In true Shakespeare style, Richard II mixes all the ingredients of a timeless drama: intrigue, murder and betrayal. This weekend, Ashtar Theatre of Ramallah adds some international flair to the tale of England's 14th-century king in a staging of the play in Arabic - with English explanation - at Madinat Jumeirah as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival presented by the Dubai-based Art for All.
Last summer, The Globe - the London replica of Shakespeare's original theatre, devoted to the production and study of his work - produced 37 performances in 37 different languages as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Globe to Globe brought Ashtar Theatre on board to produce an Arabic translation of Richard II for a multinational audience. Following a run in London, Oxford and Palestine, the play will be presented for the first time in Dubai tomorrow and Friday. Ashtar has also been invited to the Morocco and Algeria theatre festivals.
Iman Ayoun, the artistic director of Ashtar Theatre, says the company is known for exploring socio-political issues - which is how it came to tackle Richard II. "The story is relevant because we share and learn from history," says Ayoun, who also stars in the production with 12 others. "Shakespeare was an amazing writer and the play, one of the strongest historically, talks of how ultimate power can corrupt individuals and nations."
Creative social change
Established in 1991, Ashtar was first formed in Jerusalem as a theatre school for young students before it grew to have branches in the West Bank and Gaza. The group established its base in Ramallah in 1995 as a training centre, with an international repertoire including original content. In 1997, it formed Theatre of the Oppressed in honour of the late Brazilian director Augusto Boal.
"It's encouraging for people to be artistically and culturally involved in fighting for human rights," says Ayoun. "Palestine is occupied so there are many issues to discuss. Theatre breaks boundaries and creates harmony between people."
The group also travels into rural areas to perform, train and offer open discussions. As a non-profit, members rely on support from organisations including the European Commission and other international donor agencies.
In every society, she adds, art is a "guardian of dreams", providing stimulus for change.
"In Palestine, it is a way to protect our identity and to stand up to oppression in a peaceful and creative way," says Ayoun.
Inside the kingdom
Under the Irish director and playwright Conall Morrison, who has produced work for the English National Opera and The Royal Shakespeare Company, Richard II begins with the king banishing his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, following a dispute. When Richard's uncle, Bolingbroke's father, dies, Richard sells his inherited land to fund a war against Ireland. The unpopular decision earned Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV) support upon his return to overthrow Richard and seize the crown.
"The psychology of the piece is remarkable," says Morrison. "Shakespeare was a genius. These plays are precise exams of the human mind and emotions. Richard II is a 400-year-old play about a king who ruled more than 600 years ago, but the issues still exist and we haven't fundamentally changed."
The power of speech
The translation process proved complex, as Morrison does not speak Arabic. "The language is at an invigorated level," he says. "I knew the play well and we all sat together translating back and forth between English and Arabic. It was fascinating because the result was this wonderfully forensic way of knowing the play and the actors took complete ownership."
Although the production is in Arabic, English-speakers will be provided with a scene-by-scene synopsis. Richard II is dressed in modern attire, while the production is augmented by images projected onto the stage, demonstrating the different strata of society, as well as how authority can effect people differently.
"It is about kingship, family, personal jealousy, eternal movement of power and how two people who grew up together can be separated by ambition," says Morrison.
Richard II will be performed tomorrow and Friday at 8pm, Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Tickets cost Dh150-300. Visit www.artforall.ae