Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah. Photo by Dhari Al Fozan, courtesy of Staged in Kuwait (SIK).
Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 13

Performance Review: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah

ARMS AND THE MAN. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Hassan Hajiyah. Produced by Staged in Kuwait (SIK), Kaifan Theatre, Kuwait City. March 24, 2022.

Reviewed by Katherine Hennessey
(Review commissioned and edited by Edward Ziter)

First produced in 1894, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man remains perennially popular for its endearing depiction of the coup de foudre that passes between Raina, a young Bulgarian woman, and Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary serving in the Serbian army, who unwittingly takes refuge in Raina’s bedroom as he and his fellow soldiers flee the field in the wake of a surprise victory by their Bulgarian opponents. As his name suggests, Bluntschli pulls no punches when describing to Raina the realities of wartime conflict: he readily admits that he carries chocolate into battle in place of ammunition cartridges to ensure he’ll have something to eat, and that, having been under enemy fire and without sleep for three days, he is on the verge of tears. His matter-of-fact depictions of the depredations of war force Raina to question her romantic visions of military heroism, including her ardent claims of admiration for her fiancé Sergius, a hot-headed Bulgarian cavalry officer. This Swiss-Bulgarian love triangle is further complicated by Sergius’ flirtation with Raina’s maid Louka. Yet all ends happily, with all of the characters having discarded an illusion or two in favor of a more satisfying reality.

In his directorial debut, Hassan Hajiyah provided audiences in Kuwait with an effervescent and colorful staging of Shaw’s play. The play was performed in Shaw’s English, and all cast members, regardless of their national or linguistic background, provided a clear delivery of their lines and a keen understanding of the playwright’s text. The cast hit all of Shaw’s comedic high notes, from Rania’s hyperbolic hero-worship to Sergius’ arrogant stubbornness to Raina’s parents’ pride in their family’s elite social status, which, in Shaw’s vision of late 19th-century Bulgaria, is signified by their possession of markers of modernity like an electric bell and a willingness to wash their hands “nearly every day.” Cast members Aidma Alasmar and Joseph Gunnison were well-matched and charming as Rania and Bluntschli, while McKenzie Eury made a feisty and determined Louka. Bassam Shuhaibar excelled in the role of Sergius, showing off an impressive vocal and emotional range and garnering laughter from the audience with his emphatic refusals to walk back any of his wayward behavior. 

But it was producer Dima Alansari and Hajiyah himself who gave the night’s standout performances as Rania’s parents, Catherine and Major Petkoff.

Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah. Bluntschli (Joseph Gunnison), Major Petkoff (Hassan Haijiyah), Catherine (Dima Alansari), and Rania (Aidma Alasmar). Photo by Dhari Al Fozan, courtesy of Staged in Kuwait.

Their characters’ affection for each other was perfectly rendered, and their palpable pleasure in their family’s local prestige proved an irresistible source of hilarity for audience members. (At one point, Petkoff’s repeated and unsubtle allusions to the family library—a font of immense vanity for him as paterfamilias, despite its tiny collection of books—left a boisterous quartet of young women in my row gasping for breath from laughing too hard.) Alansari brought a striking elegance and stage presence to her role, and no one would have guessed, having witnessed Hajiyah’s ease with his lines and his stellar comedic timing, that he had to step into the role at the last minute, when the actor he had cast withdrew at short notice.

Credit also goes to Hajiyah for envisioning the production’s dominant design aesthetic, brought to fruition by set and costume designer Leah Hairston: a cheerful rainbow palette, with each character in a costume whose bright shade evoked a key element of his or her personality—rose-colored for Rania the romantic, cobalt blue for calm, steady Bluntschli, and so forth.   

Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah. Curtain Call. L-t-R: Russian Officer (Leah Hairston), Nicola (Daniel L. Maguire), Sergius (Bassam Shuhaibar), Bluntschli (Joseph Gunnison), Rania (Aidma Alasmar), Major Petkoff (Hassan Hajiyah), and Catherine (Dima Alansari). Photo by Dhari Al Fozan, courtesy of Staged in Kuwait.

Staged in Kuwait is a community theatre group, which draws primarily on talented amateur thespians rather than professionally trained actors, and its productions are created on a limited budget. While these circumstances may give rise to occasional glitches, like a dropped line or a minor set malfunction, the overall effect of Hajiyah’s production was remarkably polished. 

Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, community theatre troupes like SIK serve a crucial function within socially stratified Gulf countries like Kuwait, in modeling inclusive and egalitarian interaction between members of different ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian communities, and allowing non-citizen residents an opportunity to create new forms of local culture. In its precisely balanced cast of characters, all of whom learn from each other and challenge each other’s cherished preconceptions over the course of Arms and the Man’s three acts, Shaw’s play provides an excellent example of ensemble collaboration. In producing it, SIK made a significant statement, bringing cast, crew and audience members of diverse identities and backgrounds together not only for an evening’s enjoyable entertainment, but also as an indication of what Kuwaiti society could conceivably achieve, were all of its residents’ contributions welcomed and celebrated.  

