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Something’s Rotten in the Middle East:

A Review of Al-Hamlet Summit

The light glows dimly in a nearly empty war room as the six members of the council sit at their desks in a semi-circle and discuss the state of their nation.  Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude try to figure out how to deal with rebellion and terrorists while still looking good in the national media.  General Laertes discusses the threat of the foreign army led by Fortinbras breaching the country’s borders, and Ophelia, the suicide bomber, pines over the Islamist Hamlet.  They all ignore the grave of the nation’s last King in the middle of the room.  Such are the goings on in Al-Hamlet Summit, a modern interpretation of Hamlet written and directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam.

Al-Hamlet Summit is the story of a fictitious Arab country that is undergoing turmoil.  The King has died, and his mantle has been taken up by his westernized despot brother.  In addition to the threat of a foreign invasion the country is on the verge of a civil war between fundamentalists and supporters of the ironically named “New Democracy.”   This play, performed at the Tokyo International Arts Festival by the Sulayman Al-Bassim Theatre Kuwait Company in 2004, departs from its source material and has a completely original plot and script.  Instead, it takes Hamlet’s themes of mental instability, incest and, most importantly, political corruption, rot, and intrigue to create a story that is all too familiar in the age of the Arab Springs.  Al-Hamlet Summit is an ambitious project, painting a stark picture of the complex situations facing Middle Eastern countries today.

As part of the Summit’s departure from the original Hamlet, almost all secondary characters have been written out. The only characters included are Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Fortinbras, and a new character, the white-clad Arms Dealer who supplies all of the opposing factions with weapons as long as they can pay. Instead of learning of his father’s death from a ghost, Hamlet is informed by reading a pamphlet written by the rebellion, and the Arms Dealer usually supplies any other necessary exposition.  The new sources of information are unreliable at best, and add a layer of ambiguity to the already complex goings on of the government.

This play is not without its flaws:  There are several scenes that are unnecessarily vulgar and violent.  Ophelia was already teetering on the edge of insanity and did not need her final push to be something as major as an attempted sexual assault.  It was difficult to watch as the Arms Dealer straddled Ophelia, looming over her and refusing to let her up until she repeats a series of strange words for him.  In the same way, Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude was much more sexual and violent than it needed to be to convey Hamlet’s instability.

At times Al-Hamlet Summit was also difficult to follow, even with the help of subtitles.  It is difficult to tell what is going on, especially because missing one detail leaves the audience playing catch up to understand why Hamlet is allowed in the war room even though he is now the enemy who shot and killed Polonius.  Because it is set primarily in a war room, the play relies heavily on dialogue to convey what was happening by telling rather than showing.  This would not be a problem, but at times Al-Bassam’s screenplay was convoluted and unclear.

As the play progresses, more and more elements were added.  Laertes began to question; Polonius was seen collaborating with the mysterious arms-dealer; Claudius and Gertrude both began losing their composure in spectacular manners; and Ophelia began her slow descent into madness.  More and more political issues were incorporated into the plot as the play reached its conclusion.  These subplots–on their own–were very interesting, but even on paper it is difficult to keep track of everything at once.

Despite any confusion a viewer may feel, anyone watching the play will still know how to feel based on the fantastic job the actors did playing their characters.  The entire cast has amazing chemistry, portraying the tension between the characters so well that I felt perpetually stressed out and at times physically ill from their interactions.

The most notable performances came from Ophelia (Mariam Ali) and Claudius (Nicolas Daniel).   Although the exact chain of events leading up to Ophelia becoming a suicide bomber was unclear at best, the actress depicted Ophelia’s increasing desperation and deteriorating mental state with a sincerity that made Ophelia’s eventual transition into a suicide bomber very believable.

Performed incorrectly, the scene where Claudius has a mental breakdown and rips off his shirt while desperately sending an obscene prayer asking his God, the USA, to “shaft” him with its “world shafting bank” could turn off viewers completely to the entire play.  Instead, the actor’s intense delivery deserves an award for his stunning interpretation of a problematic speech.

Overall, Al-Hamlet Summit is a unique, if controversial, take on an old story.  The controversial political issues addressed by the play were handled tastefully and honestly.  However, the play’s ambitious plot and talented cast are not enough to redeem its flaws.  Even with a strong background of knowledge about Middle Eastern politics, it may be difficult to follow the complex plot, which is full of unnecessary conflicts.  The audience may leave enjoying the play for its relevancy to the political situation today, but it is entirely possible that they could leave feeling confused, stressed out, and uncomfortable.

Jennie Hazen is a second year student from Cleveland, Ohio, studying molecular genetics at the Ohio State University.  In her spare time, Jennie likes reading and playing the flute. Her favorite Shakespeare play is Much Ado About Nothing.

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This guest post is one installment of revised student reviews of plays watched on the MIT Global Shakespeares digital archive

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