Sunday 6 May 2012

Richard II - Palestinian Shakespeare comes to the Globe

Ashtar Theatre receive a rapturous applause 

On Saturday night Ashtar Theatre, a Palestinian theatre group formed in Jerusalem in 1991 but now based in Ramallah, performed Shakespeare's Richard II at Shakespeare's Globe as part of the 'Globe to Globe' festival, with all 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages.

Ashtar Theatre was established by two Palestinian actors - Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun - and is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting commitment to change, training, performing and bringing shows to marginalised audiences, who may not be able to come to their theatre in Ramallah. Ashtar are perhaps best known for their production The Gaza Monologues, which told the real stories of children from Gaza following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Against a backdrop of political discourse surrounding the Globe's decision to allow the Israeli theatre company Habima to participate in the festival, despite its record of involvement with illegally-built Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, the significance of a Palestinian theatre company being invited to perform was sadly somewhat overlooked.

Nevertheless, Ashtar's performance was highly commendable. Although performed in Arabic, two digital screens mounted each side of the stage summarised briefly in English the events in each scene. The acting was highly polished, with characters using the entire theatre space, not just the stage, to run amongst the audience, interacting with individuals and delivering lines from the steps leading down into the standing area of the 'globe'. The competency of the cast was tested when a helicopter flew over the top of the globe, drowning out the voices onstage, but this was deftly included into the scene, much to the laughter and applause of the audience!

For non-arabic speakers, the delivery of lines, facial expressions and music effectively created the mood in each scene and enabled the audience to grasp easily what action was taking place. Heavy emotion was contrasted well with light-hearted touches of humour, particularly emanating from the laughable, vain King when he interacted with the audience of 'peasants' watching from the 'cattle area'.

One particularly moving scene between Richard II (played by Sami Metwasi) and his Queen (Bayan Shbib) effectively portrayed their anguish, despair and love for one another in a way which did not require an understanding of the words spoken to feel the emotions of the fateful pair. The King's demise at the end of the play was handled in a way which almost made you pity the narcissistic, petty Richard.

My beautiful souvenir from the play!
There was a palpable sense of pride throughout the audience during the bow at the end of the play. Palestinian flags were waved, roses were thrown and the cast returned to bow several times due to such high demand! I ended up with a beautiful white rose when it was thrown back into the audience (along with many other flowers from the gracious cast).


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