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Production

The Al-Hamlet Summit

Company

The Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre Company

Reviewer

Fong Li Ling

Date

10/06/2005

Time

8.00pm

Place

Victoria Theatre

Rating

****

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead

To be honest, it took me a while to digest The Al-Hamlet Summit. I left the theatre not knowing what to make of the production; it was as if the action had come at me like a whirlwind and struck me in the face, rendering me speechless. I struggled to get to grips with my reaction to it for a long time, but when it eventually sank in, this is what I found I wanted to say: the production was powerful in its language, intriguing in its ideas and, basically, pretty gutsy stuff. Yes, The Al-Hamlet Summit proved itself worthy of the accolades it has won.

Writer/Director Sulayman Al-Bassam's version of Shakespeare's original work focuses mainly on the state of a nation as a diseased body gradually brought to ruin. The script for the performance was written with recent events concerning the Arab world and the West (the 9/11 incident, for one) taken into consideration. This was done in Sulayman's effort to explore the relationship between two cultures that inextricably intertwine.

Upon the death of his father, the rightful leader of the state, Hamlet returns home only to find that his uncle, Claudius, has assumed power and married his mother, Gertrude. The state faces imminent attack from their old neighbour and enemy, Fortinbras, who is backed by foreign imperial forces. Appropriately set at a modern-day political summit where tensions tend to run high, the play commences with Claudius' announcement of a New Democracy, which Hamlet does not show much enthusiasm for. Nonetheless, Hamlet is persuaded by Claudius to to stay home and show his loyalty to the country as its Crown Prince instead of returning to his studies abroad. Marriage between Hamlet and Chief Minister Polonius' daughter, Ophelia, is subsequently proposed in a bid to use the marriage to geld Hamlet and preempt his resistance to the New Democracy. At the same time, Hamlet finds out from a Western arms dealer that pamphlets have been released by the fundamentalists accusing Claudius of the murder of Hamlet's father and blaming Hamlet for his inaction. Hamlet is enraged by what he reads and, as he attempts to uncover the truth, his madness heightens and he becomes filled with religiosity, which causes those around him to deem him a terrorist. Finally Hamlet declares civil war in his state, causing the deaths of his family, as well as ending the innocent lives of many of his countrymen.

Originally scripted and performed in English, Al-Hamlet was presented this time in Arabic with English surtitles. Although I sometimes had a hard time simultaneously watching the action onstage and reading the surtitles, I think Sulayman did a commendable job with the English script, despite the demands of reimagining a Shakespearean text. Sulayman produced a sophisticated piece of writing that was powerful in tone, poetic, filled with rhetoric and littered with moments of wit. His jabs at Arab and Western states ("Damascus? / Too many intellectuals.", "Paris? / Too many women.") and international peace-keeping organisations induced much laughter from the audience.

Sulayman's astute decision to leave out all the minor roles, such as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, allowed more direct interaction between the primary characters. It is also evident that the use of props had been considered carefully. In substitution of the character of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, objects like the fundamentalists' leaflets and Hamlet's father's grave were employed, and they managed to tell the story just as well. Adding to the religious connotations of the play, the voice of Allah was also used in place of the Ghost in the confrontational scene between Hamlet and Gertrude. All these were rather daring changes for Sulayman to make, especially with such a renowned piece of literature; fortunately, they worked out well, generating a story that stayed close to the original Hamlet in its flow of events, yet at the same time allowed the audience to identify with recent episodes of turbulence and strife occurring in the Arab world.

Sulayman's piece managed to cast the characters of Claudius and Hamlet in a different light. In the original, Hamlet's inability to find solace in either religion or philosophy, and the madness that arises from his resolution to avenge his father 's death make him a figure of worthy of sympathy. However, in Sulayman's adaptation, Hamlet's madness is depicted in the form of religious zealotry, which instead causes one to develop a feeling of disapproval towards the character. Claudius, on the other hand, is a selfish, conniving political figure in the original, but in Sulayman's version, he seems to take on a weaker, less threatening role. These altered portrayals of the two key figures played out the idea that there is no one party that can be considered solely responsible for the chaotic Middle-Eastern political situation.

Undoubtedly the most moving and powerful moment of the play was Claudius' monologue (the one that in the original ends, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go"). A satire of the dealings of statesmen in the Arab world, it interweaves the supposed glorious, sovereign power of God with man's corrupted ways. Claudius' initial tone of helplessness shifts to one of greed and taunting towards the omniscient being that he claims granted him power. Coming from a man as shrewd as Claudius, such an honest expression of his nature is moving. When he turns around and proclaims that all of the evil he has committed originated from no other than God himself - that he, Claudius, is a mere partaker of God's "gluttony and endless filth" - there is a foreboding sense of hopelessness: goodness and purity seem to be far out of reach. Credit goes to Nicolas Daniel, who displayed the desperation, vulnerability, and insatiable greed for power that Claudius possessed, while delivering his lines with excellent control. Another actor worthy of mention is Sulayman, who possessed a commanding stage presence as the Crown Prince himself and tackled Hamlet's erratic ways with ease and a deep sense of familiarity with the character.

Other than tiny gripes like not being able to hear the actors' conversations whenever they spoke in English because of their lack of projection and the volume of the background music, and having to divert my attention from the stage to read the surtitles (hopefully I will get more adept with more practice!), I enjoyed a night of slick, well-crafted and thought-provoking theatre.


"The production was powerful in its language, intriguing in its ideas and, basically, pretty gutsy stuff"

Credits

Writer/Director: Sulayman Al-Bassam

Asst. Director: Nigel Barrett

Musical Director/Composer/Musician: Lewis Gibson

Composer/Musician: Alfredo Genovesi

Lighting Designer/Technical Director: Richard Williamson

Subtitles: Wafa'a Al-Fraheen

Asst. Technical Director: Robin Snowdon

Production Manager: Mohamed Jawad Ahmad

International Producer: Georgina Van Welie

Cast: Sulayman Al-Bassam, Nicolas Daniel, Amana Wali, Monadhil Al-Bayati, Mariam Ali, Bashar Al-Ibrahim and Nigel Barrett

More Reviews by Fong Li Ling

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.