Sulayman Al-Bassam in the Arab Shakespeare Tradition

Margaret Litvin, Boston University

Arab Shakespeare: An Overview
Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy offers a unique lens through which to view the Arab-world tradition of Arabic-language interpretations of Shakespeare and to modern Arab drama as a whole. Arab Shakespeare is both outside and inside, surprisingly distinct from classical Arabic theater yet clearly part of the Arab-world traditions of storytelling, powerful narratives, and love of language. A brief survey of Shakespeare’s appropriation into Arabic theater may show why.

Arab audiences first encountered Shakespeare just as Elizabethan audiences did: by watching his works come alive onstage, rather than as classroom readings on the page. However, unlike in England or other English-speaking countries, their first introduction to Shakespeare came through France. Arabic-language productions of Shakespeare’s plays first began in late nineteenth-century Egypt, where Syrian-Lebanese immigrants adapted French translations of Shakespeare’s plays for Cairo’s modern, theater-going middle class. These immigrants were generally French-educated, so their own introduction to Shakespeare was through French translations. By bringing his works to Egyptian audiences, they were participating in the globalization of Shakespeare. In some cases, this resulted in only minor changes. For example, Najib al-Haddad adapted Romeo and Juliet around 1892 as Shuhada’ al-Gharam (“The Martyrs of Love”). Some went further: influenced by Italian opera and starring popular singers, other turn-of-the-century adaptations were performed as musicals in rhymed prose. And some went further still: Tanyus `Abdu’s 1901 adaptation of Hamlet ended happily: Hamlet killed Claudius and took the throne as the Ghost applauded; in some performances Hamlet even married Ophelia.

Overtly political Shakespeare adaptations began to appear on Egyptian stages around World War I, increasing with the formal establishment of British control over Egypt in 1914. Ahmad Shawqi’s 1927 Masra` Kliyubatra (“The Fall of Cleopatra”) made Cleopatra a nationalist heroine and aimed some barbs at the British occupation. By this time, Shakespeare had moved from the stage to the classroom. In 1935, Egypt’s future president Gamal Abdel Nasser starred in a production of Julius Caesar put on at his Cairo high school. He played Caesar as a liberating nationalist hero who defeated Great Britain. In 1945, the Cairo-based Yemeni poet and playwright `Ali Ahmad Bakathiradapted The Merchant of Venice into a pointed political allegory about Zionism called Shayluk al-Jadid (“The New Shylock”).

It is this tradition of political appropriations that has inspired the liveliest and most inventive Arab Shakespeare of the past half century. Most Arab and North African countries obtained their independence by the 1960s. Since then, Arab theatre in general has turned its political criticism inward, focusing less on Israel or Western countries and more on the “rotten states” at home. In this period, the most frequently adapted Shakespeare play has been Hamlet. No longer does Hamlet get a happy ending in Arabic: Since the early 1970s, it has been read as a play about tyranny; its protagonist is presented not as the self-conscious dreamer familiar to western audiences but a nationalist revolutionary, a fighter for justice brutally martyred by the oppressive Claudius regime. By the late 1970s, this agit-prop interpretation gave way to darker satire, as the region’s dictatorships entrenched themselves and dreams of pan-Arab unity faded. Shakespeare’s famous “The time is out of joint” was still the key line, but now Hamlet – portrayed as inarticulate, politically impotent, and often alcoholic – proved unable “to set it right.” This more cynical approach to Hamlet has appeared all around the region, with versions appearing in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia.

Contemporary Adaptations: Sulayman Al Bassam
Today’s best-known Arabic Shakespeare adaptor, writer-director Sulayman Al-Bassam, is a relative latecomer to the Arab Shakespeare tradition and himself an Arabic-English hybrid. The son of a Kuwaiti father and an English mother, Al-Bassam was born in Kuwait in 1972 and raised in England; he graduated from the University of Edinburgh and in 1996 founded the Zaoum Theatre Company in London. Like most Arab-world theater figures, Al Bassam has learned from and drawn upon a global pool of artistic models, taking literary and theatrical influences from Britain and France, the Soviet Union and the United States, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But unlike most other playwrights and directors active in the Arab world, Al Bassam did not develop artistically as part of and in conversation with any particular local Arab-world artistic community. Al-Bassam seems to have begun his career without reference to any particular Arab theatre community. In fact, Arabic literature and drama seem to have played a relatively small part in his artistic education.

