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Screen & Stage
Choosing this particular stage piece as a depiction of a hero’s struggle between good and evil, Al-Bassam’s ingenious focus meets with lit crit Ernest Johnson’s notes on Hamlet; “to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice…”
I recently attended the dress rehearsal of The Al-Hamlet Summit, at Sacramento, California’s, Beyond The Proscenium Productions, produced and directed by Ann Tracy. In the spirit of Shakespeare — though the original Hamlet storyline has been claimed to be authored centuries before — the black avant-garde stage is simple, at two steep sloping angles, posting a pedestal for each character to present their oration of survival’s debate, wrestling with what has become high treason in the Arab world — hanging out your dirty laundry in self-criticism.
“I sought to bring out a precise and grotesque hyperrealism in the work. It is a huis-clos that parodies the so-called "transparency" of today’s political processes and it is a deadly arena of conflict,” he says of the play.
In five acts, each beginning symbolically anchored with the Holy Koran’s five daily prayers in Islam, Hamlet wrestles with the collision of the massive globalization of a “east-meets-west” New Democracy that causes an underworld current of social issues against the well-guarded feudal and tribal social fabric of the Arab world, permeating through his royal household.
The painful upheaval of a massive cultural change is the subplot to the harbinger of militant resistance in contempt for sinister political pretensions of supremacy from a foreign power.
Hamlet becomes a religious extremist after discovering that his father was murdered. The tyrant Claudius betrays his lip service to the “new democracy,” ordering townships to be burned. Laetres joins Fortinbras’s troops retreating from the country’s borders, a deception by Claudius against Laetres when asked where his father is, and Ophelia becomes a suicide bomber. It is Fortinbras who delivers the Epilogue: “Feces, intestines and sweat. Only dead humans can smell like that.”
To this tragic end, Hamlet’s repertoire addresses suicide terrorism, perhaps brusquely, but Al-Bassam captures the “last resort” tactic of militant warfare, which author Robert Pape concludes in his book, Dying To Win.
“The bottom line is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation.” There is little evidence of suicide terrorism connected solely to Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, the social phenomena is a strategic goal to compel foreigners to withdraw their military forces from territories they consider their homeland, e.g. The Battle of Algiers.
Hamlet laments: “No more words please, mother./Words have been killed, they died on our tongues and in our ears,/words are dead./We cannot use them anymore, now we speak with our flesh.”
It’s a dicey situation to present such a hot-button venue in America, as the neocon milieu moves to censor open mindedness by offending anyone entertaining such radical theatre as a nationalist traitor. But then the playwright himself has been called such by his own people, accused of working for the CIA.
In this context, The Al-Hamlet Summit is an international testament by the forces of that slippery, uncontrollable, existential, and liberating consciousness called being human.
Sulayman Al-Bassam is currently working on his next Shakespeare adaptation of Richard III, Baghdad Richard.
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