A review by Julia Gasper 8 May 2012
Power is power, and people always fight for it under any system, whether it is a monarchy, a republic, a democracy or a military dictatorship. Shakespeare knew that, and the story of King Richard II is as fascinating set in today’s Middle East as anywhere else.
This production of the play by the Ashtar Theatre Company from Ramallah is given in Palestinian Arabic, and is part of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival. Even without the surtitles the English audience could have followed most of the action. In a tense, repressed country there is a struggle for power. Restless rivals quarrel and challenge each other, breaking out into vehement accusations in public. Negotiators shake hands and laugh in fake cordiality then minutes later start to snarl and threaten. Bearded clerics frown and wave their fists warning of the wrath of God. There is an uprising, a rather tarnished leader is overturned and a new face is swept to power. Hostages are held blindfold and murdered miserably with a knife to the throat. All of this comes over very plainly through movement, gesture, facial expression and tone of voice. The Palestinian speech is forceful sounding and highly-charged, and the story moves fast.

Sami Metwasi, as the foolish young King Richard, is splendid, giving many insights into this complex and strange personality. In full dress-uniform and sash that vaguely remind one of photographs of the late Shah of Iran, he revelled in display, trying to impose his power with public show and ceremonies, revealing his vanity and self-pity, then bordering on hysteria as his position weakened. His eventual murder by Ross, a stabbing performed full-frontal with his agonized face confronting the audience, was powerful and brutal. Richard is a weak character, who lacks not only the money to remain in power, but also the popularity and credibility. Metwasi captured his shiftiness and flashes of cunning. He senses he is doing something wrong and his grip on the country is slipping away from him, but he can’t do anything about it. From high on a second-floor balcony he shouts defiance down to Bolingbroke, his challenger for power, but somehow he sounds insecure rather than defiant. Nicola Zreineh made a firm and resolute Bolingbroke, with Ihab Zadeh as a splendidly fiery Mowbray. Bayan Schbib as the Queen and Imam Aoun as the Duchess of Gloucester really put over the feelings of vulnerability and bereavement experienced by women trapped in a world where dominant men are fighting. These are universal feelings and situations, and we can all identify with them.

The performance, directed by Conall Morrison, featured snatches of atmospheric music played on the oud, and took place in the atrium of the Oxfam building at Cowley Business Park, where the high ceiling provides a challenging acoustic. Scenery is not really necessary but I feel it would have been a good idea to screen off the giant murals that distracted the eye at the back of the acting area. Sadly this production was a one-off, so if you missed it, you missed out, but it is part of Creation Theatre’s series Globe to Globe which is going to include two more productions: The Taming of the Shrew by a company from Pakistan, and The Comedy of Errors performed by a company from Kabul in Afghanistan. I am awaiting the future productions eagerly.
Julia Gasper.

 Image provided by Creation Theatre.


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