Claudius and Polonius drag up as two women in burqas to spy on the hero and Ophelia in The Al-Hamlet Summit, a bold transposition of Shakespeare's tragedy to today's Middle East.
Claudius and Polonius drag up as two women in burqas to spy on the hero and Ophelia in The Al-Hamlet Summit, a bold transposition of Shakespeare's tragedy to today's Middle East. This powerful piece, written and directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam, is set in some unidentified, composite Arab state. Hamlet is the grief-stricken son of the deceased king, who has been replaced by his Westernised autocrat brother Claudius.
The moral conundrum posed by the ghost in Shakespeare (is he to be believed, and what is his provenance?) finds its ingenious equivalent in the People's Liberation Front, which claims that the old king was murdered by his successor. Instead of a visitor from beyond the grave, this Hamlet (the handsome, intense Mohammed Kefah Al-Kous) is waylaid by a suited Western arms-dealer, who, in the fashion of such folk, is quite promiscuous about whom he's prepared to deal with.
Using Shakespeare's characters and dramatic template but with a new script, The Al-Hamlet Summit was performed in English at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, winning a Fringe First. It comes to London in an Arabic version, with English surtitles. Of course, we can't help but view it now in the context of Iraq.
The play deposits us in a country besieged. The armies of Fortinbras are massed on the frontier. There's a militant Islamic opposition, and the country is in thrall to American finance. Just as Claudius is disarmingly honest with himself in the scene in which he struggles to pray and fails, so there is a shocking candour here when his counterpart (Nicolas Daniel) strips off, kneels and addresses his own idea of god - a suitcase of petro-dollars - with an obscene mock-prayer.
The piece is staged with hypnotic force. The characters sit at labeled desks in a conference room that transmutes into a war cabinet. Facial close-ups are projected on to a screen. Laertes becomes the representative of an approach to the crisis very different to that taken by Hamlet who, during his stay in England, becomes an Islamic fundamentalist and returns proclaiming that the epoch of the pen has passed and the era of the sword is at hand.
The time scales of the play jar at this point. It is scarcely believable that Fortinbras and his tanks would hang around at the border waiting for Hamlet to come back a convert. But the psychology feels right. The beautiful Ophelia (Maryam Ali) becomes a suicide bomber, filmed chillingly just before she embarks on her mission.
Not everything works. With no ghost, the hero's unhinged behaviour is less viscerally motivated and it's harder to see why Hamlet does not get on with the job of killing his uncle. There's no room for the play within the play. But this is an intelligent adaptation, reminiscent of those East European versions during the Cold War.
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