Richard III lends itself to topical adaptations. Its implacable villain announces his villainy from the opening scene: what better bogeyman could a historical moralist desire? Thus Richard has served as a figure of political invective for propagandists since Milton; more recently he has come to wear "the imagery of the twentieth-century fascist dictator." (See M. G. Aune, "The Uses of Richard III: From Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon," in SB 24:3.) Offshoots and productions such as Brecht's Resistible Rise of Arturo Uí (1941) and the 1990s play and film starring Ian McKellen have used Nazi parallels, whether to expose the banality of evil or to induce a near-historical "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God" frisson. So accepted is the allegorical approach that modern-dress productions lacking a coherent political frame risk looking somehow ad hoc. (This was my impression of Michael Boyd's 2007 RSC production, despite Jonathan Slinger's arachnid charisma as Richard. Why the black shirts? What exactly were Richmond's kaffiyeh and Kalashnikov meant to tell us?)
Into the midst of these audience expectations strode Sulayman al-Bassam, a fearless 35-year-old playwright/director commissioned to produce the RSC's first-ever Arabic-language play. Included in the Complete Works Festival, Richard III: An Arab Tragedy was billed as a "response" to the main RSC production. It was an inspired commission. The Kuwaiti-British Al-Bassam oversaw a new Arabic translation of Shakespeare's [End Page 85] text and assembled a gifted pan-Arab cast. He worked with costume designer Abdulla Al Awadi to reproduce (and parody) a variety of regional fashions, dressing Queen Elizabeth (Carole Abboud) in Qatar-esque "sophisticated hijab" and punctuating Lady Anne (Nadine Joma'a) with a pink handbag in the shape of a poodle. He recruited Kuwaiti musicians to perform a powerful score that drew on a range of Gulf Arab musical styles, offset with eerie post-modern compositions by Lewis Gibson. And, as he had done in his earlier Shakespeare adaptation, The Al-Hamlet Summit (staged in English in 2002 and in Arabic since 2004), Al-Bassam sought out contemporary Arab and Muslim correlatives for Shakespeare's treatment of rhetoric, religion, family, and politics.
However, Al-Bassam's take on Richard III went a step deeper than allegory. Tickets were originally sold under the title "Baghdad Richard," but Al-Bassam wisely decided against producing an adaptation centered on Saddam Hussein. Instead Richard III: An Arab Tragedy used Shakespeare's play to orient Western viewers to some traits of Gulf Arab culture and politics. It also commented (pessimistically, I thought) on the chances that such an orientation could somehow make sense of the violence and suffering in the region. In fact, by showing how the very tokens of cultural exchange (traditional costumes, music, prayers, food rituals, rhetorical tropes, etc.) were cynically theatricalized and exploited by those in power, the production undercut its own ethnographic lessons even as it imparted them.
The Gulf Arab context occasioned some smart transpositions. Gloucester wooed Lady Anne from under a woman's abaya (loose black cloak) at an all-female mourning session. The York clan funded its own slick satellite TV station. The "citizen scene" became a TV call-in show in which Gloucester mouthed Islamic pieties and 99% of online poll respondents supported him. Catesby (his role swallowing Tyrell's and several others) recoiled in genuine religious horror after killing the Quran-reading young princes. And at the end, Richmond became a conquering American general begging God...