Ashtar Theatre  (Palestine), Richard II

Ashtar Theatre’s Richard II opened with a scene not found in Shakespeare’s original text, but one that is crucial to the action of the play: the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. The jailors gave Gloucester (George Ibrahim) a mirror and a razor, and as he cautiously began to shave his face and look at himself in the mirror, his captors took the razor and cut his throat. A humorously narcissistic Richard (Sami Metwasi) then took the stage at Windsor Castle, where the audience watched as Henry Bolingbroke (Nicola Zreineh) and Thomas Mowbray (Ihab Zahdeh) accuse each other of Gloucester’s death.  Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray are exiled from England after the king prevents them from fighting in a duel, and Richard seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance to fund battles in Ireland. Bolingbroke later returns to reclaim his inheritance while the Welsh abandon Richard’s cause to join Bolingbroke, but not before the stage was taken over by actors whose faces were covered with scarves and who carried flags in Palestine’s national colours. The design of the playing space at the Globe allowed the Earl of Northumberland (Edward Muallem) to move back and forth through the audience conveying messages between Richard and Bolingbroke, articulating the divide between the two characters on stage while they negotiated the terms of Bolingbroke’s inheritance.

The characters were mainly dressed in contemporary and military attire, not signalling a specifically Palestinian cast except for the characters of the gardener and his wife (Raed Ayasa and Iman Aoun), both dressed in traditional Palestinian garb with cross-stitched designs. After the gardener revealed Richard’s imprisonment to the queen, in a moment of humour the gardener’s wife kicked the plants he had just put in the ground, scattering the herbs he had planted for the queen’s sorrow. Richard later crowned Bolingbroke as the new king, and as he placed the crown on Bolingbroke’s head it slid down to his ears, lightening the mood during perhaps the most serious part of the action.

Richard is then given a mirror which he looked into and then threw to the ground, a mirror that previously reflected a narcissistic king, and broke the glass with his heel; the audience was reminded of the mirror that Gloucester looked into just before his death. In another attempt at bringing the play full circle, the queen met Richard as he makes his way to Pontefract with her head covered in a black shawl, the same shawl worn by the Duchess of Gloucester (Iman Aoun) while she mourned her husband’s death.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s use of formal English – the play has a marked lack of prose in the dialogue – Ashtar chose to present the play in Standard Arabic, a dialect associated with newspapers and official documents, rather than in the colloquial Palestinian dialect. The dialogue was heavily edited and modernized by Palestinian poet Gassan Zaqtan (based on Mohammad Anani’s original translation of the text) and used a language more widely accessible to those with knowledge in Arabic beyond the Palestinian borders. In adding particularities to the performance that reflected Palestinian culture, and by using a language that can be understood outside of that culture, the performance served to articulate the ways in which the text itself could be adapted for an audience and a historical context beyond the Elizabethan stage.

Tamara Haddad
Ph.D student
University of Kent