WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S 

HAMLET

Monday, May 2, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

 

A co-presentation with Waterwell
Directed by Tom Ridgely

Featuring Mohammad Aghebati, Amir Arison, Brendan Averett, Soraya Broukhim, Cary Donaldson, Abraham Makany, Arian Moayed, Seth Numrich, Debargo Sanyal, Babak Tafti, Faran Tahir, Sheila Vand, Bernard White, Janet Zarish, and more

This provocative dual-language adaptation of Hamlet, featuring Tony Award-nominated actor Arian Moayed, is set in Persia circa 1916, on the eve of the first World War and the arrival of the British.

 

Prince Hamlet returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Meanwhile, war is brewing. With passages spoken in Farsi, this version of Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy explores the resonance between Hamlet‘s central dilemma and the pressures of embracing or resisting Western influences – cultural, political and spiritual – both then and now. It is a searingly relevant and vibrantly fresh take on one of the most influential dramas in English literature.

 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear new classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Shakespeare first entered the Arab/Islamic world in the late nineteenth century, when French-educated theatre professionals in Cairo began to translate his plays from a theatre-interested emerging middle class in Egypt.  The first was Romeo and Juliet in 1892.  Hamlet followed in 1901.  These first adaptations were far from the originals, since they were strongly influenced both by French neoclassicism and Italian opera.  Tanyus Abdu’s 1901 Hamlet was a musical show starring a popular singer, and it ended happily, with Hamlet killing Claudius, marrying Ophelia, and ascending the throne with the Ghost standing by, applauding.

 

Iran, somewhat more distant from European influence, was a few years later in presenting the English dramatist.  The first Shakespeare in Farsi, the language of Iran, was The Taming of the Shrew in 1900, and only two other Shakespeare works, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, appeared in the first half of the twentieth century.  The first Farsi Hamlet, by Masoud Farzad, was not created until 1955.  Three more translations appeared before the end of the century and Hamlet became, along with The Merchant of Venice, the most popular Shakespeare play in Iran.  Although all of these translations are essentially in prose, make little attempt to recreate Shakespeare’s complex wordplay and puns, and add minor characters and other traces of local color to bring the play closer to Iranian experience, all, unlike the early Arabic translations, follow the action and the scenic order of the original fairly faithfully.

 

Mahmoud Etemadzedeh, also known as Behazin, claimed that his 1997 version (an update for a 1965 version) was the most accurate to date, and that claim is generally true, although much of Shakespeare’s specific verbal play has been lost.  Behazin was one of the leading literary figures in Iran during most of the late twentieth century.  A dedicated Marxist, he wrote many short stories and novellas looking toward a social revolution creating a most just society.  One such work, the 1961 The Peasant’s Daughter, is considered to have established the modern social novel in Iran.  Banned from teaching after the British and CIA inspired coup of 1953, Behazin turned to translation to make a living, and played a major role in introducing Iranian readers to such outstanding Western authors as Shakespeare, Balzac, Rolland, and Shokholov.  Behazin became widely regarded as the father of modern translation in Iran.  He translated three Shakespearian tragedies during his career, Othello in 1958, Hamlet in 1965 and Lear in 1998 shortly before his death in 2000.

 

Due in part to unstable political conditions in Iran, Shakespeare has remained much better known as a literary than a theatrical figure.  Today there are eight available translations of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most popular work in that country, but Behazin’s remains the best known and most respected. As elsewhere in the Arab/Islamic world, Hamlet is generally regarded in Iran primarily as a drama of political instability and the dangers and challenges which such instability brings into play.

 

Tonight's reading performs an unusual reverse process, bringing an adaptation of an English play into another language back onto the stage in English.  The new text was created by Waterwell, an experimental group founded by Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely in 2002 dedicated to explorations of the musical theatre form and (like Red Bull Theater) to neglected classics.  In 2012 they began work on this project, attempting to find what elements in the work resonated most strongly with Iranian audiences today and stressing how the work can be considered both as contributing to and resisting Western influences in the Islamic world.

 

Hamlet became from the 1960s onward, one of the most popular Western dramas in the Arab/Islamic world, where its situation of a protagonist caught in a world of conflict and of powerful manipulative rulers, has resonated strongly with several generations of dramatists.  Behazin’s version, an early contribution to this interest, remains much closer to the original than many later versions, some of which take only characters or situations from the original.  For example Moroccan dramatist Nabyl Lahlou’s Ophelia is Not Dead, written just three years after Behazin’s version, is made up entirely of a dialogue between Hamlet and Macbeth.

 

Indeed, except for some cutting and the movement of Hamlet’s first soliloquy “Oh, that this too too solid flesh” from the end of the second scene to a prologue, Behazin’s text echoes that of Shakespeare scene by scene and often line by line.  This English translation acknowledges this by returning to the English original, with one notable exception.  A significant number of lines appear in Farsi, and these are by no means random.  They include all of the speeches of the Ghost, Ophelia’s mad songs, most of Hamlet’s “mad” speeches, the Player’s Pyrrhus speech and a few sequences of particular emotional intensity, such as the struggle of Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, when both of the combatants shift into Farsi.

 

This bilingualism not only reminds us regularly that this is a work being read through two cultural backgrounds, but places the two cultures and the two languages in a continual tension, with English serving as the major vehicle for discursive thought and for political manipulation, while Farsi is associated more with deeper, even more irrational emotionality and also with the past and tradition, a past and tradition (as in the case of the Ghost and the Pyrrhus speech) that a more modern, more Westernized, and more manipulative culture, represented by Claudius and his court, are attempting to erase.  Many Hamlets from the Islamic world seek to explore this tension through shifts in the narrative or the characters, but this experiment is unusual, and perhaps unique, in making the language spoken a central expression of such negotiations.

 

- Marvin Carlson

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