Skip to comments.Shakespeare and suicide bombers [To barf or not to barf. That is the ...]
Posted on 03/01/2004 5:42:43 PM PST by aculeus
Hamlet must be the best known play in the world. We've had a sci-fi Hamlet, a reggae Hamlet; there has doubtless been a naturist Hamlet. But what we haven't had, as far as I'm aware, is an Arabic Hamlet. Until now. The idea may seem strange, but then other cultures are often in a better position to interpret Shakespeare, because in terms of social structure their societies are often closer to the Shakespearean world than our own.
Gregori Kozintsev's Russian version of King Lear, for example, with its brooding landscapes and music by Shostakovitch, is for my money the best ever film of the play (Laurence Olivier praised its "stark brilliance").
Last year I met Hollywood actor John Cusack. After our interview, we were talking about Hamlet and how to present a radical, contemporary version of the play. He asked me if I had any ideas. "Set it somewhere like Saudi Arabia," I suggested. "The feudal system, the corruption, the hothouse court atmosphere it would be perfect."
Cusack told me he thought the idea was brilliant and I told him he could get his people on to my people in the morning and we could knock out a deal.
I never heard from him again perhaps because I remembered that I haven't actually got any "people". In any case, I would have had to confess that the concept wasn't original but came from a stunning production I had seen in London by the Anglo-Kuwaiti director Suleyman Al-Bassam.
His new interpretation of the play is the most intriguing production in the Bath Shakespeare Festival, which opens next week.
The Hamlet I saw in London began with the characters seated behind desks as though at a summit, complete with name tags and headphones. This set the scene for an evening of power struggle, negotiations, compromise and tragic chaos. The overheated, incestuous atmosphere built up ("something rotten in the state of Denmark") with Claudius as a western puppet and the confused Hamlet outraged by the corruption. The sexual ambiguity was effectively symbolised by a moment when Hamlet gives Ophelia a garment which could be some silky lingerie and turns out to be a veil.
Al-Bassam subsequently did an entirely new, post-September 11 version which won a Fringe First award in Edinburgh. Now called The Al-Hamlet Summit, and performed with a London-based company, the new play kept the original's characters but jettisoned nearly all of Shakespeare's text. Al-Bassam had, in effect, written a new play. When I heard he was rehearsing a group of Arabic actors in Kuwait, this time in an Arabic version, I flew out to see it.
While many of the design ideas and the excellent improvised music remain, the new play, set in an unnamed Arabic country, makes explicit what was implicit in the Hamlet I had seen in 2001. Claudius has a key speech saying, "Oh God: petro dollars. Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image." Polonius is a devious spin-doctor, Hamlet moves from indecision to becoming a Bin Laden-type religious fanatic, while Ophelia ends up as a suicide bomber. CNN-type footage of burning oil wells adds to the claustrophobia.
I asked Al-Bassam what had made him latch on to Shakespeare as a vehicle for his ideas. "Shakespeare's world, with its mixture of autocracy and feud, conspiracies, adoration of rhetoric, and its feudal structures, has specific resonances for the Arab world," he says.
There was another, more practical reason: "The play is well known in the Middle East, so people knew the basic story, and it was a way around the Cyclops of the state censors. It would take a particular brass-neck to censor Shakespeare. After all, the Elizabethan dramatists used historical settings and poetic conceit to encode their political critiques and get past the censor of their day."
Before they put on the original Hamlet in Kuwait, one of the more liberal Arabic states in terms of freedom of speech, the actors had to undergo the rather strange experience of performing it to an audience of one person, a mullah, who insisted on certain changes (there was to be no touching between men and women, for example).
Al-Bassam's troupe includes actors from all over the Arab world including Syria and Iraq, something unique in Arabic theatre. "Generally, companies are national and go to festivals and compete like a sporting event," he says. "I wanted to get beyond that nationalistic thing and have actors with very different history and talents." Their most extraordinary performance may well have been to 600 American troops in Doha. "I met an American general and suggested that we perform to his soldiers," he says. "The backdrop was seven huge American tanks."
He had also toured The Al-Hamlet Summit, and in Egypt the play caused a riot. "Word about its political frankness had spread, and the play sold out. Suddenly there were 300 people outside fighting to get in. We had to do an emergency performance at midnight."
The play stirred up a vehement debate in the Arabic press, some feeling that Al-Bassam was a "Westernised traitor", for falsely approximating Islam and the propagation of violence, others that it was "a vital and much needed expression of today's Arab concerns which had presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form".
Why did he find it necessary to junk the Shakespeare text, especially as many of the same political points were being made in his original Hamlet?
"What Arab audiences saw as a politically loaded piece that touched at their feelings of despair in the political process, Western audiences regarded as little more than a `clever' adaptation of Shakespeare. I had imagined the meaning of the work would be as transparent to Western audiences as it was to Arab audiences. I was wrong. It was time for a rewrite."
The play is passionately critical of both Western and Arabic authorities. Al-Bassam's background his father is a Kuwaiti, his mother English gives him a foot in both camps. Relative to the rest of the Middle East, the Kuwaiti viewpoint is an unusual one, in that there is more sympathy for the US-led coalition.
"Saddam had tried to wipe us off the map," says Al-Bassam. "As a Kuwaiti, there is a lot I owe to the coalition." But he is critical of the "short-term policy after short-term policy" the West's earlier support for the likes of Saddam and Bin Laden "is so crazy you couldn't write it. In Kuwait we feel all the contradictions very keenly."
Al-Bassam hopes that theatre can be a bridge, "however frail", between the cultures. "It permits complexity and difference, and it permits the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that very well."
The Bath Shakespeare Festival opens on Monday. 'The Al-Hamlet Summit' runs from March 3-6 (tickets: 01225 448844), then Riverside Studios, London from March 814 (020 8237 1111).
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Al- Hamlet Summit, adapted by Anglo-Kuwaiti writer Sulayman Al-Bassam
"Alas, poor Monica.
I knew her, Fellatio.
A woman of infinite heft
Of most excellent panties."
Because the Son of God offers His life for them to accept.
And if they refuse, the movie gives them a small taste of their eternal destiny,
with no passing out,
no end to the pain,
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