Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Shakespeare in the vernacular

Nehad Selaiha applauds a production of Measure for Measure in the Egyptian vernacular and surveys the history of performing Shakespeare in this medium

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Daqqa bi Daqqa ((Measure for Measure) by William Shakespeare, translated into classical Arabic by Mohamed Enani, rendered into the Egyptian vernacular by Walid Hammad and Omneya Taha, directed by Walid Hammad, Gerhart Theatre,  The American University in Cairo, 13-19 April, 2016.

Putting on Shakespearean plays in the Egyptian vernacular is still a risky business. Indeed, the use of this brand of Arabic as a respectable medium for literary writing in any genre is relatively recent. Though it was plentifully used on the Egyptian stage in comedies, musicals and melodramas (mostly adapted from foreign texts) since the late nineteenth century, it long remained unacceptable for literary translation and composition. When Mustafa Musharafa wrote his novel Kantara Allazi Kafar (Kantara Who Disbelieved) in the Egyptian vernacular in the 1920s, it was rejected by publishers and did not appear in print until 1966. (A second edition was published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation in 2012.) Likewise, Louis Awad’s now nearly forgotten Muzakkarat Taleb Beitha (Memoires of a Scholarship Student), written in the same medium in the 1940s, was not published until the 1960s.

From the 1950s onwards, however, thanks to the efforts of such dramatists as Noman Ashour, Saadeddin Wahba, Alfred Farad, Youssef Idris and Rashad Rushdi, among others, and poets like Bairam Al-Tonsi, Salah Jahin and Fouad Hadad, the Egyptian vernacular was honed into an admirable, respectable vehicle for dramatic and poetic expression. However, the recognition of the vernacular as an acceptable linguistic vehicle for drama has rarely extended to translations of foreign texts, particularly the classics, and especially Shakespeare; his plays, be they comedies or tragedies, continued to be surrounded with an awesome, often obfuscating halo of veneration. When three of Shakespeare’s comedies – The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It – were staged in the Egyptian vernacular in 1981, ‘83 and ‘84 successively (the first at Al-Taliaa theatre where it ran for months to full houses, the second on a makeshift stage at Qaitbay citadel in Alexandria, and the third in the garden of Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum), there was a big hue and cry and their two translators (Mohamed Enani, who did the first, and Samir Sarhan, who did the other two) were  virulently abused for “degrading the texts to the level of street language”. One particularly scathing article in a weekly magazine carried the title “The Murder of the Bard”.

Such attacks, however, did not deter Noman Ashour, the father of Egyptian realistic drama, from committing an even more sacrilegious crime by subjecting one of the bard’s tragedies to the degradation of the vernacular: in 1984, he published a translation of Othello in colloquial Egyptian Arabic in the Theatre Magazine. Four years later, Mustafa Safwan, an eminent Egyptian psychoanalyst resident in Paris, published another, more meticulous translation of the same tragedy in the same medium. Both plays were staged many years later, Ashour’s in 2002, at the floating theatre in Giza, directed by Khaled Galal and rechristened Mandeel Al-Helw (The Pretty Woman’s Handkerchief) after the title of an old, popular song, and Safwan’s in 2000, in the city of Mansoura, directed by Ahmed Abdel-Gelil for that city’s national company.

In both the introduction to his translation (published by the Anglo Bookshop, 1988), where he quotes from Dante’s unfinished Latin treatise De vulgari eloquentia to support his argument, and his translator’s note in the programme of the Mansoura production – both written in the same medium used in the translation – Mustafa Safwan proves an even more fervent, more outspoken champion of the vernacular than any of his predecessors. Designating the supremacy of classical Arabic as class-related, he views the linguistic dichotomy in Arab societies as a highly destructive form of cultural schizophrenia and a tool of political and social hegemony. Safwan’s linguistic views have firm ideological underpinnings and he makes them amply clear when he says: “A people who do not respect the language they speak and consider it unfit for literature and education can never have self-respect, a say in the shaping of their destiny, or the power to make their rulers heed their will.”

Though the controversy over which language should be used in rendering the classics into Arabic has not abated and still rages every now and then, Shakespeare seems to have undergone a process of domestication since the late 1980s and to have finally cast off the forbidding mantle of the formidable moralist and grand rhetorician forced upon him by pioneers like George Abyad in the early years of the 20th Century. From the 1990s onwards, and partly thanks to the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre which was launched in 1988, bringing to Egypt a steady supply of iconoclastic versions of the Bard’s plays, dozens upon dozens of adaptations, burlesques and rewritings of his plays have been staged in the vernacular by young directors and dramaturges in university and regional theatres. Indeed, it is significant that when students at the American University in Cairo decided to mark the 400 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a production of his problematic dark comedy Measure for Measure, they presented it in the Egyptian vernacular.

