Skip to comments.Anti-Israel theme imposed on Egyptian Merchant of Venice
Posted on 07/11/2007 7:29:38 AM PDT by SJackson
Excerpts: Anti-Israel theme imposed on Egyptian Merchant of Venice. Value of alternative media. 11 July 2007 +++AL-AHRAM WEEKLY 5-11 July '07:"A cloak-and-dagger Shylock" HEADING:"... The Merchant of Venice, Nehad Selaiha finds the interpretation too simplistic" QUOTE:"pointedly linked to ...Israeli forces in the occupied terrirories" ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ EXCERPTS:... director Galal El-Sharqawi,... production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice ... was cleverly calculated to win the sympathy and admiration of everyone, both patriotically and artistically. . . . a production ... in which the Jewishness of Shylock is consistently negatively stressed and pointedly linked in the two posters facing each other on either side of the stage at the beginning and end of the play, one showing a heavily armed Israeli soldier, the other a child waving a Palestinian flag) to the brutal practices of the Israeli forces in the occupied territories, ... Any show that makes a show of intransigent opposition to any peace with Israel -- an ugly fact of life, but still a fact -- has vast publicity potential and fat commercial value.. . . . . .To force the Arab-Israeli struggle on this play, using the ugly history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe to bolster the Arab argument, and hauling in Al-Aqsa mosque as a rallying cry for an Islamic holy war against Jews, rather than the state of Israel, does more damage than good to the just cause of the Palestinians and their lawful rights. Traditionally, the Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, were keen to dissociate themselves from European anti-Semitism, regarding it as an insult to all the three holy religions . . .
A cloak-and-dagger Shylock
Applauding a new crop of actors in a current production of The Merchant of Venice, Nehad Selaiha finds the interpretation too simplistic
Last year, director Galal El-Sharqawi, who over two decades ago, after scoring many triumphs, deserted the state-theatre sector, making no secret of his disgust at its general ineptness and debilitating bureaucracy, and founded his own private company, Masrah Al-Fann, declined to take part in the 1st Egyptian National Theatre Festival, announcing that an event which asked seasoned, professional actors and directors to compete with fledgling theatre- makers and budding performers would be demeaning to the former and unfair to the latter. This year, however, he came up with a compromise: he picked two dozen of his most promising students at the theatre institute, drilled them for months, then let them march into the contest with a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice under the banner of his own company. Like the British 'Young Vic', back in the 1960s, this new, youthful branch of the company was christened 'The Young Masrah Al-Fann'.
Click to view caption photo: Sherif Sonbol --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Such an inspired, artistically philanthropic- seeming venture was bound to capture the imagination and win the hearts of everybody, including the members of the jury, even before the show opened on 30th June or the festival started on 1st July. The choice of play too was cleverly calculated to win the sympathy and admiration of everyone, both patriotically and artistically. The Merchant has not been played in Egypt since the days of George Abyad in the early decades of the last century. A few years ago, director Hani Metawe' planned to stage a musical version of it at the National; but after months of working on the adaptation with its Arabic translator, Mohamed Enany, who is also an experienced playwright, the project floundered on the rocks of censorship. It was immediately after the time when Mohamed Subhi's controversial television serial, Faris bila Gawad (A Knight Minus His Horse), which had contained references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, treating this dubious document (which shows a secret Jewish cabal plotting to take over the world), and which Mohamed Khalifa El-Tonsi had rendered into Arabic in 1912, as an authentic work, had whipped up a near row with both the American and Israeli embassies, almost causing a diplomatic crisis. The Egyptian ministry of information had not bowed down to the violent objections of both the Americans and Israelis and the serial was allowed to continue. But after that show of independence, the government did not want any further headaches, and though theatre has a far less public reach and impact than television, Metawe' was quietly ordered to drop the idea.
