When my friend Diana and I selected two shows in the Brooklyn Academy’s Next Wave Festival this fall, we chose two that overlapped and we ended up going to BAM two nights in a row. It’s not that that’s a lot of theater, or even a lot of traveling to Brooklyn, but it’s hard to write reports back to back and say anything cogent. I’ve just posted my attempt to describe the Berliner Ensemble’s production of The Threepenny Opera directed by Robert Wilson (published on 22 October), and then I immediately started on this unusual performance, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress. A short play (in Arabic and English with English supertitles), it lasted only 90 minutes—but there’s much to sort out and a lot to say, if I can get it down.
Diana and I saw The Speaker’s Progress at the Harvey Theatre on Friday, 7 October. Neither of us had much idea what to expect from the intriguing blurb in the BAM catalogue for the fall portion of this season’s Next Wave Festival: “a story of censorship, sexism, and insurrection inspired by the revolutionary spirit pervading the Arab world.” Admittedly, we don’t get a lot of Arab or Middle-Eastern theater here, not in comparison with the European, Latin American, or even African performances we get to see fairly frequently. I was enticed by the prospect of seeing a play from that part of the world, hearing those voices directly rather than filtered through the Western media or spun by politicians and spokespeople whose jobs are more often to obfuscate than to clarify or inform. “There are so many prejudices and so many ready-made formulas to identify that Arab world and identify that gulf world that are negative preconceptions and that are negative prejudices,” Al-Bassam, 39, has said. “And equally, on the other side, on our side, the same kind of reasoning through prejudice exists and fuels disaster, in fact, you know, and this kind of theater work is our way of trying to engage with that.”
I’ll assume that few readers will have heard of Al-Bassam or his company, SABAB, before now. (It turned out I had, but I didn’t recognize that I had until later.) Born in Kuwait in 1972, the playwright (who also directed the production and plays a pivotal role in it) started his troupe, then named the Zaoum Theatre, in London in 1996 after attending university in Edinburgh. After he returned to Kuwait, Al-Bassam, who writes in both Arabic and English, started what he styles the “Arabic arm” of the company, SABAB, in 2002. (According to the company’s website, sabab is an Arabic verb that mean “to cause, bring forth, provoke, trigger, arouse, inspire, prompt” and a noun meaning “reason, cause, motive.” I’ve wondered why it’s written all in caps, and though I haven’t found an explanation, I can’t avoid the fact that the playwright’s initials are “SAB” and the company is also known as the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre. I was unable to learn to what zaoum refers.) The company is international and pan-Arab, with members coming from Europe, Australia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Kuwait. The playwright has said he felt that because of the changes in the Gulf region, from the great oil revenues through the introduction of modern infrastructure to the rise of modern education, the Gulf societies had “been ripped out of the past very fast.” That, of course, was nine years before the current upheavals, known as “the Arab Spring,” that have rocked the Arab world. Those changes, we know, haven’t always been liberal nor have they all been greeted with equal appreciation by all parts of the society. Increased wealth has also brought millions of guest workers and immigrants from poorer Arab countries and they now make up a majority of Kuwait’s population. A parliament shares power with the hereditary emir, but the Al-Sabah family appoints many of its members. The consumer society has generated a culture that includes Western style cafés, restaurants, and shopping malls, but the country still maintains a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol and a resurgence of strict Islamic practices has arisen. The modern education Al-Bassam applauded is dispensed in a national university system that separates male students from female in classes and on campus. “We’re in a crash scenario, time and culture,” said Al-Bassam. “Culture, society, globalization, all of that coming together and reactions to that, you know, sometimes violent reactions.”
