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WNYC News Blog

Richard III, An Arab Tragedy

By Karen Frillmann
June 10, 2009

A new Arabic language production of Shakespeare’s Richard III has arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And, not a minute too soon. I spoke with the director backstage at BAM.  

The corrupting influence of power — it’s hard to think of a time when a play with that theme isn’t timely. Kuwaiti based director, Sulyman Bassam was looking for a project that could hold a mirror up to our current political climate, and he found it in Richard III.

“What interested me most was the way the piece portrayed the ways in which a society can be so swiftly hijacked by a group of powerful individuals, ways in which the instruments of state can be coerced and used to give birth to a nightmare scenario.”

Shakespeare wrote Richard III at a time when accession to the English throne was marked by intrigue, manipulation and violence. Basam, who adapted the piece, thought the setting worked well as a window into the power dynamics of the world he hails from, the Arab gulf.

“What we have is a society that has been brutalized by cycles of violence and cycles of revenge and blood letting and that cyclical aspect of history is interesting to me as well. And the dysfunctional family element—contending allegiances of tribes and oligarchs was something that was of significance to the adaptation that I was looking to make.”

It’s squarely set in a contemporary royal court in the Arabian gulf. And, as it is in life — western figures, in the roles of Buckingham and Richmond appear in that court as players and power brokers.

“Richard III offers a whole whirlpool of possibilities to myself as an Arab theater maker wanting to engage with issues to do with the Arab world but also to do with the relationship between the Arab world and the West.”

Bassam has done what he calls a transadaptation — working from the original text but adding a musical score, putting the piece in contemporary dialect and even changing metaphors as needed.

“There is a point in the translation where it’s stated that Richard is a merciful man — the response is ‘Merciful as snow in harvest.’ In order to translate that for an Arab audience we said, ‘Merciful as rain on mud huts.’”

What’s clear in this Arabic language performance is the emotional toll of violence — the cost to those who are in the path of those climbing to the top.

There are English supertitles that hang over the stage at the Harvey. But there’s no need to translate the language of loss and brutality.

Richard III, an Arab tragedy runs though Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s part of the Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas festival that runs thru June 14th.


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