Living in London after completing his studies, heal-Bassam did develop an interest in what he has called “an Arab point of view.” Al-Bassam made his reputation as a playwright with The Al-Hamlet Summit (2002) – appearing first in the West and only subsequently in the Arab world. Premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe less than a year after the September 11 attacks, the play sets Shakespeare’s characters and plot in a nightmarish Middle Eastern dictatorship, shown on the edge of collapse. The tottering state – presented as a fictional country - holds an official conference while civil war engulfs the country, international support withers, and a foreign army invades. Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, and Hamlet conspire, declaim, make love, and wage war in a pitch-perfect satire of Arab political discourses. Hamlet turns gradually into a fundamentalist Islamist terrorist; Ophelia dies as a suicide bomber.

The Al-Hamlet Summit was written and performed in English. In 2004-6 Al-Bassam revised and expanded Summit into Arabic, touring with an Arab cast. Unlike most Hamlet adaptations known in the UK (except Soviet and Eastern European Hamlets), Summit was sharply political, exposing a major theme in Shakespeare’s play that had previously been invisible to most Western audiences. Summit offered a pitch-perfect satire of Arab political rhetoric and an evocative portrayal of a state where “something is rotten.”

Yet in its English version, Summit targeted a Western audience, staging a cable-news-like amalgamated blur of Middle East tyranny and violence and also suggesting the cost of Western meddling in the Arab world. For example, Al-Bassam introduced a non-Shakespearean character, the Arms Dealer, who sold to all sides. In an allusion to the “War on Terror,” he also exchanged some of Claudius’ lines with early-2000s speeches by Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, and Ariel Sharon. In contrast to the all-powerful tyrants of many Arab Hamlet plays, Al-Bassam’s Claudius was pathetically in thrall to the West and its “petrodollars.” The English version won top prizes at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (2002), but the Arabic-language version was never able to tour to any Arab city.

In 2002 Al-Bassam moved to Kuwait and since then has been working with Arab actors and translators and directing mostly in Arabic. Perhaps as a result, the Arab Shakespeare influences on his version of Richard III may be more recognizable than in his Summit. Commissioned in Arabic by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works Festival, it stars well-known Syrian stage and film actor Fayez Kazak as Emir Gloucester, a clever and brutal manipulator, and it shifts the original context of the play by introducing a sinister set of minor characters: the revenge-thirsty deposed queen, the toady-turned-killer, the nouveau-riche bimbo, the slick western-trained consultant. The violence seems more specific than in Summit; the location is narrowed to an (unnamed) country in the Gulf. U.S. policy in the Middle East, personified by the bumbling Richmond, is shown as inept rather than all-powerfully evil. Linear history struggles and fails against the cyclical pull of revenge. Gloucester is depicted as particularly murderous, but no one’s hands are clean. Subtly different registers of language and costume create small, overlapping cultural worlds, which struggle for supremacy. (Subtitles notwithstanding, almost no single viewer understands every word spoken on stage; the result is that all audience members feel slightly on-edge.)

Al-Bassam’s Richard III represents the latest evolution of an Arab Shakespeare tradition that has developed over the past 120 years. In this tradition, Shakespeare’s plays have served various functions for Arab adapters: playhouse fodder, high-culture prestige objects, megaphones for revolutionary political aspirations, camouflage for political dissent. Al Bassam brings this tradition full circle: he brings his Arab-world and Arabic-language reworkings of Hamlet and Richard III to Western, English-speaking audiences, offering them a refraction of a refraction. His work shows not only what English Shakespeare can say to Arab audiences, but how Arab Shakespeare can speak to English-speaking audiences as well.

Further reading:
Al-Bassam, Sulayman. The Al-Hamlet Summit: A Political Arabesque, in English and Arabic (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006).

Bayer, Mark. “The Merchant of Venice, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Perils of Shakespearean Appropriation.” Comparative Drama 41:4 (2007): 465-492.

Bushrui, Suheil B. “Shakespeare in the Arab World.” Middle East Forum 47 (Spring 1971): 54-64.
Critical Survey 19:3 (Winter 2007). Special issue with seven articles on Arab Shakespeare.

Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Arabization of Othello.” Comparative Literature 50:1 (Winter 1998): 1-31.

Hanna, Sameh F. “Hamlet Lives Happily Ever After in Arabic: The Genesis of the Field of Drama Translation in Egypt.” The Translator 11:2 (2005): 167-192.

Litvin, Margaret. “When the Villain Steals the Show: The Character of Claudius in Post-1975 Arab(ic) Hamlet Adaptations.” Journal of Arabic Literature 38:2 (2007): 196-219.

al-Shetawi, Mahmoud F. “The Merchant of Venice in Arabic.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 15 (1994): 15-25.