Su­lay­man al-Bas­sam

on the erup­tive spring

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

SU­LAY­MAN al-Bas­sam, the Kuwait­based play­wright, is in the mid­dle of a passionate dis­sec­tion of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion when our phone con­ver­sa­tion is in­ter­rupted by three sharp elec­tronic bleeps.

‘‘ What’s that?’’ he de­mands sharply. He has been talk­ing about ev­ery­thing from Mitt Rom­ney’s in­her­ent un­suit­abil­ity for the top job (‘‘He would have been dis­as­trous for the Mid­dle East’’) to the cul­tural re­nais­sance sparked by the Arab Spring to the melodic beauty of the Ara­bic lan­guage, when those elec­tronic bleeps put a sud­den halt to pro­ceed­ings.

‘‘ Is that coming from your end?’’ he asks af­ter a tense pause. Told no, he emits a small, sin­gu­larly hu­mour­less chuckle. ‘‘ Some­one must be spy­ing us,’’ he says. ‘‘ We’d bet­ter be care­ful.’’

It’s hard to know what to make of this dead­pan caveat. Al-Bas­sam, 40, co-founder of Kuwait-based the­atre com­pany Sabab The­atre and an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected po­lit­i­cal the­atre maker best known for his Arab Shake­speare tril­ogy, is a hard man to gauge. He swings, in the course of our con­ver­sa­tion, from a frus­trat­ing oblique­ness (par­tic­u­larly on the is­sue of Is­lam’s re­cent ugly cul­ture wars) to sud­den, un­ex­pected can­dour. The lat­ter is man­i­fest when he tells me bluntly that the two big road blocks (or ‘‘ an­chors of sta­sis’’, as he puts it) to any mean­ing­ful change in the Mid­dle East flow­ing from the Arab Spring are the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran, and ‘‘ their coun­ter­parts on the other side of the Gulf, the Sunni strong­hold of Saudi Arabia’’. Th­ese two pow­ers, he be­lieves, are the in­sti­ga­tors of many of the sec­tar­ian ten­sions that ‘‘ bring re­li­gion to the fore in nearly ev­ery­thing’’.

If he did be­lieve our con­ver­sa­tion was be­ing tapped, it would be easy to un­der­stand why. Al-Bas­sam’s pol­i­tics and art-mak­ing have earned him plenty of grief dur­ing his play­writ­ing ca­reer. He says he has had recorded ma­te­rial and equip­ment for shows con­fis­cated by of­fi­cials, has been la­belled a traitor, pub­licly ac­cused of hav­ing his work funded by the CIA and had his writ­ing ruth­lessly scru­ti­nised by the ‘‘ one-eyed Cy­clops’’, his an­gry de­scrip­tor for state cen­sors.

On one oc­ca­sion, he says, his com­pany was stopped at Da­m­as­cus air­port and in­ter­ro­gated in a dingy room about var­i­ous stage props — in­clud­ing two fake guns and some bloody dol­lar bills — des­tined for their Ham­let- based tour­ing show (luck­ily, it ended hap­pily with the Syr­ian guards join­ing in an an­i­mated all­night chat about the prince of Den­mark and his pe­cu­liar­i­ties). They’ve had to per­form a work in an empty 800-seat the­atre for the ben­e­fit of a sin­gle, stern-faced mul­lah keenly alert to any pos­si­ble mo­ral breaches.

Al-Bas­sam has been ac­cused of ev­ery­thing from be­ing in a trea­sonous part­ner­ship with for­eign­ers to ‘‘ com­mit­ting homi­cide on the body of art’’. Ex­actly which part of the cul­tural anatomy his at­tack­ers are talk­ing about, he’s not ex­actly sure, he says dryly.

A habit of cau­tion in word and ac­tion is deeply in­grained as a re­sult. On an in­ter­na­tional tour last year, he im­posed what he calls

‘‘ Bol­shoi Bal­let rules’’ on his troupe (when the former Soviet bal­let com­pany trav­elled the world, mem­bers were banned from talk­ing to jour­nal­ists about the coun­try’s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics), gag­ging his ac­tors from talk­ing to the press, and prevent­ing Arab tele­vi­sion net­works al-Jazeera and al-Ara­biya from record­ing their per­for­mances ‘‘ be­cause of the ex­plo­sive con-- tent of the work and be­cause it would be too easy to take it out of con­text. We didn’t want to open the door to those sort of ques­tions be­cause, in the end, ev­ery­body has to go home and live. In the con­text of the Arab Spring, and the var­i­ous rev­o­lu­tions and counter-rev­o­lu­tions, it could have been sig­nif­i­cantly dan­ger­ous for the ac­tors.’’

