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THEATER REVIEW | ’RICHARD III: AN ARAB TRAGEDY’

Gloucester’s Emir, Handsome This Time

By BEN BRANTLEY
The New York Times
June 11, 2009

Even standing still, Richard, Emir Gloucester, seems to exist in a blur of perpetual motion. Played by Fayez Kazak in “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this rising political star in a 21st–century Persian Gulf state is a compact, handsome figure who wears his crisp officer’s uniform with no visible trace of the physical deformity he is said to have.

What’s freakish about him is his supercharged metabolism, that sense of synapses popping like an endless string of firecrackers. When he smiles, which he does often and intensely, he seems to be savoring his own inexhaustible energy and its potential as a weapon of mass destruction. The poor guy hasn’t calculated that when the bomb that is Richard of Gloucester finally fully detonates, it will blow him, as well as his victims, to smithereens.

The man who murders his way to the crown may be the most conspicuous human explosive device on view in Sulayman Al Bassam’s lively and often savagely funny Arabic–language variation on Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which runs through Friday at the Harvey Theater as part of the academy’s Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas festival. But he is by no means the only one of his kind. The Kuwait–born Mr. Bassam, who also directed, has created a Richard who is less the scourge of his time than the essence of it, a combustible ruler for a combustible society.

The full title of this production is, after all, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” suggesting that the central tragedy here is cultural instead of individual. Classically Shakespeare’s blood–spattered history play is rendered as a portrait of a singular sociopath, with actors like Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen digging deep for psyche–warping motives.

None of that for Mr. Bassam (who appeared in several supporting roles in the show’s opening night, after one of his actors was unable to travel at the last moment). The withered limb and hunched back are nowhere to be seen on Mr. Kazak’s Richard, who looks like a dapper blend of Alan Ladd and Omar Sharif. And the character of Richard’s contemptuous, son–spurning mother, long an essential key in Freudian readings of the play, has been eliminated. Most tellingly, Richard is not allowed to begin the evening with his famous, self–reflective monologue.

That honored place goes to Queen Margaret (Amal Omram), the ousted monarch who is mad as hell at having been pushed from power. She arrives solo to deliver a prologue of wrath and dispossession, clutching a suitcase and brandishing a large flag portraying the head of the new king, Edward IV (Monadhil Daood). That she drops the flag and clutches the suitcase says everything about the world she inhabits. Power is fleeting, and everyone, if allowed to live, is destined to become a transient.

From then on the action more or less follows that of Shakespeare’s text. But that introductory image of Margaret, who keeps showing up to curse and gloat and cackle as things go wrong for everybody else, means that Richard can’t highjack our complicity as he traditionally does. He has been placed firmly in a diminishing historical context. We have already been alerted that he can do his Machiavellian worst, but that his time on the world stage will be short.

Not that there’s comfort in this. For Mr. Bassam makes it clear that Richard is just the latest, and not necessarily the most awful, in a succession of tyrants who rule by deception and fear. And the worst, it seems, is yet to come. As Richard woos, finesses, stabs and strangles his way to the top, it appears that there are other, even more powerful forces lurking behind him, waiting to step into the breach. It should surprise no one that these forces speak with an American accent.

Shifting the center of “Richard III” from its title character to the world he inhabits (and that ultimately controls him) means that this production is not one of fine–grained portraiture. Instead it’s a big–picture, energetic satire that, like its chief villain, never stops moving. As designed by Sam Collins, the world that’s summoned here is a runaway hybrid of ancient Arab tradition and 21st–century technology.

Video simulcasts of historic events, narrated by a hard–grinning, uneasy news reporter; projected texts of BlackBerry–sent messages to unseen allies; cellphones used to take pictures documenting temporary (and hypocritical) alliances: all these thoroughly contemporary elements have their role here, and are sometimes deployed to hilarious effect (as in the case of a fixed television text–in poll on Richard’s popularity).

But the Arab music (by Lewis Gibson, performed by an onstage band), which forms a subliminal aural backdrop to the modern power games, has the timeless, propulsive sound of centuries passing to a steady, ominous beat. God is invoked with duplicitous piety, along with apposite quotes from the Koran, by Richard and his allies, but so is the demonizing language of the West, with Richard’s adversaries denounced as terrorists and even members of “an axis of evil.” (The technology–savvy, business–suited Buckingham, played by Raymond el–Hosni, is Richard’s architect in this particular image campaign.)

English–speaking audiences should know that the text as indicated by the supertitles projected during the dialogue bears a loose relationship to Shakespeare’s original. There are metaphors about date palms, and a description of something being “as merciful as rain on mud huts.” Mr. Bassam makes witty use of the Arab context to bring an original theatricality to certain scenes, especially the wooing by Richard of the recently widowed Lady Anne (Nadine Jomaa), when he dons a woman’s mourning veils to slip into her company.

Beneath the gallows–humor jocularity of the show’s surface, though, there occasionally registers a haunting sense of a world truly out of joint, and of people acting against their natures. Catesby (Mr. Daood), who initially registers as a dim, fatuous hatchet man, is stricken by conscience after committing the play’s most heinous murder and asks himself, in genuine agony, what he has in fact become.

Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and since performed in locations as far afield as Washington and Damascus, Syria, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy” is not a subtle work, and those searching for new insights into Shakespeare are advised to look elsewhere. But Mr. Bassam effectively pulls you into a dark whirligig of history that spins so fast, you’re surprised when the show ends after an intermissionless 1 hour 50 minutes.

“It is your right to ignore me,” mad Margaret announces in the play’s prologue. This production makes that impossible.

RICHARD III

An Arab Tragedy

By William Shakespeare; adapted and directed by Sulayman al–Bassam; production design by Sam Collins; original music and sound by Lewis Gibson; lighting by Richard Williamson; costumes by Abdullah al–Awadhi; production manager, Aude Albiges; company stage manager, Faisal al–Obaid. A Sabab/Sulayman Al–Bassam Theater production presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Asia Society and the New York University Center for Dialogues. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636–4100. In Arabic, with English supertitles; translated by Mehdi al–Sayegh. Through Friday. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: Carole Abboud (Queen Elizabeth), Bashar Abdullah (Emir Grey/Ratcliffe), Faisal al–Ameeri (Emir Rivers/Newscaster), Nigel Barrett (Mr. Richmond), Nicolas Daniel (Minister of State Hastings/Lord Mayor), Monadhil Daood (King Edward IV/Catesby), Raymond el–Hosni (Palace Adviser Buckingham), Nadine Jomaa (Lady Anne/Mistress Shore), Fayez Kazak (Emir Gloucester/King Richard III), Jassim al–Nabhan (Emir Clarence/Stanley) and Amal Omran (Queen Margaret/Crown Prince Edward).

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