Kuwaiti Theater Artist Sulayman Al-Bassam on Staying Current in a Changing World

Tonight, BAM’s Next Wave Festival plays host to one of this season’s more intriguing entries: The Speaker’s Progress, a new theater work from director Sulayman Al-Bassam’s pan-Arab theater company SABAB (only through Oct. 8–get your tickets here). The third part of what the company calls the “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy,” which includes The Al-Hamlet Summit (2002) and Richard III, an Arab Tragedy (2007), The Speakers Progress is set in an unnamed contemporary Arab authoritarian state where theater and representation are banned. The story centers on a historical production, a version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from the 1960s, a previous era of political radicalization and upheaval. When documentation of the work comes to light and makes it a rallying point for the diverse, web-based opposition, the state cynically employs a formerly radical director, now an apologist, to reproduce and discredit the work, only to have the revolutionary zeal of the original infect its assailants. In other words, it’s a dark satire of political despair and inertia.

The trick is, SABAB was in rehearsal for the show in Damascus, Syria this last winter as what’s now known as the “Arab Spring” broke out, and that threw everything into flux. Writing in the Guardian this past March, al-Bassam noted of the show:

This black satire on the inertia that crippled the Arab world, intended as a bleak cry of despair, seemed in tune with some of the tides of discontent behind the revolutions. But, as events developed, the piece’s pessimism sat entirely–and blissfully–at odds with the new topographies of energy and hope emanating out of Tunis and Tahrir Square.

Even after re-jiggering the final 15 minutes of the show for the preview run, before partially re-writing the script, SABAB has been walking a tightrope artistically all year as they try to maintain a show with the capacity to speak to a broad audience while staying afoot of the near daily progress of political transformation in the Arab world. Earlier this week, I spoke to Al-Bassam over the phone at his hotel in Brooklyn, after playing email and phone-tag for a few weeks as the company completed a run in Beirut before setting off for New York.

The Speaker’s Progress was originally conceived as a metaphor for the quest–the artistic quest–for freedom of expression,” he explained. “The shape of that original text was very strongly impacted by the events that were taking place around the creation of the work, as we were rehearsing the work in Damascus and later performing the work in Kuwait.”

“We needed to find a language, a meta-language, to describe this period of change, a meta-language that wouldn’t include necessarily a kind of news-like overview of what’s going on from day to day.”

Al-Bassam speaks with a crisp British accent, a tell-tale sign of his long engagement with the country, where’s he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and where he founded his original company Zaoum. A decade or more ago, though, he returned to his native Kuwait where he founded SABAB with a group of artists from around the Arab world to produce work.

“I returned to Kuwait ten years ago now, or more. It was a natural life choice progression,” he told me. “My own project, in terms of the development of a national theater structure and the infrastructure for a national theater in Kuwait, has been something that has taken up a lot of my own time and energy over the last ten years, without actually achieving success in that game. Kuwait offers several positive aspects in terms of creating this kind of body of international theater work.”

Asked what specifically keeps him in his homeland, he explained: “First and most important i think is probably the level of freedom of expression that is available in Kuwait. It has a written constitution which protects the rights of citizens to express their thoughts through various means, including artistic means. and that provides for a level of freedom of critique and thought and writing that is not really available at all in nearly all of the region apart from maybe Lebanon. So in that sense, there’s a very logicial, clear reason for me to base this pan arab work that brings together artists from different countries in Kuwait, because a legal protection [exists] to make the kind of work that otherwise I think would be more difficult to make in many other countries in the region.”

SABAB is perhaps best known for its Shakespearean adaptations/reinterpretations, of which The Speaker’s Progress is the third part of an aforementioned trilogy (for more info on The Al-Hamlet Summit, for instance, see the following interview on the UK’s Culture Wars website). As Al-Bassam told me, “Shakespeare has a significant heritage, I guess progeny, inside the Arab world from apolitial productions of Othello and Julius Caesar in that period the Fifties and Sixties, when the National Theater of Cairo, for instance, would present Shakespeare to sort of say, ‘We can do Shakespeare, too,’ in the same way the French can do Shakespeare or the Italians can do Shakespeare or the British can do Shakespeare. So that was all kind of a part of an aspiration culture.

“Also, and I think more significantly, Shakespeare has been used in the past few decades–actually since the late 19th century Shakespeare has been used by Arab theater makers, along with a host of other classical writers, to make political commentary and to make a kind of political theater that is about contemporary political issues concerning the theater makers, their audiences, their countries. And so there is also a rich heritage of that in the same way those Shakespearean texts were used extensively by Eastern European theater makers during the Cold War period. Shakespeare texts are a kind of mask behind which the theater maker hides in order to make his or her agenda.”

I couldn’t help but ask about the practical challenges of creating and producing the work today. Al-Bassam’s March missive to the Guardian was from Damascus; at the time, the tide of dissent was cresting in Egypt, whereas now Syria itself is convulsed with a violent crackdown as soldier defect to the side of protesters.

“When we were rehearsing this piece in January it was a different scenario in Syria,” Al-Bassam said. “And we’ve performed in the past in Syria, most notably our production of Richard III An Arab Tragedy at the Syrian opera house, to the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife, who attended that performance. So Syria like many other countries in the region, is a place with many contradictions.

“Of course the current crisis that Syria is passing through makes everything very difficult and I think that it would be almost impossible to take up our rehearsal there at this point. We’re happy and thankful that our artists have been able to continue their work with us and be here in new york at this time”

Artisitically, it’s clear that SABAB is navigating a complex path–both a voice of political reflection and even dissent in a culture that is rapidly trying to re-shape itself. On the one hand, they’re producing work in and for that culture, but also creating theater that can stand on its own in an international, cosmopolitan context. Asked about that juggling act, AL-Bassam offered that “There times when the tension between creating authentic work that speaks to Arab audiences and that is able to speak in a sophisticated language that is layered, and those layers are obviously much more difficult to carry over into other cultures, particularly where audiences rely on sur-titles. So the process of layering is either misunderstood or obscured by the language barrier.

“Sometimes, for instance, satire is the first victim of that sort of thing. So satire, or what’s understood as satire by Arab audiences, may not necessarily read as satire to an audience less familiar with the signifiers that are being played. But at the same time that sort of binary obligation of making the work read to audiences familiar with a whole host of local and regional cultural signifiers and at the same time making it readable to an international audience that may have very little knowledge of the Arab world, or the knowledge that it does have is essentially gleaned from mass-media outlets, has allowed the work to develop in a positive way and in a unique. Because we’ve been very conscious and careful also not to allow the fact that our international co-production pattern and distribution pattern, not to allow that pattern to in a sense degrade or allow it to become ethnic postcards of the region in which cliches are repeated or used to make a superficial approximation of things. in that process cliche is an important element, and sometimes a useful element to begin a conversation.”

In closing, I asked what perspective, if any, Al-Bassam would like to offer his audiences coming into the show. “I guess finally that what comes out in the work, the ethical messaging or the answers to the questions that are raised in the work are not necessarily the biggest priority of the work,” he offered. “We’re not able to make simple political statements because I don’t think that the period that we’re in can actually tolerate or be truly represented by simple political statements”

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