The production also accomplished two other things that, in the Kuwaiti context, are worthy of note. First, the production program situated this production squarely in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alansari’s producer’s note described the cast as having been “hyper aware of our neighbors to the east and the grave atrocities and consequences of war that they are currently facing,” a clear reference to the Ukrainian invasion. Moreover, the background and script of the program cover were the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, and its final page was dominated by an image of a blue and yellow remembrance ribbon.

Arms and the Man program cover, courtesy of Staged in Kuwait.

These were clear but necessarily indirect references, since making any public statement in Kuwait that may be construed as contradicting or critiquing official government policy, or as proposing points of view that run counter to “national unity,” risks running afoul of the official censorship apparatus, the consequences of which can include legal prosecution and imprisonment.

The Ukraine invasion is a particularly sensitive issue in Kuwait, which has found itself torn between remembrance of its own history of occupation by a hostile neighbor and the reluctance of its fellow GCC members, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to condemn or sanction Russia. The country has thus made efforts to align itself with Western allies while avoiding full-throated condemnation of the invasion. For a theatre community in Kuwait to link their production to an unambiguous stance on this issue indicates a courageous willingness to encourage public discussion of current events. Further, in equally bold terms, the production challenges audience members to meditate on the continuing impact of the patriotic, nationalist, and military-glorifying rhetoric that Shaw skewers in the play.

This production of Arms and the Man also addresses another controversial topic: the treatment of domestic workers in Kuwait. Unlike the invasion of Ukraine, this is not a concern raised in the program notes. Rather, it is one that stems directly from Shaw’s text and its portrayal of the Petkoff family’s servants, Louka and Nicola, each of whom takes a very different attitude towards their work and their relationship to their employers. Pert and ambitious, Louka considers herself Raina’s equal, and chafes at her status as her serving maid.

Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah. Louka (McKenzie Eury) and Sergius (Bassam Shuhaibar). Photo by Dhari Al Fozan, courtesy of Staged in Kuwait.

Nicola, conversely, embraces his role with intelligence and dignity; he takes Louka’s contemptuous assessment that he possesses “the soul of a servant” as a compliment, telling her it is the secret of his success. In their interactions with each other and with the other characters, both Louka and Nicola provide a glimpse into the varying lives, opinions, and aspirations of the people who provide domestic labor, and their keen insights into the dynamics and the foibles of the families they serve. 

For many in the West, Shaw’s depiction of the Petkoffs’ live-in maid and manservant would evoke visions of the lifestyle of elite families in a bygone era. In Kuwait, however, domestic help of this type is still a widespread reality, with maids, nannies, cooks and/or drivers playing a key role in the day-to-day functions of many Kuwaiti households. Hailing predominantly from Southeast Asia, Kuwait’s domestic servants number nearly a million people and represent over a quarter of the country’s total labor force, but their rights are tenuous and their protections scant. A 2015 Kuwaiti labor law lays out certain standards for the treatment of domestic laborers, but lacks an effective monitoring and enforcement mechanism. And while some employer-employee relationships in Kuwait are characterized by fair treatment and mutual respect and affection, human rights organizations have repeatedly documented cases in which domestic laborers in Kuwait have been subjected to a range of forms of abuse and exploitation. 

Under these circumstances, a play like Arms and the Man is significant in its depiction of smart, capable, complex characters like Louka and Nicola, who reflect incisively on their status as servants, and who claim equal dignity with those they serve. For both characters, moreover, domestic labor eventually proves a springboard to the attainment of a very different lot in life: Louka agrees to marry Sergius, and Bluntschli, impressed with Nicola’s competence and discretion, offers to make him a hotel manager. It is a salutary reminder, in the local context, that the people who provide domestic help may well have very different dreams and aspirations for themselves, as well as the talent and ability to thrive in other fields, if given the opportunity—and a sentiment that Shaw, a committed proponent of socialism, which he defined as “equal rights and opportunities for all,” would undoubtedly have appreciated. 

SIK’s program for Arms and the Man opens with an epigraph drawn from another of Shaw’s plays: “There is the eternal war between those who are in the world for what they can get out of it and those who are in the world to make it a better place for everybody to live in.” Productions like this one place SIK and its dedicated cast and crew squarely in the latter camp.


Katherine Hennessey is an Associate Professor of Shakespeare and Global Literature at Wenzhou-Kean University, a 2020-21 Research Fellow with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a 2022 Global South Translation Fellow with Cornell University. From 2017 to early 2022 she served on the faculty of the American University of Kuwait, as Assistant and then Associate Professor of English, as well as Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2018) and of numerous articles and essays on Shakespeare and Irish, Gulf, and Yemeni theatre.


 

Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editors: Esther Neff and Philip Wiles

 

Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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