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Kuwaiti Theater Director Finds Modern Inspiration in Shakespeare

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."

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  • 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:

    A pal?

  • SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM:

    Yes, yes.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

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