Kuwaiti Theater Director Finds Modern Inspiration in Shakespeare

February 24, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In the second of a series of reports on the Arabesque arts festival at the Kennedy Center, Jeffrey Brown talks to Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman al-Bassam, whose company is presenting a Shakespeare play with a twist, "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy."

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, we continue our stories tied to “Arabesque,” the festival of Arab arts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Jeffrey Brown traveled to Kuwait recently for a report on a theater director who explores modern politics and culture through an unexpected source.

JEFFREY BROWN: The setting, a contemporary kingdom in the Persian Gulf. The language, Arabic. The story of a schemer who lies and murders his way to the throne is by that famous bard of the Middle East, William Shakespeare.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM, Writer-Director: The work he makes kind of translates across different ages, different societies, different places. For my purposes, he’s a great and fantastic pal. He’s a good friend.



JEFFREY BROWN: In Kuwaiti writer and theater director Sulayman Al-Bassam, Shakespeare’s world shares much in common with his own, and the bard’s stories of princes and clergy vying for power in a feudal society in flux offer an extraordinary way in to some very modern problems. Al-Bassam’s latest adaptation is called “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.”

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: It was useful for us, when we came to take that play out of its original context of English history, and put it into a completely different context of an exploration of the contemporary gulf and, hence, a different religion, Islam, and allowed us to explore aspects of gulf life, society, religion, the role of women, in ways that were quite liberating.

This is a sort of crucible of memories.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 36-year-old Al-Bassam grew up here, attended university at Edinburgh, and worked at London’s theater world. He returned to Kuwait six years ago to start a theater company believing that his artistic work could have unusual resonance in the rapidly changing gulf.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: With the introduction of oil, with the introduction of modern infrastructure, with the introduction of education, as well, a lot of — obviously, there’s been huge changes in these societies. You know, they’ve been ripped out of the past very fast.

Shakespeare's works have resonance

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, to the visitor, this small country of 3 million bordered by powerful neighbors presents a strange and even confusing mix of images.

Oil brought tremendous growth and wealth to many citizens and an influx of workers from poorer Arab countries, who now make up a majority of the population. There's an elected parliament sharing power with the emir, hand-picked from the country's long-time ruling family; upscale Western cafes, but a countrywide ban on alcohol; modern malls, and a resurgent focus on Islamic practices.

We were told that the university has recently separated men and women in classrooms and cafeterias.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: We're in a crash scenario, time and culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean culture, society, politics...

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: Culture, society, globalization, all of that coming together and reactions to that, you know, sometimes violent reactions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shakespeare's Richard is determined to play the villain and hates the idle pleasures of these days. England is at peace for the moment, but Richard resents the power and popularity of his brother, the king. His behind-the-scenes plots and a series of murders eventually allow him to seize the throne and throw the country into chaos.

Several years ago, when first thinking of adapting Richard, Al-Bassam had Saddam Hussein in mind, the neighboring tyrant who seized Kuwait in 1990 before being expelled in the first Gulf War. With Saddam's fall in 2003, Al-Bassam decided to use the play to explore the fragility of power more generally in the gulf.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: The play takes place in an unnamed gulf state, and it's a cautionary tale that explores the "what if" scenario. What if something goes wrong? What if is there is a struggle over succession?

A production with modern touches

JEFFREY BROWN: His production, which uses English subtitles when performed outside of Arabic countries, includes some very modern touches: cell phones, e-mail, Al Jazeera reports, and includes a shady American character.

Foreign intervention was an issue in Shakespeare's time, of course, and remains one in the gulf today.

Shakespeare's words are sometimes exactly translated, sometimes not.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: There's a line in Shakespeare that says, "Cruel, he's cruel, cruel as snow on harvest." We don't have snow, so we changed that line to, "Cruel, he's cruel, cruel as rain on mud huts." Now, you may say we don't have mud huts, but it's kind of more...

JEFFREY BROWN: I haven't seen any driving around.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: ... within our kind of reference.

JEFFREY BROWN: A more serious matter is just how far any production can go in raising controversial issues.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: It remains a conservative society, and there are de facto rules. You know, the three taboos are religion, politics, sex, not necessarily in that order, but...

JEFFREY BROWN: But that's a lot of life.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: Well, that's a lot of drama, certainly, certainly, yes. Hence the utility of our friend, William Shakespeare, you know? It's William Shakespeare who's saying this, not us.

Syrian president attended play

JEFFREY BROWN: Al-Bassam says that Kuwait offers more freedom of expression than many other places in the Arab world. His version of "Richard III" has been presented only a handful of times in the region so far, including a performance in Damascus that had a surprise attendee, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, who himself assumed power on the death of his father.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: It's strange and hallucinatory to be playing that performance to the president of Syria. It reminds me of the sort of -- of how it must have felt for Shakespeare and his troupe to be playing to Elizabeth and the court of Elizabeth.

JEFFREY BROWN: The play has been performed in London. It was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now it makes its first appearance in the U.S., and Al-Bassam -- in many ways, a product of two worlds -- very much hopes that Shakespeare in Arab dress and language will speak to Americans, as well.

SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM: There are so many prejudices and so many ready-made formulas to identify that Arab world and identify that gulf world that are negative preconceptions and that are negative prejudices. And equally, on the other side, on our side, the same kind of reasoning through prejudice exists and fuels disaster, in fact, you know, and this kind of theater work is our way of trying to engage with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy" will be presented at Washington's Kennedy Center in early March.

JIM LEHRER: And tomorrow night, Jeff reports on the artist taking part in the Kennedy Center's Arab arts festival with the stories of three women of Cairo. Much more on the series and the "Arabesque" festival is available online. Look for the "Art Beat" page on our Web site.