shakespeare’s Globe blog.

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Interview with cast members.

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.’