Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to MIchael Boyd about two contrasting takes on Richard III at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Think of an Arab version of Shakespeare's Richard III and you will probably think straight away about Saddam Hussein.
In fact Richard III – An Arab Tragedy, which makes theatre history with its premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow night as the first play in Arabic to be produced under the wing of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was first announced under the more explicit title The Baghdad Richard.
Its creator, British-Kuwaiti writer and director Sulayman Al-Bassam, acknowledges that Saddam was its initial inspiration.
"When I began thinking about it a couple of years ago that was the line I was pursuing," he says. "But with the rapid change of events in the region and also as I delved more deeply into it to make that comparison really work, I reached the conclusion it would be selling both histories a bit short in trying to make a foolproof comparison between Richard III and the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein.
"I rather feel that the Saddam Hussein story, if you like, is something that should be recounted in its own time and its own history. Otherwise I think one does injustice to it and risks making superficial comparisons that don't really take us beyond things one already knows.
"Later, I returned more closely to the actual text and began to see in it a constitutional crisis. The emergence of Richard as a rising star is very much linked to that. The idea of a crisis in a constitutional monarchy is a very current one in the Gulf as a whole. It was more satisfactory in that it allows the story to develop in a believable world."
Al-Bassam, who has brought together a pan-Arabic cast including actors from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait, is the son of a Kuwaiti father and British mother.
He spent most of his childhood in Kuwait, then studied in the UK for several years and graduated from University of Edinburgh in the early 90s.
"I went to London and spent a few years working as an assistant director, and set up a UK-based company, Zaoum, in 1996. I continue to produce some work through Zaoum to this day but about five years ago I returned to Kuwait, where I'm resident now."
In Kuwait, outside the world of French influence which introduced theatre to major Arab cities like Cairo and Damascus in the mid-19th century, theatre started in the 1920s with a tradition of social and political satire which peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"Since the Iraqi invasion in 1991 I think it's true to say the cultural infrastructure and abandonment of the cultural project by the state has led to a rapid decline in the quality of work."
The rise of orthodox religion and conservatism, and a move towards American-style privatisation, have all contributed to the state's withdrawal from cultural funding, making it difficult to produce theatre without private patronage.
"For example, this project is commissioned by the RSC and they have a financial interest. The rest of the production budget is covered by a commercial sponsor.
"There's a patronage system in Kuwait which is quite Shakespearean.
"There are some members of the ruling family who have taken kindly to my work and supported it."
Al-Bassam scored a critical success at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival with his Al-Hamlet Summit, which similarly used a company drawn together from several Arab countries. In adapting Richard III to a contemporary Arab context, he has changed some parts more than others.
"We've got different levels of adaptation going on. Some things are kept more or less as written, other things are adapted to the vision of the production. The scene with the citizens, for example, is quite altered but the resonance of the religious hypocrisy in that scene is significantly different for an Arab-Islamic audience than for a secular Western audience.
"Here, the idea of hiding behind the Church – Bush's crusade aside – is more or less a thing of history. However, that sort of proposition is very current in Arab society.
"In moving it out of the English historical setting and into an imagined world, what happens to characters like Richmond? He is an outside force who has come in to 'sort out the problem', but is actually part of the problem rather than the solution."
The play has been rehearsed against a background of heightening tension in the Middle East, with the actors increasingly anxious about the news from their respective countries.
"I think it's very dangerous," says Al-Bassam. "Palestine is teetering on the edge of civil war, so is Lebanon. Iraq has by all accounts entered that phase. We have US nuclear submarines making their way up the Gulf.
"It's an extremely volatile situation. Religious and sectarian tensions are being forced to the fore by hidden and unhidden hands. Let's not forget the Arab world consists of many different religions, not just Islam. It's one reason it's such a rich cultural mosaic, but when it is abused that mosaic is the perfect soil for the bitterest of violence and civil war."
* Richard III – An Arab Tragedy opens at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow night and runs until February 17. It is performed in Arabic with English surtitles (Box office: 0870 609 1110).
Is this a gadget I see before me?
Sulayman Al-Bassam's new Arab version may bring Richard III right up to date, but according to RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, the play is, in many ways, already a modern tale.
Boyd, who commissioned the new version for the Complete Works festival, has recently opened his own production of the play in Stratford's Courtyard Theatre.
With its stage-dressing of machine guns, mobile phones and takeaway coffee, he underlines the sea-change from his acclaimed cycle of the Henry VI plays, from which Richard III chronologically follows on.
"It is a modern piece, because it is where we leave incontrovertibly the world of the Church, a reliable Christian cosmos, to enter a modern secular, sceptical world," he says.
"I think Shakespeare is now dramatising the moral and spiritual crisis of his age, with its new doubts.
"If the papacy is not absolute, if we're wrong about the Christian religion – and there were many doubts about that at the time – if the king or queen does not have a divine right.
"Even issues like torture – when is torture or murder justified? It's a very confusing, frightening world."
And Shakespeare responds to this dark and scary new world with what seems a particularly modern instinct: to make grotesque comedy out of it.
"There's a brutal grin on the piece which is a challenge. The audience is put on the spot, and I worked with the lighting designer Heather Carson to light the audience, to move away from that RSC style of lighting that's very handsome and about sitting in the dark, watching all the prettiness on stage."
Boyd was prompted to commission Al-Bassam's version of the play after seeing his acclaimed reworking of Hamlet.
"It just became terribly obvious to me. I suppose my own background in Northern Ireland and then training in Russia was a revealing preparation for looking at Elizabethan England. Northern Ireland, where half the population weren't even enfranchised until the mid-70s –the Protestant versus Catholic things was very much alive where I came from.
"And Russia, because of the difficulty of writing. Staging King Lear at the time of Brezhnev's illness was very difficult because the question of succession was a very live one around the Kremlin at the time. The need to speak directly to the audience and indirectly to the KGB reminded me of Shakespeare's time."
He draws the parallel with Al-Bassam's Arab background, which should make the world of Richard III familiar.
"The diplomacy and the very gorgeous sophistication with which plots are laid and diplomacy pursued, the complexity of the religious situation... they're just social realism in the Arab world.
"In terms of the UK, we're in a position where civil war is just being negotiated away now in Northern Ireland. But there's civil war in most places in the Arab world."
* Michael Boyd's production of Richard III is in repertory in The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until February 17 (Box office: 0870 609 1110).