Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Anglo-Kuwaiti director Sulayman al-Bassam first came to prominence five years ago with a remarkable reimagination of Shakespeare entitled The Al-Hamlet Summit. Since then, plays examining the 21st-century Middle East have become more common, not least thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioning pieces such as David Greig’s The American Pilot and most recently Roy Williams’ Days Of Significance.

But few works catch the various currents within Arabism and Islam such as al-Bassam. Here, the family factions that run through Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses tetralogy become an aspect of the dynastic rule that controls the Arabian peninsula. A 14th-century Arab historian’s observation on the threats posed by wazirs, regent relatives ruling in the name of child-kings, illuminates the dangerous ascent of Edward V’s “Lord Protector” and usurper, Richard of Gloucester. (English names are retained, sometimes with an arch self-consciousness, although it seems a little daft when Devonshire is mentioned and someone points on a map to Kuwait.) Tensions between tradition and modernism emerge in costuming: Richard (Fayez Kazak), whose only signs of physical deformity are a neck brace and a surgical girdle, begins in military uniform, but as he moves closer to the throne swaps this for traditional robes. Such tensions also seem to be enacted in the Arabic translation; certainly, the English surtitles range from close paraphrase of Shakespeare to free adaptation. Koranic teachings are frequently quoted by all parties.

Some of the set pieces of the original play are reinvigorated by this treatment. Richard’s seduction of the Lady Anne, and the later antiphonal lament of the three queens all of whose families have been ravaged at Richard’s behest, gain potency for being performed in mourning robes and backed by the singing of dirges. (Amal Omran is every bit as much of a classical Fury as Queen Margaret needs to be.) It is the most direct parallel with current events that seems least inspired: Richard’s ultimate conqueror Richmond (later Henry VII) is here turned into an invading American general whose final speech attempts to discourage future “insurgency”. Where Shakespeare’s Richmond ended national strife, al-Bassam’s seems certain to escalate it. I am undecided whether to admire this as bold reinvention of the original or decry it as flat contradiction. But it is seldom that one sees a Shakespearean reworking that is so consistently enlightening while also retaining considerable dramatic power.

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