It’s easy to forget that there are parts of the world in which the nation-endangering squabbles of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” feel extremely contemporary. Kuwaiti helmer Sulayman Al-Bassam reminds us of that sad fact by transporting the piece to the modern Middle East. His “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy” exchanges the Bard’s scheming dukes and earls for faux-pious emirs and meddling diplomats. Some of the production’s cultural equivalences are ingenious, but Al-Bassam’s pared-down adaptation has too many ideas working at cross purposes to be fully effective on any one front.
The show is performed in Arabic and cut to two intermissionless hours; its most noteworthy accomplishment is a slightly baffling ability to get only the most difficult parts of the text right. When, for example, Richard (Fayez Kazak) seduces Lady Anne (Nadine Joma’a) over the still-warm corpse of her husband (whom Richard murdered) in front of several mourners, most directors have trouble articulating the situation seriously.
Al-Bassam doesn’t even try for gravitas: He has Richard’s crony Catesby (Monadhil Daood) brandish a stick near any potential interlopers as Richard comically half-begs, half-forces Anne to marry him. When he’s finished, the disgusted mourners throw coins at her as they leave (the Arab equivalent of calling somebody a whore).
This production’s best moment may be when Richard sells himself to the public simply by acting pious. It’s a hard scene to play to Americans — the original text has Richard using the Bible to ward off suspicion — but it works wonderfully here: fresh from yet another invigorating murder, Richard presents himself to a toadying TV news anchor as a deeply devout Muslim cleric who hopes never to be saddled with the distracting responsibilities of absolute power.
Furnished with a recognizable version of this scene, it’s a little unsettling to finally understand what Shakespeare meant by it: People are stupid. And with the droll Kazak playing the lead role as high comedy, it’s hard not to occasionally share the Duke of Gloucester’s contempt for the craven morons surrounding him, just as it’s fun to turn on him when he meets his end at the play’s finale.
It’s too bad the rest of the piece doesn’t live up to these two scenes, or to Kazak’s perf. Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this “Richard” looks expensive, sporting some amazing effects that involve panels of variable-opacity glass and whole skyfuls of fog. It would have been nice if somebody had dropped a couple of bucks on the English supertitles, which muddy the waters with confusing syntax and occasionally vanish completely — a real handicap in a plot-heavy play that has been cut down so that nearly all we see is exposition.
Such a radical edit may not have been the wisest decision. The two scenes mentioned above work well largely because they give the drama a chance to breathe. Rather than simply hearing who a character is and where his allegiances lie, we get to spend a little time listening to these people speak for themselves — a rarity in this staging.
Of course, no contempo production set in the Middle East would be complete without some shots at the war on terror, and Al-Bassam has certainly dropped in a few of those. Somewhat surprisingly, they don’t overwhelm the piece — the abridged text overwhelms itself, collapsing under the weight of its enormous narrative. It may sound strange, but the best thing the adaptor-director could do for himself and his actors would be to make this “Richard” longer.