With the 21st Century and Cell Phones, Richard is Still Cunning as Ever:
A Review of Richard III: An Arab tragedy
“To take is not to give.” Lady Anne, clad in black as she is mourning the death of her husband, utters this statement that has profound significance in this adaptation of Richard III. Helmed by director Sulayman Al-Bassam, who would later direct The Speaker’s Progress (Twelfth Night), the performance demonstrates his great talent for blending timeless Shakespeare with the modern day. His production of Richard III: An Arab Tragedy is a contemporary take on a classic tale about one man’s thirst for power and his refusal to let anyone deter his mission, no matter the repercussions.
The production, performed in 2007 at the Pallas Theatre in Athens, succeeds due to the director’s twist on the original story, transporting the events that transpire from 1485 to the 2000s. The change in time period demonstrates how Shakespeare’s messages and ideas translate to different times and situations. Cell phones, television debates, and cameras invade the stage, revealing not only how overwhelming the media can be, but also how powerful it is as a method of communication. In the original play, Richard and the others needed to wait for a personal visit from another character or a written letter in order to find out a vital piece of news or information. The cell phones now allow for easy interaction between those on and off stage, exposing how Richard’s personal actions affected an incredible range of individuals.
Fayez Kazak fully embodies Richard onstage as the audience witnesses his persuasive speech from his beginning soliloquy to his wooing of the seemingly inconsolable Lady Anne. A political leader intent on holding on to the highest position available, Kazak’s Richard plans to deceive and kill in order to make his dream a reality. Clothed in military garb throughout the production, Kazak’s physical presence acts as a reminder of his commitment to authority and his constant desire to lead above all else. His lack of physical deformity furthers his confidence, and a knowing smile seems to be a permanent fixture upon his face, exuding conviction in his plan for power. He was often in the middle of the stage surrounded by other men and women, emphasizing his rightful place at the center of society’s attention.
Though a minor character in the written play, Queen Margaret comes alive on stage. Before Richard’s opening soliloquy, she appears from the shadows with glassy eyes and a powerful soliloquy of her own. She does not want pity for what has happened to her, but rather asks for the audience to refrain from judging her for the revenge she seeks. Amal Omram is a force of nature in each of her scenes as she runs around England cursing the royal family. Her dramatic gestures and manic voice emphasize the tragedy of her situation, as she meant little to society as a widow. Her dark black eye liner and monochromatic clothing demonstrate that fact that she is stuck in darkness with revenge being the only exit she deems fit to use.
Lighting sets the tone for the production as a variety of different colors, hues, and concentrations heighten or lessen the drama of any particular scene. During most scenes in which talk about the plan takes place rather than the crimes themselves, the stage is well-lit and stark white, exposing how Richard will soon soil it with his heinous plan. A dark red shines on the stage after the beating of Queen Margaret and the strangling of the twin princes takes place, respectively. The color red is one of violence, one that represents the severity of crimes Richard willingly commits or has completed to satisfy his own selfish motives. Actual red blood is seen later on the hands of the man who murdered the young princes when he stumbles onto the royal blue stage. Alone in the darkness, he frantically speaks of the crime and how the Devil made him do it, alluding to the overall theme of uncertainty and fear in the play. He, along with other characters in the play, are primarily motivated by the fear of disobeying their royal rulers or the uncertainty of what is necessary and what is ethically right. Morals are tested and boundaries are pushed, as individuals seek to please a man desperate for control.
An innovative addition in this retelling were the meetings with the United States Embassy as they exposed how Richard’s plan and the position he sought affected not only his nation, but also other countries around the world. However, the meetings with the American leaders often took place at odd times in the production and removed some of the spotlight needed to fully explain Richard and his personal journey. While Al-Bassam attempted to explain a type of modern day relationship between these two nations, his additions partially disrupted the flow of the production without providing enough connections between the two locations. However, the scenes in which English and Arabic were spoken stressed the fact that language barriers do not prevent people from coming together to negotiate or address problems. Although living in different locations or speaking different languages, individuals can come together about common issues or events and derive solutions from them.
The costumes for all characters were detailed and served multiple functions for the characters that wore them. In the scene in which Queen Elizabeth discovers the deaths of her two sons, she dons a black garment while Lady Anne juxtaposes her with a sparkly light pink outfit complete with a patterned coat. The black garment highlights the grief Queen Elizabeth feels and the dark world in which she lives. Anne’s clothing, on the other hand, is light pink, which seems like a little girl’s clothing rather than a grown woman’s. Although she wore black in the beginning of the play, this pink outfit represents her moving backwards from the independent woman she could have become before marrying Richard. Her ignorance of her husband’s evil doings is clear as she defends him and who she thinks he is from Queen Elizabeth. The white garments the princes wear when executed, too, are physical reminders of their innocent state, and a black strap is used to tarnish their purity permanently. Colors of clothing as well as specific pieces lend themselves well to the play as each contains a deeper significance.
Through its costumes, lighting, and committed cast, this adaptation seeks to convey the drama and pain that comes about when one man will go to any lengths in order to satisfy his insatiable wants. Anne’s simple statement mentioned above, however, explains not only her predicament, but also reflects Richard’s mentality with regards to his plan. “To take is not to give” means that Richard plans on taking this position in his country, but does not plan on giving back to the people. If he gains the political authority he seeks, then it will be in his favor and his favor alone. This phrase applies to multiple other characters in the show, such as the murderer of the princes who takes the orders to commit the deed, but cannot give his whole being to the act. Rather, he loses himself in the evil that consumes him. The women, too, take the orders or requests from the men, but do not have to care for or happily do as they are told. As evidenced in this production, anyone can dictate how another should act, but no one can dictate how another should feel.
No matter the period or time, differences in political ideas or values can lead to conflict that will affect individuals and countries as a whole . In the past and in the future, any man or woman, young or old, has beliefs, values, and ideas about the kind of person they wish to become. In this adaptation, one man views the people he interacts with as obstacles to dispose of, even though no one can be reduced to an insignificant number. Everyone is on a separate journey, but it is when the journeys intertwine with one another that tragedy can strike.
Sarah Dieckman is a second year student from Cincinnati, Ohio, studying English at the University of Notre Dame. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys reading and watching The West Wing.
“My favorite Shakespeare play is Julius Caesar. I read this play my freshman year of high school and once again during my freshman year at The Ohio State University. Reading it again this year reaffirmed my love and appreciation for Shakespeare’s honest perspective on friendship and the thirst for power and what can happen when the two collide. I enjoy the historical aspects of the work as well as the instances of betrayal, confusion, and pride weaved throughout the play.”