That El-Sharqawi was now allowed to get away with a production of the same play, and one in which the Jewishness of Shylock is consistently negatively stressed and pointedly linked (in the two posters facing each other on either side of the stage at the beginning and end of the play, one showing a heavily armed Israeli soldier, the other a child waving a Palestinian flag) to the brutal practices of the Israeli forces in the occupied territories, is a bit puzzling, particularly if one remembers that earlier this year the scheduled run of a revival of Yusri El-Guindi's 1968's Al Yahudi Al Ta'eh (The Wandering Jew) at Al-Hanager -- a play which similarly links the history of Judaism as a creed with Israel's coercive politics and expansionist dreams, seeing the latter as a natural extension of the former (see my review of the play on this page, entitled "Still wondering", on 11 January 2007) -- was reportedly cut short after objections from Israel's embassy in Cairo. Such reports, to be sure, were never absolutely verified and, indeed, were stoutly denied in public by Huda Wasfi, Al-Hanager's artistic director; still, they were widely discussed in the papers, building a mediocre show into an issue of national dignity and giving it more publicity that it actually deserved. One wonders if the choice of The Merchant was not in a way, perhaps unconsciously, inspired by the free publicity these two works (inadvertently or by design) gained. Any show that makes a show of intransigent opposition to any peace with Israel -- an ugly fact of life, but still a fact -- has vast publicity potential and fat commercial value.
In any case, in the best of circumstances, The Merchant is a very thorny play to stage, especially in our modern, 'politically correct' times, though not as much as Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. One way of doing it is to perform it straight, as neutrally as possible, preferably in an Elizabethan setting, and allow it to deconstruct itself from within, as it is perfectly capable of doing. Perhaps then its true dialectical quality, its profound sceptical questioning of the moral and ideological assumptions of both sides of the conflict in their relation to money, power and the law can come to the surface and dislodge the audience's deep-seated prejudices, or at least force them to reflect upon them. To take sides at the start in any production of this play is to lame it even before it begins to walk and destroy its intellectual and moral complexity. For in The Merchant, no party is guiltless, not even Portia, and all are unconscious victims of rigid beliefs unquestioningly inherited and mindlessly maintained. What if people break the bond with tradition and seek to reshape their lives and destinies in defiance of their historical heritage, as Jessica does? Shakespeare was not very optimistic and was too honest an artist to overlook the sad burden of freedom, its uncertain consequences and horrendous cost; such people usually cast off the yoke of one ideology to become the slave or another, or, alternatively, are doomed to a terrible loneliness as outcasts and are always haunted by a vague sense of loss and a secret, cancerous feeling of guilt. Of all the characters in The Merchant, Jessica, though a minor character is, for me at least, the most memorable. In the final scene, away from home and country, a stranger among strangers by her own will and deed, burdened with her father's stolen wealth and the guilt of her betrayal, and unable to enjoy the music that rings in the distance, she seems almost a tragic figure.
To force the Arab-Israeli struggle on this play, using the ugly history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe to bolster the Arab argument, and hauling in Al-Aqsa mosque as a rallying cry for an Islamic holy war against Jews, rather than the state of Israel, does more damage than good to the just cause of the Palestinians and their lawful rights. Traditionally, the Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, were keen to dissociate themselves from European anti-Semitism, regarding it as an insult to all the three holy religions and pointing proudly, and quite rightly, to their historical legacy of religious tolerance and their generous treatment of the Jews down history, up until the establishment of the Hebrew state. The Arabs have never had any quarrel with Judaism as a faith; why mix it up with politics and power-struggles now? Some would argue that the Israelis have started it; if so, the Israelis were very wrong and we would be wise to avoid retaliating by indulging in the same obstreperous wrongdoing.
Back in the 1960s, British director Peter Hall, who was then head of the Royal Shakespeare company then the National Theatre, succeeding Sir Laurence Olivier, advised his comrades to invest any revival of the classics with liveliness and topical relevance, and to strive for what he called 'theatrical totality', meaning to make full use of the various languages of the stage and its vast audio-visual resources. But Hall had also insisted that the pursuit of such aims should be strictly guided by what he termed 'textual care', the careful study of the text with the help of its various critical analyses and interpretations over the years, the hunting down of hidden meanings that lie beneath the surface of the dialogue, and the closest attention to subtle nuances and innuendoes. I do not think he had in mind anything remotely comparable to what El-Sharqawi, who has advocated the same principles throughout his career, came up with in his recent staging of Shakespeare's The Merchant.
Rather than 'textual care', El-Sharqawi took the text by the throat, so to speak, and tried to squeeze it into a ready-made conception, hacking away the parts that did not fit, rewriting whole sections, and padding up the whole with songs and dances to smooth up the surface, remove any wrinkles, and sprinkle it with glitter. Striving after topical political relevance and fulsomely wooing the Islamic sensibilities of the audience to justify the presentation of the play at this time (as if the presentation of a play by Shakespeare at any time needed justification), he marred a potentially very promising project. With his eye on the audience, he lopped off many important sections, diluting the play's implicit critical exposure of the mercantile values of the Venetian state and condemnation of its inhumane, ruthlessly brash and mortifyingly vulgar intolerance of difference, especially religious difference, and stuffing the whole production full of music and songs, turning it into the nearest thing to a musical comedy cum 19th century melodrama.
