the corridors of power

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“Richard the III, an Arab tragedy”, an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, opens with a monologue by Queen Margaret who introduces herself with these words:

“I am Margaret.  It is your right to ignore me.  I would ignore myself if I could but my history will not allow me. We lost. I don’t want your reconstruction grants, your loans, your pity.  I just ask of you not to question my thirst for revenge.”

With this proclamation of revenge, Sulayman Al Bassam leads us through a labyrinth of intrigue, manipulation, violence, and blood letting. So much blood in fact that Richard himself comments on it:

I am in so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin;”

Serendipity led me to this brilliant production,  the work of young Kuwaiti playwright, actor and director Sulayman Al Bassam (he’s only 36) at the BAM’s Harvey Theater last week. Had I not accidentally lifted my eyes to see the sign on the BAM’s marquee while hurriedly walking to an appointment, I would have missed its short run.

Shakespeare’s Richard was set in medieval England at the time of dynastic struggles whereas Al Bassam has staged his in an oil-rich contemporary royal court in the Arabian gulf with tribal factions competing for political power, but both the original play and the Arabic version tell the story of the murderously scheming character who to guarantee his succession to the throne, callously executes family, friends, subjects, and all who stand in his way.

At the very beginning of the play, Richard who describes himself as “rudely stamp’d, deformed, and unfinish’d”, officially announces his intention for revenge with this outcast’s credo:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, 

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,     

I am determined to prove a villain.”

From that time on, we follow him as he gives orders to murder his brother Clarence, the young princes he is ‘protecting’, his closest ally (the powerful Buckingham who is secretly serving the interests of the West); even his wife Anne, whom he poisons to clear the way for a marriage with his niece, the young princess Elizabeth (an alliance which will consolidate his political base).

This Richard is not Shakespeare’s ugly hunchback. There are subtle signs of the physical “deformation” he speaks of when describing himself: he wears a neck brace under his soldier’s uniform; a waist support – some kind of athletic girdle over the traditional Arab outfit he wears once-, but he is still the perverse, ambitious and sardonic villain one would love to play on stage. I fought my best friend from college for the part and lost –  Fracaswell Hyman, a reputed playwright and director who also attended the Leonard Davis Center for Performing Arts, played Richard to my Anne. My consolation? the succulent invectives the widow Anne hurled at the assassin.  At the end of the play, Richard finds himself alone on the battlefield surrounded by the ghosts of those whose deaths he has caused.  Amidst the rousing propulsive sounds of the music onstage, he dies, uttering:  “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

This highly stylized production has some unforgettable scenes:

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Margaret, the vanquished queen, carries a battered suitcase everywhere – it is the symbol of her lost power; her displacement, her exile. At the height of her anger, she opens the suitcase to fling her late husband’s bloodied clothing at her adversaries as she curses them with afflictions and calamities.

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At the funeral of Anne’s husband, a shameless Richard disguises himself with a woman’s  traditional mourning veil and joins the grieving procession. It is a high comedic moment: Richard  courts the bereaved widow while sitting on the casket.  His aide, Catesby, uses a stick to beat the curious women who attempt to approach the couple.

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My favorite scene was the chilling murder of Clarence.  Clarence walks toward the audience holding a suitcase; the bare stage is illuminated by lit opaque panels that reflect moving water. He opens the suitcase downstage and we notice it is filled with water; as he is engaged in ritual cleansing before praying, a hired assassin stealthily approaches him and forcibly drowns him despite Clarence’s entreaties.

I had of course seen Laurence Olivier’s Richard and I also enjoyed the film version with Ian McKellen, but this is by far my favorite adaptation.  I have always felt that art that moves you  and makes you want to participate has reached its objective. In this case, the many times I wanted to jump onstage is testimony enough. I did not want this play to end and I wanted to be a part of it. I do feel Mr. Kazak played Richard with a few too many winks at the audience and I wished he had been less flamboyant but Amal Omran’s Margaret  was near perfect in her grief superseded by anger as was the melange of joviality and duplicity of Catesby, as played by Monadhil Daod.

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Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who asked Al Bassam to create an Arabic reworking of the original drama for their complete works festival in Stratford-on-Avon in 2007,  the play with actors from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait, has toured the world, visiting countries as diverse as France, Greece, China, Holland, and the United States, where it has just celebrated its North American debut at the Kennedy Centre in Washington and finally at the BAM’s Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.

Scored by live musicians, the production also offered large screens above the stage with English titles for the non-Arabic speaking audience, but it did not seem that language was a barrier to understanding the machinations of the play.  When I asked the friend who accompanied me if it had been difficult to follow the plot, he answered it seemed to be  “politics as usual in the corridors of power.”

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Michele Voltaire Marcelin

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