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].






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.

Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.  But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it.  So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube.  Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment here:

The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis

Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.

A World Elsewhere: Boris Godunov at the RSC

Boris Godunov, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Adrian Mitchell and directed by Michael Boyd for the RSC, the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2nd January 2012

(c) RSC

(c) RSC

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A World Elsewhere season follows on from 2012’s World Shakespeare Festival and is the  introduction to Gregory Doran’s Artistic Directorship.  As such, the start of his reign as Shakespeare Tsar looked good: resisting Bardolotry by introducing great works of world drama (Chinese, Russian, German) to the Stratford stage. Although of course, for obvious marketing reasons (as is the case with all the RSC seasons)  links with ‘the Bard’ are highlighted. In this case, ‘the Swan Theatre premieres a trilogy of newly-adapted international plays, in repertoire from November, exploring what was going on in the rest of the world during Shakespeare’s lifetime.‘ However, A World Elsewhere has not been without its controversy, especially around the ethnic composition of the season’s ensemble cast. Flagged up as ‘an ethnically diverse company’ (p.1) in the programme notes, the casting of white actors in most of the major roles across all three productions, and the British East Asians to minor roles, especially in the Chinese play, led to allegations of institutionalised racism. In fact, the reason the RSC gave for casting so few East Asian actors in this season was that they would have to act in non-Chinese plays.  Which is strange, as the central figure of the Russian play was of Tatar or Mongol origin, a point the translation made much of, and its rebels came from across Central Asia, making the BEA actors closer in ethnicity to most of the characters than the white British…

Boris Godunov (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Boris Godunov (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Boris Godunov, the first in this trilogy of world classics that I saw, is a translation of Pushkin’s 1825 play about the rise and fall of one of Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, or secret police, who takes the regency during the short reign of Ivan’s ‘cretin’ son, and is rumoured to have murdered the rightful heir to the throne, the boy Prince Dmitry.  Boris is challenged by a bored young monk, Grigory Otrepiev, who, on learning that he would be the same age as the dead prince had he lived and has the same colour eyes (brown!), decides to leave the cloisters and set himself up as pretender to the throne with the help of Russia’s old enemies, Lithuania and Poland.  Pushkin, the programme tells us, deliberately chose ‘ a historical period that resembled that of Shakespeare’s History plays, a lead character that echoes the guilt-ridden Macbeth and a cunning Richard III, and a style and structure that juxtaposes comic scenes with the main action of the tragedy’ (p.9).

(c) EPA/Kerim Okten

(c) EPA/Kerim Okten

The director Michael Boyd goes on to suggest that this is because, like Shakespeare, Pushkin was attempting to avoid the censorship of an authoritarian state by cloaking his satire in borrowed, ancient robes.  He was not exactly successful, and the play was barely performed during his lifetime ‘because it was deemed unseemly for men of the church to be depicted in the theatre’ (Julie Curtis, p.12). The programme neatly makes a contemporary parallel of apparent respect for the church being used to silence political dissent under a despotic rular by illustrating this with pictures of Pussy Riot, the punk-girl band convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after singing an obscenely lyric-ed, anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral (pp.12-13). And, for those who hadn’t bought a programme, the small music ensemble opened the play with a traditional Russian folk-tune sabotaged by a grunge bassline…

So did this production translate to the RSC stage? Yes and no.  The mise-en-scène was clever.  Non-realist, Absurdist even, the battle scenes were enacted by thrashing coats to the ground, and a cavalry charge by actors mounting the backs of their fellows.  The loveplot centred on a midnight meeting in a garden: four actors swung forward from the balcony and poured water from white enamel ewers into basins balanced on heads of another four actors below. ‘The fountain!’ Grigory announced, helpfully. In order to underscore the political dimension of the production, the actors stepped in and out of costumes hanging from hooks at the back of the stage, making this not a timeless production but one that spoke simultaneously to different times.  From Renaissance furs, through early nineteenth century tails and Regency dresses, they ended up in 21C suits and ties, illustrating Boris Godunov’s continuing relevance – although I have to admit, the softly spoken, slightly cuddly Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris was rather more of a Gordon Brown than a Vladimir Putin. Now trying to be a good and fair leader, fate and the haunting of his past sin conspired against him.  Reduced to a shivering wreck by the memory of the murdered prince, he stumbled into the audience and buried his head on the nearest shoulder.  The woman patted his arm reassuringly, clearly unrepulsed by this man who had had a child murdered in cold blood… (For the record, the historic Boris probably did no such thing.) 

(c) Ellie Kurrtz, RSC

(c) Ellie Kurrtz, RSC

Gudonov’s children, Ksenya (Joan Iyiola) and Fyodor (Christian Leith) were interesting touches, further humanising the central character.  Ksenya, in perpetual mourning for her betrothed, a foreign prince she had never met, held his empty picture frame throughout, at one point dancing with his imagined image (Sui Hun Li). Little Fyodor seemed to reappear to his father as the apparition of the cut-throated Prince Dmitry until he and the audience realised that the child had been playing with red paint and a paintbrush. Yet this was billed as a comedy about tyranny, so the boy’s stunt brought a laugh. The fickle crowd added to the satire, and Susan Momoko Hingley, as the woman bashing her baby, first for crying in times of joy then again for not crying when the crown mourned, was very funny indeed.

The late Adrian Mitchell’s script was brilliant, crackling with acerbic wit and, at times, hilarious doggerel, such as when the two drunken monks coerced the young runaway Pretender, Grigory, to speak in very bad rhyming couplets, much against his better judgement.  However, the dialogue was rarely delivered with the energy of the text – a directorial decision perhaps rather than a lack of nuance on the part of the cast, particularly as the same actors bristled with energy the next night in Doran’s The Orphan of Zhao.  Michael Boyd’s Boris Godunov was a concept driven production, entirely in keeping with Eastern European theatre traditions he trained in yet, unlike many Eastern European productions of the classics, not quite able to match its visual ideas with its verbal delivery.  This was because, although adapted into contemporary and often colloquial English by Mitchell, the lines were mostly delivered in the careful, measured tones of traditional Shakespeare-speak: a little too slow to get the laughs, a little too enunciated to bring out any emotional nuance. Grigory, by contrast, shouted a lot.  Again, this declamatory delivery of ALL his lines seemed to be on purpose, perhaps with Boyd intending to set him apart as the charismatic and passionate young rebel. In reality, the overall effect was that the dialogue was either sluggish or shouty, with the exception of Lucy Briggs-Owen as the slightly bonkers, power-heady Polish princess love-interest, Joan Iyiola as the mournful Ksenya Godunov and James Tucker as the deliciously slippery Prince Shuiskin. Likewise, although the Swan’s thrust stage allows for a real sense connection between audience and actor, and although the production utilised the space fully, with characters appearing amongst the audience, the more agile of the cast climbing up ladders into the galleries, the lack of direct eye-contact throughout meant that the fourth-wall was replaced with what I term the ‘goldfish bowl’.  It was only in the final moments that the audience was called on to respond as if we were the Moscovite crowd, complicit in the endless cycle of tyranny, and by that time it was too late – instead of rapturously applauding the reign of Grigory, we simply politely applauded the end of the show. So despite its fine visuals, the pacing and its lack of connection to the audience, allowed its energy to seep away, so that ultimately it was never entirely engaging as comedy, tragedy or satire.

(c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

(c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

As an afterthought, I wonder whether, if Boyd had gone for Boris Godunov as a satire on the last British election, it may have hit home more effectively?!


The Independent; The Guardian; The Telegraph; The Stage