Theatre’s Arab Turn

Published in The White Review

Apart from the odd Shakespearean exception, from Othello the Moor of Venice to the Merchant of Venice’s marginal Moroccan suitor, The Prince of Morocco, Arabs have never pulled off a prominent presence on the British stage. Strictly speaking, the examples cited aren’t even Arabs. However, in recent years a burgeoning fashion for theatre from or about the Arab world has madeBritain host to the Western world’s greatest cacophony of Arabic voices on stage.

As the groundbreaking World Shakespeare Festival comes to a close, it is worth noting a salutary fact amid worsening regional relations: there were more Arabic-language productions in Britain than in any other language besides English: Cymbeline at The Globe in Juba Arabic; Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad at the Swan Theatre in Iraqi Arabic; and a Palestinian Arabic production of Richard II, also at The Globe. There even came a point a few weeks ago where it would have been possible to see Shakespeare in Arabic three days in a row.

One might legitimately ask whether these Shakespeare performances are Arabic voices. Shakespeare was no Arab, although some Arabs have been wont to pass him off as one; an Iraqi literary critic once joked that Shakespeare is an Anglicism of an Arab bard named Shaykh Zubair; who else but an Arab could hate Jews, Turks and the French with Shakespeare’s stubbornness?

Even amid The Globe’s Elizabethan awnings and Tudor beams, no one could doubt while watching the Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre Company’s Richard II that this was an original Arabic voice, especially when a dethroned Richard rots in a morbidly Middle Eastern gaol (not necessarily Israeli, and the better for it). Meanwhile, a symbolically subverted (South) Sudanese Cymbeline sides with the ancient Britons against imperialRome, but – in a postcolonial twist – the Romans arrive dressed in the khakis of British imperialism.

This was Shakespeare directed and performed by Arabs in Arabic. Once, Shakespeare’s Arabs were ciphers for his voice – like countless Middle Eastern politicians, those Arabs were puppets at an Englishman’s mercy. But at the World Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare himself became a cipher for Arab voices. In the Arab world, this is actually nothing new. Shakespeare remains perennially popular fare in the theatres of revolutionaryCairo, strife-riddenDamascus, even on a few, gender-segregated salafist Saudi stages (where, with women forbidden from performing the female roles, performances are arguably truer to Shakespeare than anything at The Globe).

The Arab Shakespeare isn’t English, and indeed never was. Even the most famous Shakespeare text in the Arab world is a Russian film, Grigori Kozintsev’s Gamlet from 1964. Dutifully dispersed in the Middle East by the Soviet Union’s army of cultural attachés, Gamlet’s prison guards, spies, effigies of the dictator Claudius, resonated with Egyptians under Nasser. Only the Prophet Muhammad himself is more commonly quoted than Shakespeare, and lends only a little less legitimacy.

But the Arab appropriation of Shakespeare usually takes an original, and unexpected, turn. The hesitant Hamlet’s existential dithering, translated into Arabic as “Shall we be or not be?”, becomes invested with the radical urgency, once of Arab Nationalism and now the Arab Spring, emblazoned in felt-tip all over cardboard placards at Tahrir Square. Even Islamists were quoting Hamlet at the time of the Danish cartoon controversy a few years ago: “Something is rotten in the state ofDenmark”. Shakespeare donned a turban and went native. Or as they would have said in Shakespeare’s day, he “turned Turk”. This summer, for the first time, Shaykh Zubair visited Shakespeare’s shores.

But Shaykh Zubair is not alone. His visit is part of a much more exciting phenomenon, which involves less ambiguously Arabic voices than the appropriation of a classic, “Western” author. The National Theatre of Scotland’s coincidentally coterminous season, ‘One Day In Spring’, has brought to Glasgowand Edinburghseven new plays from the Arab world – despite the NTS’s parochial remit. The London International Festival of Theatre also includes the premiere this month of Lebanese dramatist Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, as well as Leila and Ben, a Macbeth-inspired Tunisian tragicomedy, to premiere in July. At Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre curtains have also just opened on Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s The Prophet. Why does British theatre now have its sights set on the Arab world?

