Shakespeare in Jericho echoes year of Arab strife

JERICHO, West Bank Mon Apr 23, 2012 11:51am EDT

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JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - A Shakespearean drama depicting the downfall of a prideful medieval king carried a modern-day message for a Palestinian audience that has watched upheaval play out in the Middle East.

The Ashtar theatre company, based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, delivered "Richard II" in the open-air courtyard of a ruined 8th-century palace in Jericho, one of the world's most ancient cities.

The production this month bridged the distance between high political drama of the past and present.

Framed in classical Arabic but attired in the military fatigues and the republican regalia of the Arab dictators ripped from power last year by deadly revolutions, the production probes the psyche of rulers doomed by the Arab Spring.

"Are you contented to resign the crown?" the rebelling Lord Bolingbroke, leaning impatiently on the already usurped throne, asks the King.

"Yes, no. No, yes," Richard stutters, igniting a roar of laughter from the local audience too familiar with similar jibes aimed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh in their waning days.

"Was this the face that, like the sun, used to make those who looked upon it blink?" the king then blubbers into a mirror, echoing the ranting self-praise of Libya's Muammar Gadaffi before revolt, as it did with the title character, led to his murder last year.

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Organizers said the Palestinian company's production was not about the Arab Spring per se and worked in themes, though manifest in the current uprisings, not bound by time or borders.

"We were amazed how deeply the play delves into the psychology of people and this moment in history," said actress and producer Iman Aoun.

"It's as if people and politicians don't learn. They keep repeating their behavior and it makes us realize how much the play resembles the present," she said.

The fact that the original script and staging were left largely untouched made the performance's apparent commentary on current events more uncanny.

But a few changes rendered its modern references clear, as when a crowd of masked, flag-waving protesters storms the palace and shouts, "the people want Bolingbroke!" a variant of the slogan "the people want the fall of the regime" chanted in public squares from Tunis to Manama.

Later, when the hapless queen overhears two gardeners discussing her husband's imminent overthrow, added lines emphasize her devotion and obliviousness, calling to mind Syrian first lady Basma al-Assad.

"Why am I always the last to know!" she cries, lamenting, "All anyone ever talks about is politics these days" to the audible glee of a likewise news-weary audience.

The troupe is set to perform next month in London's Globe Theatre, Shakespeare's original venue, and actors express little doubt that its message will have the same resonance in its home country, even if long-removed from the kind of strife visiting the Middle East.

"All theatre carries in it a strong political message," noted Sami Metwasi, a Palestinian living in Jordan who plays the deposed king.

"Political history is common among peoples. Just as this play resembles many events in the West, it obviously resembles many of the events occurring now in our region, and is a mirror of our situation," he said.

(Additional reporting By Ali Sawafta, editing by Paul Casciato)

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