I’d have guessed that SABAB would have had difficulty performing political satire in Kuwait, even be unsanctioned there: criticism of the emir, for instance, is forbidden and punishable by law. But Al-Bassam’s troupe performs both in Kuwait and in Beirut and occasionally other Arab capitals (including Damascus before the uprising), so it travels back and forth with some freedom apparently. (If you think of the old Soviet Union, where some dissident theater companies and artists were tacitly tolerated as long as they stuck close to home. If they left the county, as happened to Yuri Lyubimov, they were stripped of their citizenship and refused reentry.) The playwright asserts that Kuwait permits greater freedom of expression than other Arab nations. The writer said, however, “It remains a conservative society, and there are de facto rules. You know, the three taboos are religion, politics, sex, not necessarily in that order . . . .” Yet, that’s precisely what SABAB covers; Al-Bassam’s plays are political and socially critical, though he apparently doesn’t name the country in which he sets his plays, so that may be his shield. “[T]hat this type of work is produced and supported by the State of Kuwait is an indicator of the robustness of its democracy and commitment to the institutions of civil society,” contends Al-Bassam.
Al-Bassam wrote The Speaker’s Progress in October 2010, but when it went into rehearsals in January 2011, the Arab world had already changed drastically. Popular uprisings, protests, and rebellions in what would become known as the Arab Spring had started in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara since December 2010. By the time the play premièred in Kuwait on 20 February, the dictator in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fallen (14 January) and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had stepped down (11 February). The play, intended to chart “a decade of turbulence in the Middle East region, was to be concluded with a black satire on the inertia that crippled the Arab World, a bleak cry of despair and an avowal that theater—political theater—could change nothing in a world where nothing could be changed.” But the upheaval across the region required Al-Bassam to revise the script’s conclusion to reflect the historic changes. The play was reworked for its Beirut staging this September (as Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, another Arab strongman who’s since been killed, was “about to be hounded out of power onto the dust heap of history,” as the playwright put it). Al-Bassam and his troupe view “the metaphor of theater as an expression of freedom” and The Speaker’s Progress is meant to spotlight the importance of free artistic expression which, the writer warns, is always the first victim of oppressive regimes. (Though Shakespeare wanted to kill all the lawyers first, we remember that Plato would ban the poets—they are far more dangerous to a controlled society.)
The Speaker’s Progress, one of Al-Bassam’s series based on Shakespeare, revolves around the archival film of a performance of an Arabic adaptation of Twelfth Night. In an unidentified totalitarian Arab state where all theater performances and public gatherings have been banned, a condemned 1963 performance of Twelfth Night, an artifact from an earlier period of political radicalization and upheaval, has become the focus of resistance blogs and dissident underground social networks. (There is some mention of the 1642 closing of the theaters in England under the Puritans.) The state wants to silence this dangerous mix of nostalgia and defiance and to improve its image in the outside world. It commissions The Speaker (Al-Bassam), a once-radical theater artist who’s now become an apologist for the regime, to stage a “forensic reconstruction” that recreates and denounces the performance, captured on film. They are in a lab, not a theater, surrounded by technicians sitting at consoles and monitors of various kinds. (The production was designed by Sam Collins, an Australian artist and designer based in London.) As The Speaker and his group of volunteers (representing the Council of Virtue, the Writer’s League, the Democratic League of Students, the Tourist Board, and the Women’s League), only one of whom used to be an actor, dig into the demonstration, they become more and more caught up in the banned play, discovering in their performance a solidarity among their group that transforms the presentation into an open act of defiance towards the state. The Tourist Board representative is the government watchdog and there’s a camera placed ominously right in front of their reconstruction. The team follows the transcript, including all the blocking which is precisely dictated by a clinician following a script derived from the filmed performance—but at the same time, they all must follow the strict rules of social interaction such as the mandated distance between male and female demonstrators. They don’t wear costumes at the outset, but lab coats—though as the reconstruction develops, more and more of the performative trappings, including colorful Western costumes (designed by Abdullah Al Awadhi) and even emotional and psychological subtexts, are reintroduced into what’s becoming a true performance. Even The Speaker finds himself falling back into his old life and near the end of the demonstration, which has taken on a life of its own by now, The Speaker attempts to swallow a piece of paper containing information he doesn’t want to fall into the hands of the government minder overseeing the propriety of the project. (This, I believe, is The Speaker’s “progress.” He’s advanced from being a government toady to taking independent action, all because of the power of art.)
