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Ramallah’s Ashtar Theater perform Richard II in London | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Shakespeare has been translated into every major language, interpreted via every art and theater movement, has been the basis of discussions about language on multiple levels – including the formation of words and grammar. His plays and poetry have changed the way people think of romance, tragedy, comedy, fantasy and even the bizarre. His impression on lyrical works and drama has not waned in the 400 years that people of all ages have been studying and receiving his works, whether in classrooms or theaters. By now, Shakespeare, the epitome of British literary and theater heritage, has gone global.

As part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad, The Globe, London’s replica of Shakespeare’s original theater devoted to the production and study of his work, has produced a series of 37 performances in 37 different languages. Entitled Globe to Globe, the program includes works in Japanese, Greek, Spanish, Turkish, Korean, several African languages such as Shona and Yoruba, Indian languages including Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, and two performances in Arabic, from South Sudan and Palestine.

“London is a multi-cultural polyglot town, we wanted to speak to all of the different communities,” said Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director at the Globe Theater, the man responsible for the concept and execution of this ambitious feat. Choosing the final thirty-seven was no simple task. “It was a very hard process based on the importance of the language internationally. We also looked at the history of each country’s relationship with Shakespeare. Some countries have a deep and long relationship with Shakespeare and its part of the marrow of the country,” Dromgoole explains.

On Friday 4th and Saturday 5th May the show was Richard II, performed by Ashtar Theater from Ramallah, Palestine. The play begins with Richard, the King, banishing his cousin Bolingbroke and Duke Mowbray. When Richard’s uncle, Bolingbroke’s father, dies, Richard sells his inherited land to fund a war against Ireland. An unpopular move by an unpopular king, the people then support Bolingbroke in his return to overthrow Richard and seize his crown. With interpretations of this piece swapping characters of benevolence and malice, the story’s conclusion leaves the people with a renewed cycle of power and its abuse.

“Ashtar has performed Shakespeare before in Palestine. But this is different because we are actually in Shakespeare’s country. We are concerned about how the English receive us as Arabs performing Shakespeare, but we feel that we have the capacity to perform it in a unique way and we hope that the English like it,” actor Raed Ayassa who plays Green, said before the performance.

The translation of the play performed by Ashtar was an original one created by the company as a group, based on an older Egyptian version. In the span of one month with the help of Conall Morrison, the play’s Irish director who himself does not speak Arabic, they worked on the new script. The exchange between the director in English and the cast in Arabic assisted this original poetic and linguistic translation.

“I worked through it with them explaining how the speeches work, what is being said, how Shakespeare’s dramatic language operates. They sat together as a group to work on it and then I would ask them to translate it back to me into English. We went back and forth until we felt that we kind of got it,” Morrison explains.

“We used an old Egyptian version to move towards a more current reality, referencing the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, and even beyond the Arab region, from revolutions, uprising, killings, destruction and so on,” adds Hussein Nakhle, the actor who plays the role of Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt. These references are scattered throughout, but are most evident in the protest scene where people’s voices stand against King Richard, shouting “nahnu nureed [we want] Balingbroke”. With faces covered except their eyes, waving oversized flags, the cast have replicated the look and energy that we have seen from youth resistance and protesters over the last year. This seamless reference to the politics of today was also a nod to the timeless nature of Shakespeare.

Shakespearian renditions are not new to many. Interest in this show has ranged from interest in international theater, to interest in this particular piece, or the desire to see it as a Palestinian interpretation in particular. Throughout the play, Shakespeare’s universality was apparent in the subtlety of the Palestinian and Middle Eastern symbols. The music throughout was a strong and appropriate choice, with the dramatic Oud sound performed by the Palestinian band, Le Trios Gibran. Costume designer, London-based Rajha Shakiry, aimed to mix styles, including a female farmer’s jalabiya of traditional Palestinian embroidery. “The point is that we are not trying to say that this is a Palestinian performance but rather a generic Middle Eastern look of armies, dynasties and monarchies,” explains Morrison, describing the government officials’ suits in particular.

The timeless and universal layers of this historical, political English piece of theater are apparent when linking it to any new interpretation. “I think you can’t separate Shakespeare from politics,” explained Dromgoole. “Shakespeare lived in an intensely political age himself. He wrote with a very acute political sense. He was simultaneously anarchist and also somebody who sucked up to power, and managed to combine the two. But also, I think that Palestinians appreciate him as an artist, and as a communicator of the human condition and people, relationships, love and a selection of things. He’s the most astonishing story teller and one the greatest playwrights of all time. So you can’t put Shakespeare in a box and say it’s just politics or aesthetics or just fun, he’s everything.”

Last week’s performance was greatly anticipated by the audience, as well as the show’s performers. No less because of the atmosphere of the location itself. “The building is beautiful, it is an icon of theater and theater artists all over the world want to work here,” Dromgoole said as we sat in the seats to avoid the light rain. The Globe’s open-air center allows for a degree of lighthearted interaction between the actors, their audience and the open sky. As the show began, the King shook hands with people standing at the edge of the floor. Helicopters flew overhead later on during the performance, which added to the air of governmental upheaval, and at one point the King was unable to speak above the sound, incorporating them into his interaction.

“This place has its own magic,” adds Ayassa. “It is amazing that people come to the Globe regularly still, hundreds of years later, to see plays by Shakespeare. There is strength in the work, it pulls in the audience with the characters and narrative.”