The topical currency of the Arab Spring is an inevitable influence – the NTS season’s title, ‘One Day In Spring’, as well as The Prophet’s staging as part of the Gate Theatre’s ‘Resist!’ season, somewhat gives the game away. But only somewhat. The Globe’s Arabic productions had already been pencilled in before Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, literally sparking off the Arab Spring. None of the Shakespeare performances had any obvious allusions to these events, not even Richard II, a tale of an over-powerful overlord, overthrown by popular uprising. As the Ashtar team repeatedly professed: “It’s notSyria!” OrEgypt,Libya,Yemen, or any of the countries that have played roles in the drama of the Arab Spring.

The cultural currency of the Arab Spring doesn’t do justice to the full story behind even those plays staged as part of obviously political programmes. Although it is set in Cairoamid Mubarak’s fall, The Prophet is a domestic drama that takes place inside the claustrophobic confines of an apartment. Its protagonist riffs on the benefits of a Brazilian and while her contrived connection between the concepts of “the pubic” and “the public” hint at goings-on outside her private sphere; this is a play whose meaning and reputation will stand above contemporaryCairo.

‘One Day In Spring’ adopts a similar attitude. The season’s eponymous keynote performance, a play curiously “curated” by David Greig from texts by Arab authors, revolves around “24 hours in the Middle East” . It doesn’t shy away from the banalities of, say, a supermarket shopping spree or an off-the-cuff one-night-stand: agitprop, it ain’t. The Guardian’s Mark Fisher even called it a “comic cabaret”, although that’s not quite right. Cabaret is the epitome of theatrical escapism, but One Day In Spring was still a politicised portrait of Arab revolution, just warts and all. It might be better christened a political pantomime, what with its gamely audience shouts of “Down with the regime”.

At any rate, David MacLennan, the producer, was already in talks with Greig about bringing Arab voices to the Scottish stage when events kicked off in December 2010. Pegging the programme to the Arab Spring was more an after-thought, or a marketing move. But if not the Arab Spring, what then accounts for theatre’s Arab turn? One might mischievously note that Monadhil Daood, the Iraqi director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, is married to the World Shakespeare Festival’s director, Deborah Shaw.

In truth, all of this has been anteceded by a little-noted insurgence of interest in the Arab world that has played out in British theatres (alongside galleries, cinemas, publishing houses and university departments) for some years now. When did it all start? Notably, no Arabic-themed theatre production can be traced in the year 2001, but in every year since then a dramatic rise in such productions can be observed. It seems theTwinTowers weren’t the only things to explode on 9/11; an explosion of interest in Arab-themed theatre soon followed and has grown unabated to this very day.

Take the halfway point between then and now, the year 2007, and the upsurge is remarkable. The Arabic-themed theatrical highlights of that year included Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Baghdad Wedding at the Soho Theatre in 2007, recounting the returning experiences of London-based Iraqi expats; David Greig’s Syrian satire of cultural correctness, Damascus (successful enough at Edinburgh for a London transfer); and Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, at the Swan theatre, by Anglo-Kuwaiti dramatist Sulayman al-Bassam.

Unlike a play like Gregory Burke’s Iraq War-set Black Watch (2006), where the Middle East is a dusty, desert backdrop for British characters dealing with British themes, these plays directly address the difficulties of Arab-British relations. Damascus was about a British publisher off to flog textbooks to the University of Damascus, only to have his expectations confounded by a sexy Syrian academic who, for starters, insists that the female illustrations in his books remain unveiled. Baghdad Wedding’s bisexual, pro-invasion Salim also has his perception subverted, turning against Britain after a wedding is wrecked by a missile. Even al-Bassam’s Richard III was hijacked by references to the Koran, kohl and camels,(what to expect from a director whose Al-Hamlet Summit depicted Ophelia as a suicide bomber?). In creating authentic Arab theatre out of a history play set during that most iconically English period, the War of the Roses, it was for one critic “a meta-meditation on the mobility of literature between England and the Arab world”.

