The Enchanting, the Surprising, the Shocking: ‘Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula’

Today, on the day after the day acknowledged as the Bard’s 455th birthday, we have a discussion with American University of Kuwait-based theatre scholar Katherine Hennessey, whose Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula M Lynx Qualey and Ursula Lindsey discussed on Episode 30 of the Bulaq podcast:

The deeply researched, enjoyable book surveys the history of Shakespeare productions on the Arabian Peninsula through performance reviews, interviews, and analysis of productions both amateur and professional, local and foreign, and those that blur distinctions.

Why this book, why now (vs. all the other books you might have been writing, which other Katherine Hennesseys in parallel universes wrote)? Was there a particular text, performance, or discussion that made you think, Yes, yes, Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula?

Courtroom scene from the 2013 Yemeni adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Foreground: the judge, perplexed, in white; Fitna [Portia] in disguise in blue and yellow. Photo by Wagdi Al-Maqtari, courtesy of YALI/Akram Mubarak.
Courtroom scene from the 2013 Yemeni adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice.” Foreground: the judge, perplexed, in white; Fitna [Portia] in disguise in blue and yellow. Photo by Wagdi Al-Maqtari, courtesy of YALI/Akram Mubarak.
Katherine Hennessey: A great question. It makes me wish I could compare notes with all those other Katherine Hennesseys, find out what they’re up to.

In a sense, the book’s origin dates back to 2013, when I wrote an article for the other ArabLit—the Italian academic journal of Arab literature and culture—about the history of Shakespearean performance in Yemen. The central performance that I examined in that piece was an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice performed as a Yemeni folktale set in the Hadramawt, an adaptation that made really intriguing choices in terms of its portrayal of gender roles as well as religion.

And I actually watched that production evolve; I was living in Sana’a at the time, and thus was able to attend rehearsals as well as the performance.

The process of analyzing that evolution, of contextualizing how the performance spoke to so many of the socio-political concerns that Yemeni audience members had in 2013, and of situating it on the historical trajectory of Yemenis actors’ and directors’ engagement with Shakespeare since 1910, provided the blueprint for my approach to the materials I investigate in this book as a whole.

And in fact, my book opens with a description of that Merchant of Venice performance, as the first of a triptych of snapshots of contemporary Shakespearean performances on the AP. 

I thought it was tremendously helpful, in terms of the connections made, that you didn’t wall off amateur from professional stagings, nor “local” from “foreign,” in looking at what it has means to stage Shakespeare in the 20th & 21st c Gulf. At first, I was reluctant to care about productions staged in closed-off spaces, such as embassies. But this also paints a fuller picture of life in the country, and how theatre can be atomized (as well as community-building). When did you decide you wanted to be broad-tent in this book? 

American University of Sharjah performance of Macbeth in Arabia: Banquet scene at Macbeth’s castle, with the three witches under the table. Photo by Zuzana Tassa, courtesy of director Anthony Tassa.
American University of Sharjah performance of “Macbeth in Arabia”: Banquet scene at Macbeth’s castle, with the three witches under the table. Photo by Zuzana Tassa, courtesy of director Anthony Tassa.

KH: That was a decision I made very early on, for a number of reasons. There’s the inspiring work that’s been done by Shakespeare scholars like Michael Dobson, Andrew James Hartley, and Douglas Lanier on, respectively, Shakespeare in amateur/community theatre, on university stages, and in popular culture.

Then there’s the fact that, when you look at theatre troupes in a place like Dubai, for example, you often find remarkably diverse groups—citizens and non-citizens, “locals” and newly-arrived expats, people who have serious theatrical training and experience and people who don’t, and of course a range of differences in ethnic and linguistic background, gender, religion, and social status.

There’s also the fact that in the Gulf, a significant number of—though by no means all—Shakespearean productions are actually imported; they come through on tour, after achieving success elsewhere, most often in the UK.

Plus I’m keenly interested in theatre in Yemen, where professional actors often train through apprenticeship rather than through more formal channels, where even the most professional of productions will be executed with an absolute minimum of financial resources, and where performances are given for free, hence generating no revenue from ticket sales.

Given all of those points, it simply didn’t make sense to me to try to screen out productions on grounds that they weren’t “professional enough,” or that they weren’t sufficiently (for example) Emirati, or that they occurred on, say, a university stage rather than a more public one.

What I wanted to do, above all, was document the range and the diversity of ways that people living on the Arabian Peninsula have engaged with and continue to engage with Shakespeare. So I didn’t draw any of the above lines.

Instead, I looked at everything I could find that had a Shakespearean connection—theatrical productions, films, public lectures, university courses—and asked, “Could analyzing this in more detail illustrate something useful, unique, or unexpected about the context in which it occurred?” If the answer was yes, then I included it.

Who, beyond global Shakespearists, would you most like to read this book? 

KH: In no particular order:

–people who would like to know more about the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly those who might be reluctant, for whatever reason, to pick up an academic history of the region;

–people for whom the phrase “the Arabian Peninsula” primarily conjures up images of sand and skyscrapers, or oil and war, or terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism;

–scholars who work on the Gulf but are not familiar with Yemen, and vice versa;

–my students, as well as students, teachers, scholars and theatre-makers across the AP—the ones I’ve interviewed or whose work I’ve reviewed, as well as the ones I don’t yet know.

I did not write this text with the aim of speaking only or primarily to a super-specialized audience of Shakespeare scholars, or of academics already familiar with the region; I would be delighted to see it reach as wide an audience as possible. And that’s not just because I wrote it—it’s because the performances I write about are so vibrant, so thought-provoking, and created by people of such passion and talent and determination, in a context where the obstacles to making theatre are formidable.

