Artists who attempt to come to terms with events in the modern Middle East frequently find themselves stymied by the sheer scale of the project: how to cope with telling a story that takes in tyranny, religious fanaticism, numerous political assassinations and a fury of engagement that seems outmoded to many in the west.
There is one obvious solution, however: turn to Britain’s house playwright, for whom no theme was too bombastic to depict on stage. Sulayman Al-Bassam, a theatre director who runs the Kuwait-based Culture Project, is taking full advantage of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works festival to bring his Arabic language Richard III: An Arab Tragedy to Stratford this week.
Al-Bassam, born in Kuwait but educated mostly in Britain, says it is the endless cycles of violence, revenge and civil war that brought him to Shakespeare’s work. “It was playing on my mind for a long time,” he says. “So many of the play’s themes are immediately relevant to this part of the world – politics, religion, identity, fate. Shakespeare’s world [in Richard III] is very much in turmoil, and it can be a very useful inroad into exploring those subjects in the Middle East today.”
He says he started conceiving the project in a relatively straightforward way, drawing the parallels between the rise and fall of Richard and the story of Saddam Hussein in Iraq from the early 1970s. But the closer he became to the play, the more he thought the analogy was too simplistic.
“As time passed, the relevance of that proposition seemed to diminish in my mind. There are many similarities: Saddam too was a hero for a long time in both east and west, before he became an enemy, and that contradiction is always interesting.
“But I changed the direction of the production about six months ago, partly because of the speed in which events were changing, but also because I felt it would not do justice to either story.
“And then I found the more faith I put in the text, the more space I found for my own freedom of expression.” That in turn led Al-Bassam to move the geographical focus of the play: “It shifted from Iraq into a very different world, which is that of the southern part of the Gulf. But the political concerns of the play can be set almost anywhere in the Arab world.”
He says he sees Richard III as a cautionary tale. “In a way that is the kind of world that we [in the Gulf] are currently building, too.”
Al-Bassam’s faithfulness to the text goes only so far, however. He freely admits to “destroying” large elements of the text, and all the Christian elements have been uprooted and replaced with Islamic references. “It is a political play, but it happens in a very religious context,” he says. “A secular, western audience would normally see that in a very historical way, but this way it becomes contemporary.”
Al-Bassam says that some of the play’s most resonant moments may even be better appreciated in an Arab context. “When Richard asks his dead brother’s wife, Elizabeth, for her daughter’s hand in marriage, that is a great taboo in this culture, and there was a very strong reaction to it when we were rehearsing it. It felt very shocking, even among the expat actors.”
He plans to make a virtue out of the translation of the text into Arabic: “The danger of performing Shakespeare in English in Britain is that there is this huge obstacle of the language. We have all been to productions where the emphasis is misplaced, and the story doesn’t really come through.” Al-Bassam concedes some people may hate his adaptive approach, “because the sacredness of the language will not come across. It is up to British audiences to decide.”
Richard III: An Arab Tragedy will be playing in Stratford at the same time as Michael Boyd’s acclaimed, orthodox production of the same play, but that does not faze Al-Bassam, who compares the two versions to viewing a photograph and then its negative. I ask if he is nervous at the prospect of bringing Shakespeare to Stratford, and his answer is straight out of the Jonny Wilkinson book of understated confidence: “Not really, because we have worked enough hours.
“But of course we all realise the great kudos of the occasion. When I first put the proposal to one of our actors, who is Syrian, he refused. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘I saw Anthony Sher do it there, I can’t do it!’ But I convinced him.”
‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ runs from February 8-17 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford. Tel +44 (0)870 609 1110