Even when the pre-eminent theme of Arab-British relations is not directly addressed within the play’s internal world, the performance of Arab voices in Britain is itself a direct challenge to the status quo of Arab-British relations; once characterised by absence, but now by as impassioned a voice as, say, Raja Shehadeh’s When The Bulbul Stopped Singing (2004), which documents the occupation he endures in Palestine for a British audience whose government tacitly allows it to continue.

Most importantly, this isn’t a one-way process. At the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, Egypt’s first arts festival since its revolution, a panoply of English experimental theatre did the rounds in Cairo. Tim Etchells’s Sight is the sense that dying people lose first was publicised as a “free-associative monologue by a child, a psychotic or a Martian”. Quizoola!, by Forced Entertainment, was an encyclopaedic interrogation of three clowns in shabby make-up, the audience free to leave as and when they please. That wouldn’t have been possible at Ant Hampton’s Ok Ok, where the audience became the performers, communicating with an animated face on a television screen while receiving instructions from headphones. As an Egyptian audience member put it: “it was like being on a kind of mental amusement park ride. The surrender of agency was a relief.” Egyptians have been as surprised by their exposure to British theatre as Brits have to theatre from and about the Arab world.

These populations have long seen each other as crusty cultures. Now a new perception is taking root, one of openness, boldness and non-conformity. The curse of Arab-British relations was that they perennially pointed to the past. Now, in the theatre at least, their images of each other are locked in on the future. Amid the region’s present precarious politics, some hope can be garnered from the theatre as a flourishing forum for Arab-British encounters.

At times relations between Britainand the Arab world have actually galvanised the odd theatrical landmark, most famously John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) set during the Suez Crisis. But right now, we are witnessing the inverse: a few theatrical landmarks are galvanising relations betweenBritain and the Arab world.

The Arab Edward Al-Bee

Published in Pulse Media, April 2012

Cairo’s culture vultures were surprised this month by a curious quirk in the state-run Gomhouria Theatre’s programme: a new production Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Amid electoral strife, martial rule and the precarious politics of the Arab Spring, one might have thought the metropolitan, mainly Muslim, audience who flocked to see it would have had more crucial things on their minds than the works of the gay, absurdist American dramatist Edward Albee.

This production was no anomaly, hot on the heels of one last September at Cairo’s Sawy Culture Wheel, making two professional productions in the last year–that’s more than London. But it wasn’t last year’s revolutionary politics that kindled the curiosity in Egypt about this revolutionary playwright: Albee’s Egyptian encounters began as early as the 60s. Indeed, so enthralled have Egyptians been even by Albee’s obscurer works it seems – fittingly for one dubbed the ‘American Samuel Beckett’ – absurd. For example, in 1970 there was an acclaimed production of Albee’s arcane play Everything in the Garden, which Egyptian state television even saw fit to broadcast.

Albee’s Arab allure extends well beyond Egypt. “Everything in the Garden was so popular,” its director Mahmoud Haridy tells me, “they sold it to other TV stations in the Middle East”. Most remarkably, Albee’s work has even given rise to original Arabic works. Zoo Story’s popularity in Morocco spawned Yusuf Fadhil’s bestselling novel Qissat Hadeeqat al-Hayawan (‘The Story of the Zoo’), about a troupe of actors performing it in 1970s Casablanca (incidentally, as drink-sodden and bureacratic as in Humphrey Bogart’s day).

But what appeals to the Middle Eastabout this purveyor of absurdist Americana? Certainly, Albee doesn’t betray any demonstrable interest in the Middle East. His only references to the region comprise a throw-away criticism in his collected essays of US sponsorship of “King Farouk and co.” and a casual, figurative allusion to Egyptian camels in Seascape, a play otherwise about giant lizards discussing evolution on New Jersey’s Montauk beach. What appeals to Arabs about this purveyor of absurdist Americana?