I think that’s an important message to communicate. And I’ve tried to do so in a way that is both intelligent and intelligible—so neither dumbing down/eliding the cultural complexities nor over-encumbering the analysis with specialist jargon or recondite theory.

You talk about the rise in Shakespeare production on the Arabian Peninsula, and the ways in which Shakespeare does (and doesn’t) give an extra layer of protective respectability that helps theatre-makers avoid both social and structural censoriousness. Is there a point at which this doesn’t work any more? That conservatives become extra wary of Shakespeare?

KH: One of my favorite quotations in the book comes from a theatre director in the Emirates, who told me point-blank, “We perform Shakespeare because the censors don’t understand Elizabethan English.” I suppose there could come a time when the very idea of performing Shakespeare causes show-stopping alarm among conservative sectors of Gulf societies, but we’re not there yet. Let’s just say I think we’re more likely to see Emirati censors learning Elizabethan English than a blanket Shakespeare ban.

I have trouble either understanding or accepting Alexa Alice Joubin’s “postnational” space for theatre, which you reference in your introduction, particularly when productions in the US and UK are dogged by visa issues, and where who’s in & who’s out, who has full rights to participate & who doesn’t, is often determined by nationality in the Gulf as elsewhere. Theatre seems to be troubled by the same surge in nationalisms that brick up the rest of human projects.

KH: I can understand why you’d say that, but what I’ve seen over and over again in examining theatre across this region is people’s desire to push back against the endemic systems that define and rank them by nationality, gender, ethnicity, sectarian affiliation, and social status, and to find more egalitarian modes of interacting with those who are different from them. So they form, for example, a theatre troupe, whose members all collaborate with each other on an equal footing towards the common goal of creating an entertaining show—which then, in turn, models for the audiences who come to see it the benefits of working within a diverse and egalitarian community. In the book I call this phenomenon “new local” theatre. 

How do you keep track of what’s going with Arabian Shakespeare production?? I’m sure many of the big UAE productions are easily google-able, but less so, I imagine, for a production like “Hamlet, Get Out of My Head”? Do you think there might be exciting Shakespeare productions going on in the KSA that you don’t know about?

KH: I have a great network of contacts in the theatre world across the AP, I’m on the mailing list of every Gulf theatre or troupe that has one, and I regularly check, in both English and Arabic, for Shakespeare-related postings to YouTube and other internet sites—but it’s very possible that despite all that, right now, someone somewhere on the AP is putting on a Shakespeare performance that I’m not aware of. In fact, I hope that’s the case.

If it is, and if that someone happens to read this, then I have a message for him or her: Please get in touch—I’d like to learn more about your work!

For me, Fahd al-Hoshani’s “Hamlet, Get Out of My Head” — which you write was staged at the Riyadh Book Fair in 2014 and at the Coral Beach Resort in Jeddah in 2016 — was the most delightful surprise, the one I most wanted to see. What shook or surprised or enchanted you during this discovery process? 

KH: Al-Hoshani’s play is well worth watching (and I recommend viewing it in tandem with Khaled al-Johani’s 2011 interview with BBC Arabic, for reasons I delve into in the book).

Most enchanting: hands down, the production of Antony and Cleopatra in Sharjah that culminated in a marriage proposal.

Most surprising: first, the depth of meaning in these productions, and the degree to which they provide critical commentary on the societies in which they occur; and second, that theatre-makers and scholars of all stripes were so forthright and forthcoming in sharing their experiences with me.

Most shaking/shocking: I wrote the publication proposal for this book just after the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen began. That conflict has dragged on for 4 years now, taking a horrific toll of death, disease, and destruction. As my friend and colleague Yemeni actress Muna Ali recently noted in this short documentary: “We talk about Shakespeare, our experiences with Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s work… and we’re being bombed. God help us.”

What questions do you feel the book raised or pointed toward, where you think it would be most fruitful for someone (yourself or others) to do future research?

Scene from a Yemeni performance in the late 1940s--possibly Uthman Suqi's adaptation of Julius Caesar as The People and Caesar--apparently with a Yemeni actor playing a female role. Courtesy of Bilal Hussein and Al-Funoon magazine.
Scene from a Yemeni performance in the late 1940s–possibly Uthman Suqi’s adaptation of Julius Caesar as The People and Caesar–apparently with a Yemeni actor playing a female role. Courtesy of Bilal Hussein and Al-Funoon magazine.

KH: The AP sometimes, I think, can give off an air of timelessness or stasis to those who just give it a cursory glance, but make no mistake, this is a region that is changing at a staggering rate. Everything about it—the demographics, the economy, the educational system; the international, regional, and domestic political alignments; the social conventions and expectations; the climate; the understanding of national identity and, in Yemen’s case at least, the nation’s ability to remain politically intact—is going to look vastly different fifty years, twenty years, perhaps even ten years from now.

Theatre, I find, provides a useful means of charting people’s responses to and desire for change in their communities. So I hope that future research continues to investigate, not just Shakespearean adaptations, but also theatrical performances in the region more generally, and to celebrate the courage, creativity and talent of the people who make them, and the ways in which they are working to create and to model different, more inclusive forms of social organization.

Dr. Katherine Hennessey is Assistant Dean for Curriculum and Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait, where her scholarship focuses on theatre and cinema in the Arabian Gulf, Yemen, and Ireland. She has held academic appointments on the Palestinian West Bank and in Yemen and, before moving to Kuwait, was a Global Shakespeare Research Fellow at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London and a Moore Institute Visiting Fellow at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Her Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula was released last year by Palgrave as part of the Global Shakespeares series, and the short documentary Shakespeare in Yemen, which she made in collaboration with her colleagues there, was screened last year at the Signature Theatre in NYC and at the MESA FilmFest. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded her a year-long fellowship for the research and writing of her next book, Theatre on the Arabian Peninsula (Routledge 2021).