Kuwaiti director stages an Arabic Richard III

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It’s Shakespeare, but with a twist. The dialogue is in Arabic, women wear veils and a despot is persuaded to seize power on a TV chat show as world leaders call in encouraging words.

Kuwait-based director Sulayman Al-Bassam’s “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” which is part of the Muslim Voices Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, translates the 16th century play into a modern, Arab context.

“The project is not necessarily to make just a version of Richard III,” Bassam said in an interview. “The project is to address a whole series of very relevant questions in which Shakespeare and Richard III are very useful traveling partners.

Although his version is faithful to the original text, Bassam admitted there were times when he was led to rewrite or to write new things and he took some liberties in the translation.

The play, commissioned by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and first staged in 2007, will travel to Australia after its week-long New York run ends on Saturday. English subtitles accompany the Arab dialogue.

Bassam, 37, plays two minor roles -- a young prince who is executed in Richard’s bloody rise to power, and a servant boy who becomes a henchman.

“That keeps me on my toes,” he said.

The play is part of his larger project of using Shakespeare’s works to hold a mirror up to contemporary civilization and to challenge perceptions about the Arab world.

In an earlier work, Bassam set Hamlet in a conference room in an unnamed Gulf state. In his version, Hamlet -- a young, foreign-educated prince -- evolves from a state of disillusionment to adopting “a radical Islamic agenda.”

Bassam, who claims his work does not aim to advance any political position, said audiences often see the play through the prism of their own knowledge base and sometimes reach for a literal reading of the play.

“That’s the funniest bit, how many Richard IIIs are created in people’s minds as we do this in different parts of the world,” he said.

Bassam’s said his next project will be to adopt Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, which he said will pay tribute to the Islamic cultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s Egypt.

He is excited about staging the play in New York and enjoys introducing Western audiences to the Arabic language.

“A lot of audiences that we play to have never heard more than twenty or thirty seconds of the language,” he said. “So, just the fact of listening to the language for an hour and 52 minutes and engaging it has a not insignificant value.”

Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Patricia Reaney