Al-Bassam Theatre Takes Inspiration From Shakespeare and the Arab Spring

BY Jeffrey Brown and Saskia de Melker  October 7, 2011 at 6:05 PM EST

The Speaker's Progress

The Speaker's Progress

Kuwaiti playwright and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam adapts Shakespearean plays to the modern Arab context to explore issues of religion and society in the contemporary Gulf. Art Beat talked with al-Bassam in Kuwait in 2007 when his company was presenting the play, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.”

Al-Bassam’s latest work is the final part in his Arab Shakespeare Trilogy, a new play called “The Speaker’s Progress”. The play premieres in the United States this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Al-Bassam wrote the play in 2010, but as he prepared to bring it to the stage for rehearsals in early 2011, he could not deny the historical events happening around him which greatly shifted the shape of the play’s narrative.

Al-Bassam joined me on the phone from Brooklyn to talk about the effect of the Arab Spring on his play and on art across the Arab world.
(A full transcript is after the jump.)

Photos from The Speaker’s Progress at BAM/Courtesy of Richard Termine

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit writer and director Sulayman al-Bassam in Kuwait to talk about his theater work often adapting Shakespeare plays into a contemporary Arab setting. His new work is called The Speaker’s Progress. It’s now opening at the BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and he’s in New York and joins us on the phone. Nice to talk to you again.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: Thank you Jeff. Nice to speak to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about this new work, The Speakers Progress, What is it about?

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: The Speaker’s Progress is the third and final part of a trilogy of Shakespearean pieces that are performed in Arabic that are about the events and changes in the Arab world. And this is a piece that uses Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as the inset play from which some major strains and themes and lines are taken and the The Speaker’s Progress is a play about change. It’s a play about the process of change and transformation from one state of affairs to another. It is a play that for me is very much concerned with this period that we are moving through in the Arab world at this time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I should say so. So change is the context and change is actually what’s right in front of you these days, just as this was unfolding.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: Absolutely. The period that we are in at this point in time across the Arab region as I am sure you and your listeners are aware is a period of great historical moments I think. What has been happening since January across different parts of the region and what’s referred to as the Arab awakening or the Arab Spring is really a turning point in our history. The play that began before these events began was a play about the search for a space for freedom. The play was about a retired director who is a former radical theater maker who has become a regime apologist. And it’s the last roll of the dice for him so he brings together his thoughts and presents this play in order to try to reclaim the space for theater to actually affect change and be part of a political process. It ended, in the first version of the play, in a very dark and bitter way. That was a kind of reflection upon my feeling around the state of paralysis and stasis that we were in and that we have been in for so many years and for so many decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: When we met of course, that was when you were presenting Richard III and the darkness of using that to explore repressive regimes basically.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: Tyranny. Absolutely. Richard III was about tyranny and The Speakers Progress was intended to be if you like an epitaph for political theater. It was a piece that was saying that theater and art is no longer able to affect the kind of change that one would hope for and when we took that version into rehearsals, the events around us were moving so fast and with such enormous power that our ending seemed somehow irrelevant, and happily irrelevant I should say. So it became incumbent upon us to rework this piece to look for ways in which the piece could become more about the process of change and the process of transformation that has engulfed the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s how the events of the Arab Spring affected your play. More broadly, I think Americans don’t know that much about the flowering of arts, theater, etc. in the Arab world, so more generally, what kind of impact do you see this having on arts and culture?

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: I think arts, culture and the role of intellectuals and artists in this process has been quite curious. Artists and the process of culture, I think, has stood as a witness to these events, which have been taken forth and played out by very different forces that art and culture had been removed from by a strategy of power over a series of decades. And the positions that are now, the spaces that are now open to free voices in those countries where change has led to political developments because also we have to distinguish between them, it’s a very complicated picture that we have before is you know. One would like to say that all change is for the better but that’s not always true. So we have a very difficult and tumultuous time but the process of movement forward and the emergence from that period of stasis and that period of no voice, that period of no freedom, that period of no space through a peaceful movement as has been the case in Tunis and in Egypt, moving into a space for new voices, new freedoms, and the ability to determine one’s own destiny is enormous for the space it that proposes to artists, the space that it proposes to the way in which we think about what we can make with our art, with theater, with poetry, with literature, but also what we need to say. I think that there needs to be a restructuring of the way we think about our work and that’s really also what The Speaker’s Progress is about. The speaker in his journey through this play comes to the conclusion that the strategies that he had been using for many years to be an opposition figure, to be a political theater maker are no longer valid in this phase. That he himself needs to transform his whole way of thinking and on a personal level for me that means that I feel it’s no longer appropriate to address a critique through the prism of Shakespeare.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really? Well that’s what I was going to ask finally because you describe this The Speaker’s Progress as the end of a trilogy and of course that trilogy now impacted as you say by world events so what is next for you then?

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: The prism of Shakespeare and the mask of Shakespeare that we’ve discussed when we were together in Kuwait with Richard III is a mask that has taken up to protect and deflect from the dangers of making political theater in a restrictive environment. But when that environment alters and when the sensor is no longer there then we need remove that mask and find a new voice and speak through our own language and perhaps that’s where the need for Shakespeare ends.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well that’s very interesting. I wish you good luck with all of that and it’s nice to talk to you again. So The Speaker’s Progress is opening at Brooklyn Academy of Music and then moving on to Boston I guess?

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: We play at Emerson Arts: The World on Stage from the 12th to the 16th of October.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright Sulayman al-Bassam, the Kuwaiti theater director and writer, thanks so much for talking to us and thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.