Shakespeare is a tough act to follow. However, director and producer of Al Hamlet, Padraig Downey, feels Kuwaiti playwright Sulaiman Al Bassam has done a good job with the Middle Eastern version of the similarly named 1603 revenge drama.

Hamlet, about a prince who returns from a long absence to find his father dead, his mother married to his uncle and the niggling suspicion that his uncle is the one responsible, has been dressed in many different ways since the days of the Bard; this time around, it’s set in the Middle East.

Al Hamlet, which runs at Ductac from November 8-11, is set in a fictional land, but has most elements of the original — madness, intrigue, poetic monologues — and a generous sprinkling of revision. “It’s such a high-energy show; it relates to people and themes of power, and it’s also staged in a very different way...We are using elements of Epic Theatre, or political theatre, and we’re also using elements of Japanese Noh theatre,” said Downey, referring to the Nipponese classical form of drama that uses masks and music to tell a story. Plus there’s the spark of tech novelty. “We make full use of tech and projections,” he explained ahead of the show in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!.

The director, who is the founder of local theatre group Danu Dubai and has works such as the Arabised version of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to his credit, says issues that are sensitive in the region, such as the consumption of alcohol, have been treated with care by Al Bassam. “The play was checked by the censor here [in the UAE], and in this version of the play [Al Bassam ] would have written it for the Middle East market as well, even though he won the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [in 2002]... Hamlet is not at all fond of alcohol….The play is in English as well, and I think in the English version it’s not as harsh as the Arabic [version].” Hamlet is simply intoxicated by revenge.

But tweaking things is a dangerous business, and with a work that’s already so popular, it can have devastating — and comical — effects. Here, Downey’s voice took on an excited edge. “There’s nothing that can compare to the beauty and poetry of Shakespeare’s language but at the same time, I mean the Arab tradition is poetic writing and that’s not lost or sacrificed in any way. Hamlet does have these monologues when he’s in the desert and when he’s looking at his father’s grave [for instance], and the music and the melody within the actual words really rings true.”

A fan of reinvention, Downey, who said “context and the relevance” are what draw him to projects that add Middle Eastern flavour to the mix, is also tired of watching the same ‘classic, but repeated’ acts. He says to keep theatre alive and for it to have a future, it must innovate. Which is why Al Hamlet, with themes of family and power struggle, but set in a new situation, holds much appeal. Downey explained, “One of my actors was saying, ‘if Shakespeare were alive today, he would write like this, because it’s such a high-energy show’.”

Well, the Bard is dead; long live the Bard.


Don’t miss it!

Tickets to Al Hamlet, which runs from November 8-11 at Ductac, start at Dh60.