The Speaker’s Progress plays out in three forms of performance. First, of course, is the live demonstration, presented to us by living actors in real time. Second is the filmed performance from 1963, projected in black and white on a large screen behind the demonstrators, shown when the transcript is unclear or has gaps. This is the presentation of a long-past performance by actors who not only aren’t present but may not even still be living. Finally, there’s a “live” video interview with a former actor (“The Actor from The Golden Era,” played by Sa’ad El Farraj) who isn’t present in the lab but is speaking in real time as well. (This is a conceit, of course: the video conference isn’t actually real but taped. In the context of the play, however, it’s supposed to be live. There was also a brief fourth performance level, but it only occurred once. In order to simulate the forbidden contact between male and female characters, the actors playing the Viola part, here called The Boy-Girl, Amal Omran, because she’s dressed in male clothes—another sensitive act in this strict society—and Orsino, called simply The Ruler, Faisal Al Ameeri, go behind the projection screen and perform the action in shadow play so that they seem to be touching hands but aren’t really making skin-to-skin contact.)
The whole play—that is, The Speaker’s Progress not Twelfth Night—is also on multiple levels. There’s the production we’ve come to see at BAM, the present-moment performance. Then there’s the forensic demonstration at which we are the audience as well, but a diegetic audience, cast in a role within The Speaker’s Progress. And then there’s the performance inside the demonstration as the participants become engaged in the drama of the adaptation of Twelfth Night. At that last level, we as witnesses to the reconstruction are supposed to be part of the shift, but since as BAM spectators we’re not really in on the dynamic taking place, the SABAB actors have to imagine we’re shifting along with them. All these levels are working at the same time, of course, but they don’t really merge.
The actors, too, function on several levels. They are, of course, actors in the SABAB Theatre, performing a play called The Speaker’s Progress at the BAM Harvey Theater. Then they’re citizens of the unnamed country with pasts and presents, sketched out a little in the script. But they’re also representatives of various organizations which sometimes requires them to perform certain functions. And finally, they’re characters in the Twelfth Night adaptation. Only The Speaker has no role in Twelfth Night. (These several roles can overlap in a contrived—but amusing—way: the state minder plays the Malvolio role, here a Mullah (Fayez Kazak), the self-appointed guardian of proper conduct for both the characters (as The Mullah) and for the demonstrators (as the envoy of the Tourist Board). As the plays (The Speaker’s Progress and Twelfth Night) unfold, these roles become more and more entangled as the conscience of one role begins to impinge on the actions of another. (I’m not including here the level all performers have, that of their actual identities from off stage. This isn’t a play in which the actors appear as themselves and as characters.)
See what I mean about this little comedy having a lot to sort out and a lot to say? And I’m not getting into all of it because, as Al-Bassam told us after the performance (we had a brief conversation with him in the lobby), there are parts of the play that Arab audiences “just get” but that he hasn’t made clear to Westerners yet, and it has nothing to do with the language or the supertitles. He was very simply talking about the cultural divide—which is one excellent reason we need to see more theater from his part of the world. (The playwright’s still working on how to communicate those points.)
(I’ve said this before, and I will probably keep on saying it: I believe we learned more about life in South Africa under apartheid from the plays of Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema or about living under communism in Czechoslovakia from Vaclav Havel’s plays than from all the lectures, essays, and newspaper columns on the subjects. We’re not just poorer for not being exposed to theater and art from distant cultures, but we have less understanding of the world. We remain more provincial and closed off, and that’s dangerous. Sulayman Al-Bassam may not be in the Fugard-Ngema-Havel league yet, but the impulse is the same. Sorry; I’ll put the soapbox away now.)
