Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spring awakening; or, Malvolio as mullah

Nassar Al Nassar and Faisal Al Ameeri grove with Shakespeare's Lord of Misrule.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein might have said, the Arab Spring is bustin' out all over - we just saw the intriguing Persian Quarter take a bow at Merrimack, and right now, downtown, Occupy Boston is showing what may be the green shoots of an "American Spring" (okay, an "American Fall" - an interesting double entendre; let's hope metaphorically that it's spring!).

And now we have, from Arts Emerson, the best news (artistically speaking) of all - SABAB Theatre's The Speaker's Progress (through this weekend only), a brilliant translation and transposition of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night into the milieu of the Arab world.  Written and directed by the Kuwait-born - but I think Edinburgh-educated - Sulayman Al-Bassam (note his company's name looks like an anagram of his own), the production dazzled last night at its local premiere, leaving its audience haunted and moved, if, it seemed, slightly puzzled: a talkback after the performance proved a disaster, with WBUR radio host Tom Ashbrook cluelessly wondering "Who is this production for?" while confused ladies in the audience demanded "Tell us what the ending meant!"  (It was a poignant demonstration of the limits of philistine good intentions.)

Meanwhile I felt as if a dozen windows had been blown open in my mind, and I'm quite sure that The Speaker's Progress is the most important event (in intellectual terms) of the theatrical year.  Which isn't to say it's a masterpiece; in fact, it starts slowly, and in places it's a mess.  Nor is it a fully legitimate interpretation of Twelfth Night; the Bard's classic comedy is merely a springboard for Al-Bassam's inspired theatrical sketches - although fair warning: as the author-director (and lead actor) dips into Twelfth Night at will, if you don't have at least a working knowledge of the play, much of The Speaker's Progress may prove frustratingly opaque to you.

Malvolio as mullah, and madness as modernity - the wonderful Fayez Kazak.
If you do, though - and if you don't mind listening to iambic pentameter translated into the seductive cadences of Arabic (don't worry, there are subtitles) - I promise you the kind of elevated entertainment we rarely see in these parts. In fact, I can't think of any production I've ever seen in America that matches the superbly casual, sophisticated charm that The Speaker's Progress boasts at its best (the acting of the SABAB company is its own small-scaled miracle).

And there's another dimension to the production which is difficult to explain, and which you'll just have to take from me on faith: Al-Bassam is already moving in the international-theatre circles of figures like Peter Brook, and he strikes me - admittedly on just a single exposure - as being, indeed, at that level of cultural importance.  (So remember the name of this Arab Orson Welles, you're going to hear it again.)  The Speaker's Progress is not, as I said, a consistent success as an interpretation of Shakespeare - and yet somehow you realize that nonetheless it's operating at something like Shakespeare's level.  Which I've never felt in any Boston production of the Bard before, not in thirty years of theatre-going.  (Plus this is only the end of a whole trilogy, it turns out, of Al-Bassam's meditations on Shakespeare, which I'm now dying to see.)

Understandably enough, SABAB's version of Twelfth Night focuses on the political struggle embedded in the play. Here Malvolio has been translated from a Puritan into a mullah, and Viola operates as a dangerously seductive image of gender subversion; and the "madness" into which the action tips is confused with "modernity."  Meanwhile Feste is a blinded wanderer (more from Lear than Twelfth Night, if you ask me) who sings on a desolate shore, and Orsino's sexism turns genuinely murderous by the play's finish.  The production's over-arching conceit is that it's being presented as a kind of show trial - the eponymous Speaker (fluidly played by Al-Bassam himself), a former director of renown, has restaged a famous production from the 60's to decry and denounce it (while censors watch from security cameras, and buzzers go off whenever a man and a woman brush each other on stage).  Needless to say, however, the poetic force of Shakespeare won't be denied, and the censors eventually prove powerless before the challenge to authority that the text represents.  (That it represents to even its own authority, it seems - The Speaker's Progress morphs relentlessly, as if to keep up with current events.)

Something has to be said aloud, however, about the production - it's obvious, from its style as well as its text, that The Speaker's Progress was inspired by - indeed, has "appropriated" much of the conceptual basis of - the Wooster Group's widely-noted Hamlet from a few years back (which likewise "excavated" a famous production of Shakespeare from the 60's).  Does this turn Al-Bassam into the avant-garde equivalent of BeyoncĂ©? Hardly. Al-Bassam should, of course, always acknowledge his sources - but, as I argued just the other day, there are contexts in which even the most blatant borrowing is legitimate, and Al-Bassam all but soars over that bar, as he translates and transforms his material into a new context with skill and insight.

How are we to live?  The luminous Amal Omran and Carole Abboud as Viola and Olivia.
And as pure political theatre, Progress is often an intoxicating thrill - it breathes with the bracing air of inspired revision on the fly (Al-Bassam rewrote, and his company rehearsed, as the Arab Spring unfolded around them).  Which may be one reason why it operates as the antithesis of agitprop.  Instead, it's political theatre as it always should be - questing, open-ended, and humane, with a sweet, almost-erotic edge.  (This is political theatre drained of the bitterness of Brecht; it's meant to overturn and simultaneously extend civilization.)  The text's mystifying finish, for instance, left me wanting to dance in the aisles as I pondered its ramifications: Al-Bassam closes with the basic question "How are we to live?," which is the query every revolution eventually raises.  Only no wonder such a quixotic finish confused the earnest ladies in the audience!  Americans can't even think that way anymore; we're unable to articulate our own political dilemmas (which are really not so far from those of the Middle East).  And if you imagine our own political theatre is particularly "free," then you haven't been paying attention -  it's abundantly clear the only existential question we're allowed to ponder anymore is "What should I buy next?"

Indeed, it's hard these days not to be humbled by the cultural ferment in the Middle East, isn't it.  Democracy is more important to the Arabs then it is to us - obviously - and here they are showing us how to approach our own greatest playwright, to boot.  Which made the gently patronizing questions from Tom Ashbrook all the more irritating - he didn't seem to realize that in this production we were encountering our moral and artistic superiors.  Who is this production for?  It's for all of us, Mr. Ashbrook, both East and West.

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