By Diana Barth
June 11, 2009
Fayez Kazak plays Richard in this Middle Eastern version of Shakespeare’s ’Richard III.’ (Ellie Kurtz)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. —The opening lines of Richard III, now presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), are not spoken by Richard, as in Shakespeare’s original, but by the sinister, black–robed Queen Margaret (Amal Omram), who enters carrying a suitcase into which she thrusts bloodied clothing. She announces ominously, “You needn’t be concerned about me—we lost. It is your right to ignore me.”
This production is the imaginative product of 36–year–old Kuwaiti Sulayman Al–Bassam, who has adapted and directed it. Acted in Arabic, with clearly placed supertitles in English, it is part of a 10–day, multi–venue arts festival entitled Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas.
Richard (Fayez Kazak) is played as an attractive but evil figure, dressed either in a military suit or in white robes. The only bow to Richard’s deformity is that the actor wears a neck brace and sophisticated corset to indicate less than physical normalcy. Richard, of course, manipulates his way to the throne, with numerous dead bodies strewn about his path to power.
This version of the play closely follows Shakespeare, but with the added complexity of relocating the action to contemporary Middle East amid an Arab milieu. Some characters have been deleted from this version, contributing to the terseness and momentum of this under two–hour, intermissionless presentation.
Fayez Kazak as Richard in the opening monologue helps us explore the relationship between the Middle East and West in Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production of ’Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.’ (Ellie Kurtz)
Adding to the exotic effect is the use of Arab music, with five musicians in Arab dress placed at the side of the stage, punctuating the text at various times. Occasionally Arab dance is introduced, as in one scene where a female dancer performs while the men continue their talks of business and politics. Onstage executions are handled abstractly and calmly, in the subtle way of Eastern theater.
The style of the production is spare and to the point. Characters frequently speak out front, to the audience, in a Brechtian manner. In the scene where Richard seduces Lady Anne (Nadine Joma’a), who is accompanying the funeral procession of her husband (whom Richard has murdered), they are surrounded by Anne’s black–robed women companions. These women are powerless to intercede to help her. Anne seems to have no choice but to succumb to Richard’s persistent advances, very much in keeping with Arab womens’ powerlessness to the dominant male.
Some modern touches are inserted, often to amusing effect. Occasionally, a TV announcer accompanied by cameramen makes terse comments regarding potent political developments. Richard’s final scene, as he cries out, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” finds him mounted, center stage, on a saddle supported by a metal pole, until he is finally shot down by opponents.
Performances are excellent. In addition to those already mentioned, the elegant Carole Abboud holds sway as Queen Elizabeth, her hostility toward Richard almost tangible. Monadhil Daood does a fine turn as Catesby (doubling as King Edward IV). As Buckingham (listed in the program as Palace Advisor Buckingham), the lean Raymond El Hosny, the only character in Western dress, lends intense authority to the role. A further mention is in order for Fayez Kazak, who not only portrays King Richard effectively, but conveys an attractiveness that compels audience attention.
The clean–lined set design by Sam Collins serves as an appropriate enhancement, as do the traditional Arab costumes by Abdullah Al Awadhi.
In addition to this provocative theatrical production, the Muslim Voices series also offers films, exhibitions, and other events, ranging from the traditional to the contemporary, with more than 100 artists and speakers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as Brooklyn. The festival, which runs through June 14, is co–presented by BAM, Asia Society, and the NYU Center for Dialogues. Information can be obtained at www.MuslimVoicesFestival.org.