Though extensively abridged, this version of the play could have worked very well and provided a good evening's entertainment if both the musical prelude and finale, with their embarrassingly foisted and rather offensively facile, supposedly 'relevant', political message removed, together with the insipid solo songs, mostly contained in the first part of the production, the sole purpose of which seemed to halt the action, dissipate the dramatic tension, and bored rather than delighted. This would reduce the length of the performance by about an hour, which would remove the need to divide it into two parts, with an interval in between, and the result could be a fast- paced, dramatically taut one-hour run-through of the play.
But despite its roping in of Al-Aqsa mosque, an enlarged picture of which kept popping up and down from the flies every now and then by way of a backdrop, it would be going too far to accuse this production of The Merchant of anti-Semitism. Any hint of anti-Semitism was immediately dispelled by the conduct of the actors and the style of the production as a whole. All in black, thickly bearded and whiskered, alternately ranting and raving and waving his clenched fists, or sinisterly glowering at us, Shylock looked like a parody of the typical 19th century melodrama villain, complete with boots and dagger, albeit minus the cloak. More to the point, his solo "I am a Jew" song, which consists of the substantial part of his moving speech in retort to Salarino's question about the use of a pound of human flesh to him (in Act 3, scene 1, lines 50-63 in the 1953 Cambridge edition), was curiously performed against Al-Aqsa backdrop, which made his last words -- "The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" -- ironically seem as if directed at Hamas and sound quite moving and convincing.
But for the young actors, and they are too many to name, the whole production would have seemed like a colourful 19th century cartoon strip burlesquing the play. Abd-Rabbu Hassan's sets were highly romantic and consisted mostly of painted side-flats, gauze curtains and imposing backdrops, very much in the style of 19th century melodrama. Sirag Mahmoud Ibrahim's costumes, which clumsily reproduced 16th century fashions in cheap, shiny satin were a painful reminder of the very low esteem in which we hold this very important component of the theatrical pageant and served only to enforce the general sense of artificiality. Sayed Abdel-Zaher's lyrics, which strove to remain as close to the translation of the text as far as meter, rhyme and the whims of the director permitted, and Ahmed Ramadan's sentimental tunes were further aids to the director's 'commercial' conception.
The production worked best when the play was left alone and the actors delivered their lines simply, without resort to forced interpretation; it was then that the play's moral complexity and deeper meanings, relevant in any age, particularly now, in the shadow of economic globalization, the alliances of the rich states, of money, power and the law, the marginalization of minority cultures and the persecution of immigrants, not to mention the recent, deplorable inner strife in Palestine, were allowed to surface and subtly intrude upon one's consciousness. For this we have to thank the richly-gifted, wonderfully sensitive and vibrant Amal Abdallah, who took the lead as Portia, Gharah Hindi as her sprightly, delightful Nerissa, Rabab Amin as the shy, reserved, tragically doomed Jessica, and the hilarious duet of Mazen El-Gharabawi and Alaa' Haroun as Launcelot, the clown, and Old Gobbo, his father. Ahmed El-Raf'i's Shylock was a near impossible test which he gloriously failed in my view, though he, equally gloriously, executed to the satisfaction of his mentor. He was every inch El-Sharqawi's Shylock; but not mine. His theatrical presence, however, regardless of how anyone interprets Shylock was vivid and overpowering. Such young, wonderful talents would not have surfaced in such a favourable ambience had it not been for the indomitable Galal El-Sharqawi, a fine craftsman and excellent actors' coach, with a fine sense of rhythm and a penchant for sumptuous stage spectacles. To have introduced us to such wonderful young talents, as those I have named and those I left unmentioned, I owe him a load of gratitude.
Obvious and easy thing to do. The play pretty is anti-semitic.
What a lame attempt anyway! They could have left the play as-is, and still achieved the same effect.
Complaining that a production of Mercahant of Venice if anti-semitic is kind of like complaining that “Top Gun: The Musical!” is anti-Russian. Um, duh.