An ur­bane, ar­tic­u­late fig­ure with a crisp English ac­cent lightly shot through with an ele­gant Ara­bic lilt, al-Bas­sam has al­ways strad­dled — some­times un­com­fort­ably — two very dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

Born in Kuwait in 1972, the son of a Kuwaiti fa­ther and an English mother, he was sent to board­ing school in Eng­land at 12. At the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, where he stud­ied lit­er­a­ture, he devel­oped a pas­sion for stu­dent the­atre. He founded his own com­pany, Zaoum The­atre, in Lon­don in 1996. It was only the events of Septem­ber 11 and the sec­ond Gulf War that prompted his politi­cis­ing as a the­atre maker, he says. He moved home to Kuwait in 2002, and there he started up Sabab The­atre, the Ara­bic arm of his Lon­don com­pany, with his Bri­tish part­ner, Ge­orgina Van Welie.

Per­formed in Ara­bic as well as English, the com­pany’s work fo­cuses, es­sen­tially, on power and its abuse, re­li­gion and its ex­cesses, and free­dom and its ab­sence, all within a Mid­dle East­ern con­text. Its lat­est work, In the Erup­tive

Mode, which opens next month at the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val, features the voices and sto­ries of peo­ple caught up in the events of the Arab Spring. Sabab’s best known body of work is its lauded Arab Shake­speare tril­ogy, which kicked off in 2002 with The Al-Ham­let Sum­mit, which ref­er­enced ev­ery­thing from arms deal­ing and petro-dol­lars to re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism. (Ham­let de­volves into a cold-eyed bin Laden­like fa­natic at the end.) The com­pany’s 2006 work, Richard III: An

Arab Tragedy, was com­mis­sioned by the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany for the Com­plete Works Fes­ti­val in Bri­tain and fea­tured a mon­strous, wolfish despot in a neck brace, which many saw as a model for Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Last year’s The Speaker’s Progress, loosely based on Twelfth Night, was set in an un­named to­tal­i­tar­ian state where all the­atre is banned.

So what’s this ob­ses­sion with the Bard? For gen­er­a­tions of Arab writ­ers, Shake­speare has been a vi­tal way to ex­plore po­lit­i­cally ex­plo­sive is­sues and get around the coils of cen­sor­ship, says al-Bas­sam, who has de­scribed the Bard as

‘‘ not merely a mask but a bul­let-proof face . . . The texts are dicey, metaphor­i­cal, slip­pery; they say and they don’t say, they of­fend with­out of­fend­ing, they are the per­fect sim­u­lacra, the ul­ti­mate mask.’’

Arab au­di­ences, who see strong par­al­lels be­tween the world of 16th-cen­tury Eng­land — re­plete with cor­rupt oli­garchs, feu­dal war­fare, and ten­sions over gen­der and sex­u­al­ity — and their own con­tem­po­rary so­ci­eties, in­tu­itively re­spond to the sym­bolic ref­er­ences em­bed­ded in the writ­ing, he says.

Shake­speare hasn’t pro­tected him com­pletely from hos­til­ity across the Mid­dle East, how­ever, even in rel­a­tively lib­eral (or, at least, less cul­tur­ally hard­line) Kuwait, where the role of the arts is en­shrined in the con­sti­tu­tion.

Much of the anger stems from a cul­tural aver­sion to hang­ing out your dirty laun­dry in pub­lic, he says. Cen­sor­ship doesn’t al­ways take an overt form. He points to the fact The AlHam­let Sum­mit has only been al­lowed to be per­formed in Ara­bic in non-Ara­bic-speak­ing Tehran. This way, any po­ten­tial threat is neutered by the lan­guage bar­rier.

Then there’s slip­pery is­sue of self-cen­sor­ship. He and other Arab art-mak­ers, well aware of what will in­cur the wrath of of­fi­cials, cre­ate work that care­fully avoids di­rect men­tion of taboo sub­jects while still con­vey­ing ‘‘ deeper mean­ings’’ and po­ten­tially sub­ver­sive ideas. Al-Bas­sam takes a prag­matic ap­proach to this po­ten­tial source of frus­tra­tion; all this shadow box­ing and ob­fus­ca­tion ac­tu­ally pro­motes a

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