on the eruptive spring
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