It is possible that his popularity is a mere matter of deference to the Western literary canon, like another Western dramatist, William Shakespeare, so well-loved that he has been claimed as an Arab bard named Shaykh Zubair. But this seems a stretch: Albee’s name has divided both the academy and the audiences. In leading critic Fintan O’ Toole’s authoritative words: “Albee’s standing as a dramatist has been extraordinarily insecure” Moreover, last year’s staging of Eugene O’ Neill’s populist play Anna Christie at Cairo’s Al-Talia Theatre proved that a solid literary reputation is not enough to draw in the punters; Nehad Selaiha reports that when she went to review it for Al-Ahram, she was the sole member of the audience, this despite the pulling power of soap star Said Abdel Ghany.

Albee’s popularity in the region, then, must have something to do with the themes his plays treat. Maybe it’s the play’s best-known repartee, when hostess Martha screams at husband George: “If you existed, I’d divorce you!” – isn’t this more or less what Israelis and Arabs have been saying to each other for a long time? Perhaps Arab audiences couldn’t ignore Albee’s naming of the fictitious campus town in which Virginia Woolf takes place “New Carthage”. Isn’t Albee nodding to the Carthaginian civilisation that flourished in present-day Tunisia: birthplace of the Arab Spring? Wasn’t Carthage itself founded by Phoenicians from present-day Syria: right now the Arab Spring’s fiercest battleground?

The American critic C. N. Stavrou’s even imaginatively conceived Peter and Jerry’s encounter in the New York of Albee’s debut Zoo Story as the encounter between Christianity and Islam in theMiddle East.

Clearly, mining for Middle Eastern resonances in a classic American play can be a tenuous endeavour, especially as the American context fundamentally grounds Albee’s plays, from the New Englandcampus drawing-room of Virginia Woolf to the Central Park of Zoo Story. When the latest scandal in Egyptian politics is yesterday’s revelation that Egypt’s leading Islamist presidential candidate, Hazem Abu-Ismail, has been ruled out on the xenophobic justification that his mother held a US passport, the Arabic Albee seems all the more absurd. How does the Middle East square its farcical anti-American currents with its admiration for an arch-American farce like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In fact, Albee’s popularity here persists not in spite of his works’ distinctly American identity, but because of this. In Zoo Story, America is Peter, the middle-class executive, but America is also his vagabond interlocutor, Jerry. They are gradually exposed as moral doppelgängers: American nihilism laid bare. That unpopular message ensured Zoo Story couldn’t find a producer within the States (the play premiered in leftist Berlin). In 1961 Republican grandee Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s grandfather, even denounced it on the US Senate floor as filthy and tainted by communism.

But Zoo Story‘s unpopularity at home underwrote its Middle Eastern esteem. The play is, for example, a staple of the Syrian stage, from the Soviet-trained doyen of Damascus drama Walid Kowatli’s 1978 production to Dar al-Assad’s 2010 production that toured the region, including Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Zoo Story has never been produced for television in the US, yet Syrian television had already broadcast a version by 1979. (Interestingly, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s state broadcaster got there first, with a 1968 television adaptation by a then-unknown Cambridge graduate called Salman Rushdie). Zoo Story is the most celebrated of Albee’s plays in theMiddle East because it best satisfies the Arab penchant for the leftwing playwright’s caustic critique of American bourgeois respectability.

Albee’s Arab acclaim is analogous to the enormous enthusiasm with which Muslim misery memoirs like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali’s are received in the West; they confirm prejudices about the other. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s (quite literal) stab at literary criticism is the mirror image of Prescott Bush’s admittedly fatwa-free fury. The correlation between Rushdie’s popularity in the West and his Islamic infamy is, in some ways, the converse counterpart to Albee.

Trust a teacher, Maureen Flanagan, to draw the right lesson. Following a spell at Alexandria University, where her Egyptian students singled out Virginia Woolf for praise, she cautions how “presenting a worst-case scenario or engaging in fairly vicious satire” – as Albee does – “can be accepted by another culture as simply a true portrait of the entire society.” As much a lesson for Western admirers of (ex-)Muslim critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali and Salman Rusdhie as for Albee’s Arab acolytes.