'Richard III: An Arab Tragedy' at Terrace Theater

Sulayman al-Bassam's
Sulayman al-Bassam's "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy" features Fayez Kazak, front, and Raymond al-Hosni. (By Ellie Kurttz)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

No gentle strain in the art of persuasion can be found in "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy." Dispensing with Shakespearean formalities -- and even the title character's celebrated hump -- the Richard portrayed in Sulayman al-Bassam's energetic Arabic adaptation is a hawk-eyed terminator who simply takes what he wants, whether it's a wife or two, his rivals' lives or an entire kingdom.

Bassam, who is half Kuwaiti and half British, has shifted the story of this foulest of usurping royals to the present day and an unnamed Gulf sheikdom, where violent overthrow has rendered the idea of succession to the throne a bloody travesty. Although the directorial approach tends to underline the modern parallels a bit too heavy-handedly, the tragedy does provide a solid framework for an intense portrait of how power can be seized by means of terror and control of the media.

The well-acted production, by Bassam's international theater company, had a sold-out two-performance American premiere over the weekend in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, as part of the three-week Arabesque arts festival. (Performances are forthcoming in Ann Arbor, Mich., and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Recited in Arabic with English surtitles and accompanied by an onstage group of Arab musicians, the piece comes across as an estimable example of artistic cross-fertilization.

In this re-imagining of the tragedy, the pliable malevolence of Richard -- played by a potently savage Fayez Kazak -- that dominates most productions is not as central. What's stressed on this evening is the moral sickness that seems to envelop the whole royal household, a condition that festers with each terrible new bloodletting. To that end, Bassam's production begins not with Richard's "Now is the winter of our discontent" soliloquy, but with the histrionic cries for vengeance from Margaret (the terrific Amal Omran), the former queen whose husband Richard has killed.

A suitcase that Omran lugs about on the bare stage opens to reveal bloody clothing, as if to suggest the stains of the past always pose a threat to the legitimacy of rulers who take charge by sheer intimidating force. Relentlessly, the production records the outrages this pathologically driven Richard commits as he systematically dismembers the pool of potential rivals. (In a blackly comic echo of the gravedigger scene in "Hamlet," one of Richard's henchmen makes sport with the plastic-wrapped severed head of an excised member of the nobility.)

Here as in traditional Shakespeare, the architect of Richard's ascension is the bloodless Buckingham, played by a cucumber-cool Raymond al-Hosni. While everyone else wears traditional robes, Hosni is clad in a European suit. He's got his thumb on the nation's news media and thus can soften the scrutiny of Richard's reptilian ghastliness; unlike in some other interpretations, this Richard does not even evince much of a gift of gab. In an amusing series of remote-location reports, a TV reporter (Faisal al-Ameeri), compelled to give a cheery party line, smiles too widely into the camera, as if there were an actual gun to his head.

Disappointingly, "Richard III: An Arab Tragedy" feels compelled to supply a behind-the-scenes villain more Machiavellian than the play really supports. And, of course, the blackguard pulling the strings is American: He's an ambassador whose government props up Richard, but only as long as the tyrant remains useful. (Shades, it seems, of Saddam.) Portrayed with an awkwardly cartoonish drawl by Nigel Barrett, the production's tired variation on the character of Richmond elicits little more than a rolling of the eyes.

While the show in this regard demonstrates the conceptual limits to remaking a classic text, many of Bassam's manipulations offer another window on how muscularly Shakespeare travels.

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