Palestinian theatre group Ashtar, best known for the 2010 production of “The Gaza Monologues,” performed their version of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” in Arabic on May 4 at London’s Globe theatre as part of the Globe to Globe Festival.
Troupes and performers from all over the world will perform Shakespeare plays in 37 languages at this year’s festival.
Ashtar, a Ramallah based troupe from the Israeli-occupied West Bank is one of the 37 companies that will perform in London between April and June this year.
The play of “Richard II” depicts the downfall of a prideful medieval king, however Ashtar’s adaptation of the production, bridges the gap between high political drama of the past and recent events of upheaval in the Middle East.
The production is in classical Arabic and the actors’ costumes are of contemporary military uniforms similar to those of Arab dictators who were toppled from power by the deadly revolutions along the last year.
Conall Morrison, the play’s director said that Ashtar’s production is not primarily about the Arab Spring and not bound by time or borders.
“Somebody said oh it’s about the Arab Spring, it’s not about the Arab Spring really, you know, we weren’t trying to make it so. It is about the dynasties and the regimes that the Arab Spring was against. You know Richard isn’t the worst despot in the world but you know he over taxes people, he is responsible for assassinations and so on but he is deposed and (Henry) Bolingbroke takes over.”
“Basically what you have is one power elite sub-planted by another power elite and a lot of dynasties within that, fathers looking after sons and uncles looking after nephews and so on and that’s very, very connected with the Arab world, you know where dynasties try to replicate themselves,” he said.
Ashtar’s performance is mostly untouched from the original script and staging.
However, Sami Metwasi, a Palestinian actor from the play said he sometimes struggles not to let current political events influence his performance too much.
“We tried so hard not to compare or to get material from what’s happening in the Arab world, but there’s a lot of similarities although it’s your history. It’s British history but it’s happening now in our region, so it was a bit challenging not to try to focus on the similarities of what’s happening now although it’s a contemporary setting for the play, but we try to avoid because we didn’t want to be direct relating to what’s happening now in the Arab world,” he said.
The troupe’s performance was set in an open-air courtyard of a ruined eighth century palace in Jericho, one of the world’s most ancient cities.
Metwasi said he was pleased to have an opportunity to bring Shakespeare to an Arabic-speaking audience.
“The political situation in the region especially in Palestine made us focus more on real stories coming out from that region rather than taking from international work like Shakespeare unfortunately, although as an artist I’d be thirsty to work on Shakespearean work, so yes we’re trying this is a good chance for us to do this play in Arabic which is not the native language of the work itself, the play.”
A group of leading British actors, directors and film makers had expressed in a letter, last month their objection to the inclusion of Israel’s National Theatre, Habima, which is due to perform “The Merchant of Venice” in Hebrew later this month.
The letter, published in the Guardian newspaper, attacked what it called Habima’s “shameful” record of involvement with Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and urged the Globe to withdraw its invitation.
Director Morrison said the group tried not to get involved in the debate about Habima.
“Every aspect of their existence is very, very politicized, what crops they can grow in their back garden is literally controlled by the military occupation and so on,” Morrison explained.
“So everything is connected into politics and into power and so on and that can indeed turn into kind of discussions ‘will we have coffee or will we have tea,’ you know which to an outsider can be a little bit maddening you know that because Palestinians are in many respects disempowered that a lot of things then that go through kind of a lens of power politics you know,” he added.
Artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, said the festival shows the Bard’s influence goes beyond land borders and languages.
“The breadth of enthusiasm for Shakespeare is astonishing, we’ve got 37 different languages and different cultures coming here but there’s another 40-50 that you could have found, you could have come and brought productions of Shakespeare in the depth. I mean, we’re talking to countries who have been performing Shakespeare for three four hundred years, where kids study Shakespeare, where people have grown up on it, where revolutions have come and gone because of people’s inspiration that they've drawn from Shakespeare. He’s had a massive influence on the world that we live in today and this festival is just reflecting that,” Dromgoole said.
Globe to Globe is both part of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 which coincides with this summer’s Olympics. Some of the participating countries in Globe to Globe include South Sudan and Afghanistan.
An Iraqi theater group is staging a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the British city of Stratford –upon-Avon, that revolves around the country’s sectarian tension.