February 13, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

The ‘value’ of a production

Some things that provoked thought today about ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’.

The audience was tiny, the smallest I’ve ever seen for a full-scale production in the Swan. If we were a third full, I’d be surprised.

This could be for several reasons. I’d imagine many people were put off by the foreign language and surtitles. It’s possible that people don’t want to see an English history in a foreign setting. It also might not have helped that the RSC are currently playing ‘Richard III’ over in the Courtyard. If you’re only going to see one ‘Richard’ this year, you’ll probably want to see the English language version.

There is also a worry about the perceived ‘value’ of the production. Why would an audience WANT to see an Arabian take on ‘Richard III’? What is the interest in seeing it? Snobbishness still exists in the theatre, particularly in relation to Shakespeare. Many people feel that translation or relocation of texts amounts to nothing less to sacrilege, and that alone can be enough to put people off seeing a production.

For many of us, of course, that isn’t a problem. It’s notable that neither the Berliner Ensemble nor Pippo del Bono made any attempt to justify their reinterpretations of the history plays (though neither had fantastic audiences either). These two productions just announced that that’s what they were going to do, and did it.

The programme for ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ tells a different story, though. Far more so than I’ve ever seen for a visiting company, the programme goes to great pains to explain and justify the decisions they’ve made. It talks about the choice of language, the choice of setting, the methods of location, the use of the Qu’ran- anything that may cause comment, in other words. These are written in short bursts that seem designed to quickly answer the scepticism of their perceived audience. There is even (!) a printed letter from the Prince of Wales congratulating the company and extolling the virtues of such a treatment of ‘Richard III’.

All very useful and informative, but it also implies to me a company insecure in their purpose. They anticipate the complaints that people will make, and seek to redress them before they’ve even been made. They appear to be trying to justify themselves, justify the relevance of their work, justify their approach to Shakespeare. And they protest too much.

There is an argument that says a confident production shouldn’t have to defend itself from Shakespearean purists. That the point of the Complete Works is to showcase a wide variety of interpretations of Shakespeare, and that audiences can be expected to put aside their preconceptions and enjoy something new. Yet the Al-Bassam company and the RSC don’t seem to have the faith they should in this production. Relocating Shakespeare is nothing new, rewriting Shakespeare is nothing new, yet they still come across as nervous- and the lengthy sections of direct translation in the actual play sit awkwardly as a result, concessions to an audience who want to hear something of the original poetry. The play seems to want to be accepted as a noble and ‘proper’ attempt at Shakespeare- which it is. But in asking to be treated as such, it implies that it is something less. A little less explanation and justification, a little less Royal Approval, and a bit more assertiveness and – dare I say it – recklessness, would have been far more suited to this production.

After all, what’s the point in making explosive statements about contemporary politics and culture in the play if, in the programme, you then feel the need to justify your departures from the ‘norm’?

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