A Palestinian king in London: On Ashtar’s ‘Richard II’

This week, Israel’s national theatre, Habima, will bring its production of “The Merchant of Venice” to London, as part of the Globe Theatre’s multi-linguial Shakespeare festival. The following is a review of the Palestinian contribution to the same festival: Ashtar Theatre’s Richard II. It originally appeared in Hebrew in the Tel Aviv culture magazine Achbar Ha’ir.

Richard II of England, a portrait from the 1380s (image: Wikimedia Commons)
Richard II of England, a portrait from the 1380s (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Once upon a time, in a distant land, I had a good friend named Inge. She was Danish and lived in Denmark, but looked like a Native American princess and loved to rebel against Danish values. I had the honor of joining her for the wedding of her sister, in a small village in northern Jutland. Inge disliked formality and protocol. She let her son attend the church service wearing the t-shirt of some metal band and a baseball hat. She did not ask him to remove his hat when entering the church.

Following the service, we got into her car and waited for her son, who popped over to the restrooms. Inge looked impatiently at the pastel dresses and neckties entering other cars and said, “Something is rotten in the state of…” She then hesitated and asked, “In which state?”

This question surprised me. “Denmark,” I said.

“Really? Denmark?”

“Yeah.”

“Ah, I thought we only say ‘Denmark’ because we’re Danish, and that you guys, for example, would say ‘Something is rotten in the state of Israel.'”

I’m thinking back to this story in another European land – England chilled by a gray May. It says something about Shakespeare’s place in world culture. Almost every culture has adopted the Bard’s creations, making them its own, really its own. The line “To be or not to be,” taken from the same play in which Denmark produces a stench, is a key phrase in the literature of many languages, including Hebrew. Something really is rotten in the State of Israel, and this is exactly what Sheakspeare meant for us to see. He is a perfect poet, because his Hamlet deals with our reality, with that of contemporary Denmark, with that of medieval Denmark and with that of the author’s own homeland all at the same time.

This month in London, we could see how poignantly he treated Palestinian reality. Ramallah’s Ashtar theatre brought its production of Richard II to the Globe Theatre, as part of a multilingual Shakespeare festival that will also feature the Israeli National Theatre’s poduction of “The Merchant of Venice.” Famously, figures in British theatre spheres called for the Globe to boycott Habima due to the theatre’s contribution to the settlement endeavor. (As an op-ed in Haaretz noted, many theatre groups that participate in the festival come from countries where human rights are violated, but only Habima actually takes part in those violations by performing in settlements and thuse legitimizing them in the eyes of Israelis.) The Palestinian production was received calmly, but both productions emerge from the same corner of the earth and both are politically charged.

In the Ashtar production, this charge is released both onstage and in the viewers’ hearts. Richard II is a rather overlooked historical play, hiding in the shadow of bloody, dark Richard III. This too is a bloody tale: the performance begins with the slaughter of the Duke of Gloucester by two masked men, but the poetry of politics is slightly more complex, and the distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys” not nearly as clear. The Ashtar production, directed by Conall Morrison of Ireland, centers on this precise dimension and derives substance from it.

Something is rotten in the state of England. King Richard appears to be a paranoid sort on one hand, and a bit of an irresponsible fellow on the other. He exiles his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, for six years, following Bolingbroke’s participation in a duel with another noble. Bolingbroke’s father dies in his absence, and the king takes over the exile’s inheritance in order to fund an Irish campaign. While the king is away, fighting in Ireland, Bolingbroke returns to Britain, gains the support of the nobles and recruits a guerrilla army.

The king returns to a new reality. The land is in a state of anarchy and Boligbroke’s militia wins huge support from influential figures. Bolingbroke himself claims that he is not interested in the throne, and only asks for the inheritance to be returned to him. Should Richard believe him?

It would have been too easy, even cheesy, to present Richard II as a parable of modern Palestinian history, downplaying its complexities. Bolingbroke’s return could easily be equated with the return of the refugees and his quest for stolen property and power could be presented as the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspiration. This dimension is present of course in a Palestinian production, but Morrison and Ashtar prefer complexity and a far clearer reference is made to internal Palestinian politics.

While the king and his entourage appear in festive civilian attire, Bolingbroke and his men wear dark, olive colored military uniforms. We find liking the king rather difficult, despite his abundance of personal charm (wonderfully conveyed by Sami Metwasi), because we know him to be a criminal and likely even a murderer responsible for Gloucester’s assassination. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is nearly equally unattractive. He may present an alternative to the flawed establishment, but he is also leading before our eyes a potentially destructive military coup.

Little by little, under the grim London sky hanging over the Globe, and by courtesy of very lazy, partial captions that provide a summary of the scenes rather than a translation (why slack, Globe? The play was written in English), we learn of the dilemmas plaguing the entire Arab world since Tahrir. New anti-democratic forces are now threatening to take the place of old anti-democratic forces, while the people, weary of revolting, regard them as if watching a play.

Meanwhile, the specific Palestinian dilemma appears as well. Torn between secular corruption and religious totalitarianism, they know well that something is rotten in the undeclared state of Palestine. Theatre provides them with a means of raising these questions and this must be part of why Palestinian theatre tends to be so good. I still haven’t recovered from Jerusalem Al Hakwati group’s ingenious production “Abu Ubu” and from other gems of the past few years. Palestine is a theatre powerhouse.

At one moment in Richard II, the anarchy is depicted onstage. Actors rush about with flags in their hands: a black flag, a red flag, a green flag and a white flag. The Palestinian flag fell apart. National identity has shattered. Over its smithreens, on Juliette’s balcony, stands an actor waving a golden flag stained with blood. Only this flag remains when the stage is vacated. This is a brief, stunning moment that will prove difficult to forget. Other great moments are brought about by the cast, especially Matwasi and Hussein Nakhla in the role of John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father.

Richard II was previously performed outdoors in Jericho’s Hisham Palace. So long as Israelis are banned from entering Area A, Israeli spectators will be forced to seek this artfulness abroad, but here is a reminder that such encounters are possible and that foreign travel can be used as an opportunity for getting in touch with Palestinian art and with Arab art in general, even if it is art that was born in another place altogether: the rotten state of England.