Shakespeare in Palestine: theater director speaks on Arabic version of Richard II

27 April 2012

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The Ashtar theater group is taking their performance of Richard II to the UK. 

(Iman Aoun / Ashtar Theater)

Next week (4-5 May), the Ramallah-based Ashtar theater group will be performing its production of William Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theater in London. The production is part of the Globe 2 Globe festival, which sees all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays being performed in languages ranging from Lithuanian to Arabic, Japanese to sign language.

The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving spoke to Iman Aoun, artistic director of Ashtar, about the Palestinian contribution to the festival.

Sarah Irving: Could you start by telling us a little about the history of Ashtar?

Iman Aoun: The company was started in 1991. My partner Edward Muallam and I started it as a training organization for young people offering an extra-curricular program in drama. Since then we’ve been working on training the students and in parallel doing productions with them. Since 1995 we also formed an ensemble from the graduates of the program together with professionals, and this ensemble has been doing co-productions every year with other companies, whether national, Arab or international, and touring both nationally and internationally.

In 1997, we introduced Theater of the Oppressed [a form of popular theater, founded in Brazil in the 1970s, which is made by, and for, people engaged in struggle for liberation] in Palestine and we’ve been working since then on this methodology, spreading it by training community members and other people to use it.

SI: How did Ashtar come to be invited to take part in the Globe 2 Globe festival?

IA: The professional work is always done in co-production with other international companies so it has a high standard and a good reception. In 2010 as part of our international networking we initiated the Gaza Monologues, which are based on stories taken from our trainees in Gaza who wrote stories about their life before, during and after the war which took place in December 2008 and January 2009 in Gaza. These monologues had a very good reception globally, 56 countries participated and more than 1,500 young people performed on stage in 14 languages, so this was the passport, the introduction which attracted the artistic director of the Globe to Ashtar. He learned about it and what we do and invited us to participate in this prestigious festival.

SI: Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, set in medieval England and telling the stories of English kings and barons who even many British people now know nothing about. How did Ashtar come to be performing this play?

IA: When they [the Globe] invited us to participate, they suggested Richard II. The Globe had seen Richard II as somehow relevant to our kind of work, specifically that the play is very highly politicized. They had a knowledge of our work as a company, that all the time we try to look into politics through culture, to marry one to the other through the eyes of high artistic presentation, but also to be totally and completely part of our situation and to be connected to our people and to the world. This is always in our mind and in our work, so in most of our productions you could sense either a commentary on our lives or on life in general and its connection to economics or politics or to human rights. And that’s why, probably, the Globe suggested Richard II because they have seen some connection with the politics that are happening in the Arab world.

SI: Some of the other Shakespeare plays being performed in Arabic during Globe 2 Globe — such as an Iraqi version of Romeo and Juliet set in Baghdad — are very obviously trying to take Shakespeare’s drama and find specific Arab settings for it. Is this what Ashtar has tried to do with Richard II? Or have you left it more to audience to see for itself the modern message that the play might have?

IA: I think we have attempted to do the second. We have tried to be very faithful to the story and to the text itself. We did not add to it, we did not change it. We tried to put it in a modern setting in terms of the costume and flavor, very subtly, you cannot really see one place in our performance, but you could sense, if you want, many places. It is anywhere there is political turmoil, the greed of power. Yes, at some point you could see a Palestinian dress onstage, or you could see people dressed in Middle Eastern outfits, but it does not particularly say that this is happening here in Palestine or in a particular Arab city. We want the audience to concentrate and think.

SI: How did you approach creating an Arabic version of the play?

IA: This play is going to be in classical Arabic. It is not in colloquial Arabic because of the nature of the very poetic verses. When we tried to put it in colloquial, it didn’t work. It lost its strength because the beauty of the play is in what it says. We tried, but the decision was quickly made that it is going to be in classical Arabic but in modern style. We had an old classical Arabic version done by an Egyptian translator which was done word-by-word and it was really heavy — we couldn’t work with it at all on stage. So a well-known Palestinian poet called Ghassan Zaqtan has re-interpreted it into modern classical Arabic in order to keep the poetry of the sentences but not the heaviness of the old classical translation.

SI: So is the description of the play in the festival publicity material as being in Palestinian Arabic slightly misleading?

IA: Yes, because that is what they wanted in the beginning and I did say to the Globe that we are not doing it that way, but somehow it has kept saying that the play would be in Palestinian Arabic. But one more thing is the fact that [Irish theater director] Conall Morrison, the director of the play, was involved also gave us a deep awareness. He had such a beautiful impact on the play because he really knows Shakespeare, and we have learned a lot from him — specifically about how Shakespeare’s texts, especially a difficult text like Richard II, have to be worked with. I think if we didn’t have him it would have been much more difficult.

SI: There has also been a performance of the play in the West Bank town of Jericho. Are there any other performances planned apart from this and those in the UK?

IA: Yes, there were four performances at Hisham’s Palace in Jericho. It was a real success, it was so beautiful and the place was amazing, magical somehow, with the palace as the background of the performance. Because it is a real palace, it gave it another dimension, that everything is happening to Richard is happening in this castle.

But for the moment, we are taking it only to the Globe and Oxford. Of course we hope that we will be touring it to other audiences and we hope the artistic directors of other festivals will be interested. But we face, let’s say, serious financial problems all the time, so we are not able to have big marketing campaigns, because everywhere we go we need to be subsidised.

SI: Apart from finances, what are the other challenges of being a theater company from the West Bank?

IA: Let’s put it this way. Because we are living under occupation here it is always a problem to travel, because we don’t have passports, so everywhere we go we have to have visas and it’s difficult. But we were lucky to be involved with the British Council and the British Consulate in Jerusalem, and they have done a lot in terms of making the logistics very easy. They have been supportive with the visas, so that was one of the pluses because sometimes it is a nightmare, a big headache to obtain visas for touring.

Because we are such a big crew — we are 17 people travelling — it is not an easy task. And to go from one place to another in Palestine is a headache, with checkpoints and the occupation, and a few minutes’ travel has to take an hour or two or three. So there are challenges that we have adapted to, whether we like it or not. It’s been like this for more than 15 years now, with checkpoints and the wall. But challenges are part of our life and we keep pushing, it’s like carving in stones if we want to do anything here.

Nothing is easy here, but in culture nothing is easy elsewhere too — I’m aware of the difficulties around the world, especially for small companies, not only here but everywhere. But the beauty is that we do not stop. We do not know how to say no, even if we have to face all sorts of difficulties.

SI: There have been calls in Britain for a boycott of an Israeli theater company which has also been invited to participate in Globe 2 Globe. Habima is not just an Israeli theater company, but has performed many times in illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. What is your feeling about Habima’s involvement in the festival?

IA: I already stated that we back the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] solidarity campaign. It is a pity that Habima, which violated human rights and supports the Israeli colonialist approach and occupation, was invited to such a prestigious festival. That’s an ethical problem for us, but it’s somehow a fight for us as well, that our response should be heard.

We want our voice to be heard, we want our voice to be on the stage of the Globe, because it is a challenge to be in a festival together with Habima — but if you’re not there, people will hear the other side and will not hear us.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs. Her biography of Leila Khaled will be published in May 2012.