Monday, November 29, 2010

Student email dialogue with Sulayman Al-Bassam

While the author's insights into his work are never definitive, they are often very useful.  Alexandre and Kalina initiated the email exchange below as part of their "contexts, subtexts & intertexts" presentation during our class's reading and viewing of Al-Bassam's "Al-Hamlet Summit."

On 16 Nov 2010, at 15:03, amptod wrote:

As-Salamu Alaykum, Mr. Al Bassam,

Our names are Kalina Nikolova and Alexandre Todorov. We are students at Boston University, and are taking the Global Shakespeares Course offered here by Professor Margaret Litvin. We are writing to you today to ask you some questions about your play The Al-Hamlet Summit. We thank you in advance for taking time to converse with us.

Our list of questions:

1.What inspired you to create the “horse of war” scene? Did you intend for it to be an interpretation of the troupe-play that Hamlet wanted performed for Claudius?

2. Why did you decide to use the five daily prayers as a way to order the acts? Could you give us some more insight on the moods they are supposed to convey?

3.When Laertes and Ophelia converse in Act I, they seem to be sexually charged towards one another. The conversation and sexual annotations seem similar to those between Hamlet and his mother. In your point of view, was this a natural progression of the original relationship between Laertes and Ophelia in Hamlet, or were you adding a new dimension to Laertes?

4.Is there symbolism the color of the clothing decided for each actor? In particular, the while suit that the Arms Dealer (who is an excellent character) is wearing, is there an underlying message behind his clothing? He seems less of a devil figure, and more a western Djinn, who grants wishes, is this representation just a matter of perspective, or was it intentional? Is there personality or group that had an especially large influence on your creation of him, or is he an overall representative of the groups playing for power in the Middle East?

5. Hamlet's father is almost absent in the al-Hamlet Summit, the most we hear of him is that there were less whores back when his father was in power. Is this consecutive with the general theme of the endless cycle (Claudius has grand plans, fails, Hamlet's attempts at
reforming the system start a civil war which fails, Fortinbras fails to announce his plan)?

6.Claudius seems to define God as he defines himself (corrupt, deceiving), while Hamlet defines himself through God (bringing back morality and purity). What does this juxtaposition really symbolize?

7.Ophelia seems to almost merge with Horatio in the al-Hamlet Summit, was this intentional? Also, if it was, what made you want to merge their characters?

Thank you very much for your replies and for your willingness to answer our questions.

Thank You,

Kalina Nikolova and Alexandre Todorov

On 11/20/2010 2:23 PM, sulayman al bassam wrote:

Kalina and Alexandre,
Here are some answers to your questions.

1. The Horse of War:
Yes, this scene is an adaptive riff on the play within the play, "The Mousetrap", that Hamlet presents in order to expose Claudius' guilt before the assembled spectators.
I wanted to create a scene that would mirror the heightened theatricality of the play within the play structure, without having to rely on the classical references used in the Shakespeare- Phyrrus, Hecuba etc.
This is achieved through the context of a farewell party that the court has arranged for Hamlet with its heightened 'public' atmosphere of sandwiches, cocktails and- most importantly- live public broadcast. Hamlet arrives dressed entirely inappropriately in a warrior costume, riding a hobby horse. He is making a spoof on the epic literary tradition of the noble Arab warrior / horseman. This tradition replaces the Greek / Classical one in the original. Hamlet then proceeds to use the public platform provided by the farewell party to give voice to his various obsessions, fantasies and suspicions.

2. The timeline of the events in the play stretches over several days or several months, it's not specified. The act names are indicators of mood, as you suggest, but also provide a metaphorical temporal structure for the development of the action over a single unit of time- a mythical day and night. The atmospheres of the acts are carried essentially by the rhythm of the scenes, but the act names - their associated prayer times in equatorial countries- describes for me describe a quality of light it's principally the quality of light, half light, bright light, warm light, twilight, darkness....

3. The charged linguistic sexual tension between Laertes and Ophelia was suggested to me by the original text in A.1 sc.3 of Shakespeare
.... your chaste treasure open
To his unmast'red importunity.(35)
.... keep you in the rear of your affection, etc
In an Arab linguistic and social context the vividness of Laertes' sexual imagery does not necessarily entail sexual intention on Laertes' part, though this is ambiguous....He wants to frighten and shock her.

4. White pinstriped suit- the perfect outfit for a post-colonial opportunist in a hot climate!. The Arms Dealer is the kind of character that turns up in Joseph Conrad's novels, equally he has a cheap thrill Ian Fleming- Bond element to him, too. In earlier production this role was played by a woman, which I found interesting. Costumes in my productions of the piece tended mostly towards the naturalistic, so no outright symbolism there. Gertrude wore peacock feathers- Ophelia had a flower in her dress...

5. Hamlet's father is referred to several times-
The Arms Dealer, act 1 : Your father was a great man; the world is not the same for his loss.
Gertrude refers to him, ac t 4 (Hamlet: He murdered my father! Gertrude: Your father died of his own failures! )

What I think is worth considering is how the function of the Ghost is taken over by the Arms Dealer
The unreliability of the ghost as narrator, becomes the unreliability of the Arms Dealer.
The psychological instability proposed by the Ghost becomes a concrete political agenda in the hands of the Arms Dealer.

6. They are different readings of power:
Claudius defines power (God) as a material structure built on corruption, betrayal, sordidness.
Hamlet defines power as an ideological structure built on faith, purity, heritage.
These are the two sides of the contradiction that envelops the Arab World's political structures today: on the one hand we have corrupt, autocratic, mostly western supported rulers that are running the countries into the ground and on the other hand, we have radical Islamist parties proposing moral and social systems that do not reflect the aspirations of the people.

7. Horatio was superfluous to the needs of the adapted text.
Laertes, Ophelia and the Arms Dealer all provide Hamlet with types of companionship.

Best wishes to your class and Professor Margaret,

Sulayman al Bassam

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