Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ gets a unique Yemeni twist - GulfToday

Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ gets a unique Yemeni twist


Actors perform in a production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the Yemeni government-controlled southern city of Aden. AFP

“To be, or not to be:” on a stage in Yemen, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” rings out in Arabic, a tragedy that resonates with an audience suffering from years of civil war.

In the government-controlled city of Aden, the first performance of a Shakespeare play in many years has resurrected hopes of a cultural revival. “We are hungry for these kinds of events,” said Heba Al Bakri, watching one of a sold-out run of 10 shows. “Our people are always distressed and exhausted, so we need this kind of entertainment.”

Shakespeare-Yemen-3 Actors perform in a production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet in Aden. AFP

As the actors took their bows, applause roared out and the audience rose for a standing ovation. The savage bloodshed, murder, revenge, power struggles and moral dilemmas told in the famous tragedy by the English playwright were written over 400 years ago – but on stage in Yemen today, the play holds power.

‘Dream realised:’ Director Amr Gamal, founder of the Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe, feared there might have been only “limited interest,” but is now planning a second round of shows after its success. The three-hour performance has gripped the audience.

“They do not leave the room before the play ends,” said Gamal, who also directed the feature film “Ten Days Before the Wedding,” a love story which Yemen named as their official submission to the 2018 Oscars.

Yemen, renowned for its rich cultural heritage, has a long history of performing Shakespeare in Arabic dating back over a century. In this version, “Hamlet” was translated first into classical Arabic and then into Aden’s dialect to provide it with a unique Yemeni twist. Including characters wearing traditional Yemeni dress, it has turned a centuries-old tale into a platform to reflect on the troubled times in the country today.

“It is an old dream realised after years of work”, said assistant director Marwan Mafraq, noting the “lack of resources” in Yemen had led to a “very tight space” for artistic production. Backed by the British Council, a cultural and educational organisation, the play is being performed in a former government building dating to when the southern port city was a British colony. For the past two years, the cast in Aden received support via video-link from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the Volcano Theatre in Wales.

Shakespeare-YEmen-2 Actors perform in a production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet in Aden. AFP

The British Council said the “Hamlet” production showed its commitment to “building the capacity of young Yemenis to creatively express themselves”. ‘Sow love and peace’: But putting on the play posed not only logistical challenges. Nour Zaker, who plays the tragic character of Ophelia, said she had to both learn a challenging role on stage and overcome social taboos against female actors in the conservative country. “I faced many difficulties as a woman in Aden,” she said.

“My family did not object, but it was difficult because... society does not easily accept these things.” But her audience -- which included women wearing the face-covering niqab veil, common in Yemen — were receptive. For those watching and those on stage, the hope is “Hamlet” may help start a wider revival.

“As artists, we always have the hope that there will be great cultural productions, theatrical or cinematographic, which highlight Yemeni culture,” said actor Omar Majalad, who plays Hamlet’s friend Guildenstern.

“We hope that there will be more attention given to art and music,” said university student Fadi Abdulmalik, after watching a performance. “This will sow love and peace in Yemen.”

According to a recent report in the Independent, William Shakespeare’s only portrait created during his lifetime has gone on sale for more than £10m.

Shakespeare-YEmen-4 Actors perform in a production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet in Aden. AFP

The image, which is said to be the only signed and dated image of the English playwright, is being displayed at the Grosvenor House hotel in west London. The anonymous owner of the portrait is offering the piece for sale by private treaty without an auction.

The image was reportedly made by Robert Peake, court painter to King James I, and is signed and dated 1608. Prior to 1975, the picture hung in the library of a stately home in the north of England, once home to the Danby family.

Since then it has been in private ownership. Those behind its sale claim the connections between Shakespeare and Peake are “extensive”. They say Peake was regularly commissioned to paint the portraits of high-ranking members of the Court and Jacobean society. They also noted he was commissioned by the Office of the Revels, which oversaw the presentation of plays, and worked in the premises in Clerkenwell, London, where some of Shakespeare’s plays were rehearsed.

Agence France-Presse

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