Now Measure for Measure is not a ‘nice’ play; it depicts a sleazy, sordid, vice-ridden society that has fallen into hedonistic decay – a society where corruption boils and bubbles ‘Till it o’er-run the stew’, to quote Duke Vincentio’s words in Act 5, scene 1. There are no tender feelings here, no romantic love, no affectionate friendships and no flights into pastoral retreats. Instead, we have squalid prisons and disreputable haunts, corroding lust and crude sex; pimps and prostitutes; cupidity, hypocrisy and faithlessness. The humour is uniformly acrid, scabrous, ribald and bawdy; the laughter is mirthless and hollow, and the mask of comedy wears a deathlike grin. Moreover, Measure for Measure is, as one critic has put it, a ‘notoriously self-thwarting problem comedy; both the action and characterisation are riddled with irksome gaps and teasing ambiguities and these strain both our capacity for sympathy and our willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

 The play never explains why Duke Vincentio instead of undertaking himself to clean up his city-state of iniquity and vice deputises the stiff-necked Angelo to do the job, or why instead of going away he disguises himself as a friar to patrol the city and spy on everybody. More vexing still, we never know what to make of Angelo, the supposedly upright guardian of morality – a man who breaks faith with his betrothed and dumps her when she fails to pay her dowry and later, when he comes to power, condemns a man, Claudio, for impregnating his girlfriend then tries to extort sex from his sister, a novitiate nun called Isabella, when she goes to him pleading for her brother’s life. Is he a fallen angel or a thorough, lascivious, mercenary knave who has cleverly duped the world? And what about the stern, indomitable, fiercely principled Isabella who stoutly decides to let her brother die rather than give in to Angelo’s lustful solicitation but, at the same time, does not scruple to engage in sexual intrigue to outwit him? Is she pure goodness or pure selfishness? And how much is it possible to sympathise with Mariana, the despicably fawning jilted fiancée of Angelo who offends the dignity of the whole female sex by courting the sexual favours of her faithless beloved in the guise of the woman he really covets?

Measure for Measure has nothing of the sunny charm, good natured humour, or spirit of benevolence and general reconciliation we find in A Mid-summer, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, or even Romeo and Juliet. This, together with its sex-motivated plot, its bawdy language and coarse, earthy humour has made it equally unpopular with Egyptian translators and directors. It was not done into Arabic until 1966, when Farouk Abdel-Wahab Mustafa published his translation in the Theatre Magazine; and though three more translations have appeared since, it was never staged until last month when Walid Hammad staged it at the AUC on the occasion of Shakespeare’s 400 death anniversary.

Hammad’s production is particularly welcome, not only because it is the premiere of Measure for Measure in Egypt and one of the four Egyptian theatrical contributions to this world-wide celebration (the other three being Munadil Antar’s modern dance version of Hamlet, Mohamed Mekki’s A Mid-summer Night’s Dream and Mohamed Al Tayee’s Shakespeare’s Women, all sponsored by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina), but also on account of its dramaturgical and artistic ingenuity and experimental drive. Using Mohamed Enani’s latest classical Arabic verse translation, which with the consent of the translator he rephrased into the Egyptian vernacular (with help from Omneya Taha), Hammad whittled the play down to under two hours, with a 10-minute interval, reducing its twenty-two speaking parts to fourteen, with two of his twelve-strong cast doubling in four of them.

 The directorial conception was equally daring and strove to simulate the conditions and aesthetics of the stage the Bard wrote for. Walid Hammad presented his truncated version of the play in modern dress, on an open platform stage shaped like a broad, horizontal cross that took up the whole of the Gerhart black-box theatre space, seating the audience face to face in the four square slots formed by the cross-shaped stage, in close proximity to the actors. The suggestion of the religious image of the cross in the stage design was truly ingenious and acted as a constant ironical comment on the immoral acts of the characters presented on it, and in particular on Angelo’s religious hypocrisy. Performed on this open, bare platform in modern dress, with no scenery save the bars of a window or a prison cell painted by the lighting on the walls, and only two hard-backed chairs and a large table for props, and with rowdy street scenes at the beginning and at intervals, teaming with broad jokes and unruly conduct, this production of Measure for Measure gave us a taste of what watching the play in Shakespeare’s times must have been like.    

The young AUC actors felt quite at home in the Egyptian vernacular translation of the text and gave credible, dynamic performances. Rather than the laboured, drawn-out oration style often adopted in Classical Arabic Shakespearean productions, they reproduced the lively rhythms, cadences and musical intonations of colloquial speech, delivering their lines with ease and spirit at a fast-moving pace. Indeed, it is a credit to Walid’s and Omneya’s translation and to the actors’ performances that after the opening improvised street scene in which the actors playing the minor parts addressed the audience familiarly and even pestered and heckled them, one did not notice at all which Arabic was spoken on the stage.

The impression of unaffected ease, spontaneity and natural flow that marked the verbal delivery of the actors extended to their movements, gestures and body language. There was no attempt here at complex characterisation; such an attempt would have been only embarrassing, for none exists in the play. Instead, Hammad and his actors concentrated on treating us to a good piece of straightforward theatrical storytelling, delivered with clarity and conviction. And they did. The performance moved so fast and was so absorbing that one hardly had time to notice, let alone ponder the problems and incongruities of the play; they were soon forgotten in the bustling spectacle on stage. While traditionalists may object to this production and accuse Hammad of having de-sacrilised the play, those who appreciate Shakespeare as first and foremost an homme de théâtre would applaud it as an exciting experience that smoothes out the rigidity and many awkwardnesses of the play, softens its didactic bent, unashamedly embraces its melodramatic mélange of religion, sex and violence with zest and relish and brings out its innate, delicious theatricality.

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