"Oh blood soaked earth,
Open your jaws,
And I will bury my live bones in you."
–Queen Elizabeth, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy
The Brooklyn Academy of Music hosts the Sabab/Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, bringing an adaptation of Richard III to the stage as part of the Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas Festival. Just as Richard doesn’t reflect the whole of the British family or Christian culture, director and playwright Sulayman Al-Bassam emphasizes, “this is not a play about all Arabs, even less a play about all Muslims.” Al-Bassam’s directorial choices for Richard III: An Arab Tragedy are visually interesting and thought provoking. His work mirrors Shakespeare by first displaying stereotypical and subtle aspects of his culture, and then confronting what is beneficial and what is self-destructive.
On house right are musicians Sami Bilal, Ahmad Dabbous, Lewis Gibson, Faisal Kahlaf and Sultan Al Meftah with various kinds of drums and percussion, stringed instruments and a computer. The music coordinates with the action, but it primarily feeds and echoes the spoken Arabic, creating a rhythmic atmosphere and a heartbeat for this world, not just emotional cues like a soundtrack. A triptych of panels dominates the active stage, alternatively opaque then translucent depending on Richard Williamson’s meshing light scheme. Sam Collins’s innovative set design allows for scenes to be staged both in front of and behind the panels, creating a dramatic silhouette of the movement on stage. With extensions on either side that connect to the stage wings, the set design is massive without overpowering its function. Abdullah Al Awadhi provides traditional robes and headdresses for the men with low-key color patterns. She imbues a more modern and credible blend of Western influence into the ladies’ costumes from headscarves to heels.
Every aspect of production and direction is chosen to support Al-Bassam’s text, flowing like poetry in Arabic and Mehdi Al-Sayegh’s English translation. Al-Bassam chooses to keep Shakespeare’s Elizabethan names to help identify the characters, but changes their titles, as is the case with Emir Gloucester. Al-Bassam also replaces Richard’s many physical deformities for more psychological ones. While Fayez Kazak as Richard is in neck and back braces, his injuries seem more chronic than crippling. This Richard’s true burden is to “carry a cold heart,” such as when Grey and Rivers are slain, their faces covered in a deconstructed terrorist hanging.
Al-Bassam also deftly utilizes the modern media, weaponry, and notions of terrorist infiltration to Richard’s advantage, especially suitable in his seizure of a news reporter to legitimize his usurpation. These alterations are noticeable, but the most positive change to the original source material is the enriching sound of the new language. The swirling purrs and fricative halts of Arabic are beautiful in themselves, and while I don’t necessarily understand the meaning, the intention is clear. Even though the translations rarely seem insufficient, the soundscape is pleasing to the ear throughout. The written translation isn’t too distracting and even lends a melodramatic and almost opera-like flair to the production.
Al-Bassam’s play opens a moment before Shakespeare’s with a woman entering to get a pre-set suitcase and declaring, “I am Margaret.” She continues with a monologue about the war and its wreckage prior to curtain, explaining, “Our history is so bad even the victors changed their names.” Margaret (Amal Omran) is the only woman in the play without a headscarf, and her loose hair is indicative of her rogue status, her witch-like cursing, and her cursed banishment. When she finishes speaking, she begins to keen and sing, mourning her old life in power as she exits to make room for the play. Margaret continues to haunt the stage, appearing at the right times to rub Queen Elizabeth (Carole Abboud) against the grain. Omran is double-cast as the crown prince Edward, which seems to make her even more entangled in this tragic spiral. But when Elizabeth comes to her weeping, weighed down by the tragedy that Margaret predicted, the old queen offers the newly dethroned and childless widow comfort in her brashly harsh way. Omran almost steals the show from Richard, coupling her deep-seated hatred with a strange brand of sympathy.
Kazak brings crisp fierceness and unusual brutishness to Richard that matches his formal military uniform; he is a man who takes what his clumsy charm can’t procure. In the hands of Al-Bassam’s strong visual symbolism, Richard is a trespassing snake in his seduction of Lady Anne. The scene begins with a string of grieving women in burkas proceeding through the audience. When Kazak slithers into the group, the women disperse like frightened doves, ruffled by the intrusion and eyeing him with suspicion. Under these piercing glares, he successfully woos Anne (Nadine Joma’a), who acquiesces calmly, as if she is relieved that she is still desirable and will not be a vulnerable widow. Kazak is overly confident with Anne, but as his hold on his bloody usurpation unravels, he becomes a train wreck that he can’t, or doesn’t want to, control.
Richard’s first moment of weakness is exposed when he is intent on Buckingham making his rise to power seem natural, which Buckingham reassures Richard is his forte. The most remarkable performance from Richard’s posse, however, comes from Catesby (Monadhil Daood), whose self-loathing does not prevent another slaughter—a slaughter he performs dutifully but not willingly. He is invested, but his hands are too bloody for the redemption he now seeks from Allah.
No one is guiltless in this play. Richard may be the epicenter of this catastrophic mess, but only Queen Margaret’s triumphant laugh can rise above it in this provocative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III.