June 14th, 2009

La Loge

Arabic Richard III

Friday night, we went to BAM to see Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, and I'm still trying to figure out how to write about it.

Oh, I loved it--no question of that. It was audacious, it was beautifully staged and acted. It made me think about Shakespeare's play and the role of women in unthinkingly patriarchal cultures and language and ambition and hatred in new ways. It gave me a way to connect emotionally and intellectually to the current mess in the Middle East more nuanced than the horror and pity the news generally inspires.

We discussed it at length afterwards, at a post-theatrical nosh at the Viennese restaurant across the street with friends who just happened to be attending the same performance. Ellen pointed out that setting the action in a country that culturally disenfranchises women allows a Western audience to understand the genuine powelessness of the Queens Margaret and Elizabeth and Anne. Also, the whole revenge motif set in train by Margaret's curses seems a lot less quaint when it's not a medieval queen who's uttering them, but a murdered emir's widow. Friend One remarked on how broadly some of the scenes were played for laughs--especially those having to do with the church (the American Embassy, in this redaction) and Richard's refusing the crown three times--which took place on a televised talk show. Friend Two (who speaks Arabic) remarked on how the Arabic went back and forth between the practical and the poetical.

And what did I think? For the first time in my language-centric life, I thought that Shakespeare's actual words didn't matter. I thought that the complete translation of the text into not only a different language, but a different culture and system of metaphor, was entirely the right thing to have done. I thought Margaret was terrifying beyond belief in her grief and rage and Richard equally terrifying in his cynical monomania. For the first time ever, I saw why Anne yielded to Richard, and might even fancy that she loved him. And I found Catesby even more tragic than Richard, who never learns a damn thing from first scene to last, and dies just as stubborn, blind, and self-centered as he lived.

I have no idea if this production is going to travel anywhere else in the US. But if you ever hear it's coming near you, go see it. Mileage in these things always varies, of course, but whether you love it or loathe it, it'll give you something to think and talk about for quite a while afterwards. Which is what good theatre is about, isn't it?