He'll Smile, And Smile, And Be A (Pan-Arabic) Villain

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Fayaz Kazak as Richard III i

'Plots Have I Laid': Fayaz Kazak as the scheming Richard of Gloucester, who'll murder his way to the top in Sulayman al-Bassam's adaptation of Richard III. Ellie Kurttz hide caption

itoggle caption Ellie Kurttz
Fayaz Kazak as Richard III

'Plots Have I Laid': Fayaz Kazak as the scheming Richard of Gloucester, who'll murder his way to the top in Sulayman al-Bassam's adaptation of Richard III.

Ellie Kurttz

Watch a 'Richard' Clip

(Courtesy the Kennedy Center; requires RealPlayer)

Three people in burkhas i

Richard (Kazak, sitting at left) woos the Lady Anne (Nadine Joma'a, seated, with Monadil Daood, standing) soon after killing her husband. He wins her over, consolidating his political power. Ellie Kurttz hide caption

itoggle caption Ellie Kurttz
Three people in burkhas

Richard (Kazak, sitting at left) woos the Lady Anne (Nadine Joma'a, seated, with Monadil Daood, standing) soon after killing her husband. He wins her over, consolidating his political power.

Ellie Kurttz

"Every individual, there is always two sides— the nasty one, and the noble one."

So says Fayez Kazak, who plays the title role in the stage play Richard III: An Arab Tragedy.

It's based on Shakespeare's history play, of course. But as he began work on his adaptation, Sulayman al-Bassam, the Kuwait-born impresario who's been touring the production with his troupe, re-imagined the character — by laying a sort of transparency of Saddam Hussein's rise to power over the calculated path that the infamous earl of Gloucester took to become king of England.

"He makes the rocket of tyranny," al-Bassam says, describing the way his Richard works. "He takes it apart and shows you a diagram of how to do it."

Current affairs do keep evolving, though, and as his company prepared to launch the production, "Saddam was already hanging by a rope," al-Bassam says. And the play evolved into a cautionary tale about despotism in the Persian Gulf region.

Instead of England or Iraq, the play takes place in a fictitious Gulf country called simply "al-Jazeera" — the peninsula. The linga franca: Arabic. The translation: liberal.

"Because we're moving across that placental barrier of language to another language, you see, we free the text," al-Bassam says. "We allow it to sound contemporary."

The show's March 6 debut at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — where non-Arabic speakers can follow along with the projected subtitles — is also its first performance in the United States.

The troupe has previously staged the piece in cities from Amsterdam to Damascus — where the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, made a surprise appearance. Al-Bassam says it was "hallucinatory" to be suddenly shining "the sort of mirror that one ... hopes that drama can hold" when performing before the leader.

For this performance in the U.S., they've softened the character of Richmond, the nobleman who eventually vanquishes Richard and claims the throne for himself.

"It's something we've been looking at the last couple of days," al-Bassam says — "to take that characterization of Richmond out of the strident, sometimes evangelical mode."

Perhaps the reference point of Iraq isn't so far from this performance after all — particularly when performed in front of a Washington audience.

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