Al-Bassam wrote and staged a political comedy, with a message—or lesson, if you will—that’s intellectual and analytical. He wants to tell us something specific about his society and others like it and to reflect the current events in the Middle East he adjusted not so much his point as the way he makes it. But if Al-Bassam intended the play to be “an anguished cry of despair at the inability of art, and even people, to make change happen,’’ as he says, what he and his troupe have actually created is a palpable demonstration of the power of theater and art to defeat willful ignorance and censorship. Not only can’t The Speaker and the sole former actress among the demonstrators resist the pull of art, the non-actors among the team can’t, either—even though they all know that they have a government minder on duty and an all-seeing camera recording their conduct as they begin to project greater and greater involvement in the circumstances of the Twelfth Night adaptation and violate more and more of the imposed taboos. We’ve seen throughout history, including recent history in our own lifetimes, that art in repressive regimes, from the Nazis and Fascists of mid-century Germany and Italy to the Falangists of Franco’s Spain, to the Stalinist and Maoist authorities in the Soviet Union and China, to the revolutionary societies of Cuba, Iran, and Iraq, somehow manages to flourish and even excel, finding ways of exposing the truth to the world at large in lasting ways. Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1942), a disguised indictment of French collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and an exaltation of the French Resistance, still speaks to us long after the political situation it limned has passed. Little by little, the clinical presentation of the reconstruction of Twelfth Night in The Speaker’s Progress morphs into a real theatrical production, with the demonstrator-actors experiencing more and more of the emotions felt by the characters in the filmed play. The characters in Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress are infected with the art in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s play—they can’t resist it because its pull is too strong to be suppressed by the machinations of the state. (Art may be long, but it’s also powerful.)
I believe, from the evidence of the energy and apparent commitment of the SABAB cast, that the actual actors genuinely and fiercely feel the same way. In fact, The Speakers Progress may have more cogent things to say to an initiated—that is to say, an Arab—audience, but the play works at all for us Westerners because of the players’ faith in what they’re doing. It’s always been my opinion that political theater, which Speaker’s Progress is, often works better as politics than as theater. Only occasionally have I seen a political play that communicates its point of view and still comes out theatrical; the best example of which I can think was Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice as it was presented on Broadway in 1986. (If you consider Tony Kushner’s Angels in America a political play, then I’d have to put that at the top of the list. I rather think of it as a socially-aware drama, though.) In any case, Speaker’s Progress is undoubtedly political and as a play, it’s more interesting than good. In production, however, it did have much to offer—and I believe that was due to the way the company attacked the material: their energy and enthusiasm, I’d say their belief in what they were doing (perhaps especially for a foreign audience), informed their performing and infected us—much the same way that the characters’ growing engagement with the force of the art of Twelfth Night infected them and “their” audience in the diegetic performance.
I feel it’s necessary to say something about the obvious fact that SABAB is, by my own definition, a vanity company. Al-Bassam, clearly the inspiration for the company and its efforts, is the founder and artistic director of the troupe, and the writer, director, lead actor of this production. I’ve written of my disdain for such operations (“Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director,” 22 September), and I’d seem hypocritical if I didn’t say something here. I made an exception for cases where “there’s a special talent at work” and I think Al-Bassam and SABAB are examples of that. Al-Bassam may not measure up to Orson Welles or Mel Brooks but he’s obviously the spiritual force behind this company in more than the artistic sense. It’s his vision that’s being put forth here, and that may take the hand of one visionary at the tiller. I don’t know enough about the company’s other work to be sure, but for now, I’ll have to accept that this is the explanation.
[The Speaker’s Progress is the final part—after The Al-Hamlet Summit, 2002, and Richard III—An Arab Tragedy, 2007, of the “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy.” (Richard III is the play I’d heard about earlier because it had played at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2009 as part of “Arabesque,” a festival of Arab plays.) Other Shakespeare-based plays by Al-Bassam are The 60 Watt Macbeth, 1999; Hamlet in Kuwait and The Arab League Hamlet, 2001 (both early versions of The Al-Hamlet Summit); and Trading, 2003, based on Romeo and Juliet. Other scripts inspired by Western classics include Hayyal BuTair, 2010, based on Molière’s Tartuffe, and Everyman (Dreaming in Car Parks), 1996, inspired by the medieval morality play
[Richard III was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in its 2006-07 Complete Works festival. In 2008, at the final performance of a tour to Damascus, the company was surprised by the attendance of President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife. I imagine that could be a little daunting. (I wonder if the Assads would turn out these days.)]