Shakespeare On The Arabian Peninsula. By Katherine Hennessey.
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Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey

SHAKESPEARE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA. By Katherine Hennessey. London: Palgrave, 2018; pp. 340 +xxi.

Reviewed by George Potter, Valparaiso University.

In English language writing, the Arabian Peninsula is primarily constructed as a site for politics and economics. As I write this review, media attention in the United States is focused on Joe Biden’s impending trip to Saudi Arabia and whether Biden will ask the Saudi government to increase oil production, bring an end to its war in Yemen, or publicly strengthen its ties to Israel. One would not know from such conversations that artistic production in the Arabian Peninsula has and remains a vibrant part of life in the region.

Katherine Hennessey’s Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula uses the English-language’s most famous playwright as an entry point to exploring theatre in the Arabian Peninsula and, by extension, readers’ lack of knowledge about the region. While readers of Arab Stages may come to this book with more knowledge about the Peninsula or cultural production in the region, Hennessey’s early explanations of the basics of Peninsular geography, politics, demographics, and economics—as well as the book’s publication in Palgrave’s Global Shakespeare series—make it clear that the book is meant to bring in readers who might be more comfortable with Shakespeare than Arabic or the Peninsula.

However, even for those with knowledge of performance in Arabic, Hennessey makes two intriguing claims. The first, more common in discussions of adaptation into Arabic, is that Shakespeare has often been used on the Peninsula to either evade censorship or at least provide audiences with opportunities to explore issues of controversy or import to the current moment. Hennessey argues that this is not a process that begins in the theatre, but, rather, at the university, where “students come to see Shakespeare’s work as a lens through which to analyze their own societies, or as a language fraught and symbolic enough to escape a censor’s red pen” (88). These lenses, Hennessey asserts, then frame new approaches to Shakespeare in performance that speak to the local culture of the Peninsula. This idea of local adaptation also fuels Hennessey’s more intriguing claim: that a “new local” is formed around the performance of Shakespeare by companies that “embrace and embody heterogeneity and diverse modes of belonging, both on stage and in their interactions with each other offstage,” and, by extension, reject the ethnic, class, and gender hierarchies found elsewhere in Peninsular society (32). Bridging these two arguments, Hennessey later notes, in a chapter on how Shakespeare productions promote respecting difference, that “Shakespeare assists in the creation of an incisive and multi-layered socio-political allegory that communicates a complex and, in some quarters, unwelcome truth about the fissures, ruptures, and injustices of contemporary society” (235).

These claims are explored across seven countries: Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Additionally, Hennessey examines a wide range of performance contexts: professional, amateur, and student productions; Arab works, performance imported from the West, and South Asian productions; and shows ranging from the traditional to the experimental that use Shakespeare as a touchstone, rather than a definitive text. To this rich archive, Hennessey brings detailed descriptions of performance contexts, close knowledge of Shakespeare and intricate line readings, and knowledge of Arabic and the Peninsula.

Given the breadth of material covered, the book’s audience includes both Arab theatre specialists and Shakespeare scholars, and this is both a strength and a limitation. The range of performances covered help demonstrate all the ways in which Shakespeare can morph and be adapted even within a limited regional context. Certainly, this should be of interest to scholars of Shakespeare and those looking to expand the context of study and teaching within the frame of “global Shakespeare.” That having been said, one wonders if the range of countries, companies, and productions might be difficult to juggle for those coming to the book with little knowledge of the places and institutions involved. For readers of Arab Stages, it also seems worth noting that many of the productions involve expatriates, touring companies, international universities, and/or English. This, of course, is no fault of the author’s, as the archive of how Shakespeare’s plays manifest themselves on the Arabian Peninsula is what it is, and one would not want Hennessey to pretend otherwise. But scholars of Arab or Arabic-language theatre might enjoy the book more if they understand that it stretches beyond their immediate concerns.

Scholars focused on Arab theatre might wish for more attention to how Shakespeare has been received by scholars indigenous to the Gulf. Though Hennessey does wisely engage with Arabic reviews of many of the productions she discusses, bridges between scholarly communities may have been built through bringing more Arabic scholarship of theatre into the conversation. Perhaps there was not a large amount of this about contemporary productions of Shakespeare, but such sources might have helped frame the Shakespeare productions while also modeling the kind of inclusive, diverse, and alternative community that Hennessey believes Shakespeare can build. While Hennessey goes to great length to expand upon how Shakespeare fits into the political and economic context of the countries discussed, I find myself wanting to know more about how Shakespeare fits into the theatrical context of said countries.

The tensions between the kinds of theatre discussed—and the broader global Shakespeare project—also present themselves as the book draws toward a close. In the conclusion, Hennessey examines the 2016 “Year of Shakespeare” in the Arabian Peninsula, an apt ending for the book. She notes that Shakespeare’s Globe, a London-based theatre, set out to perform in “every country in the world” (300). This was achieved in the Peninsula by performing, at times, in elite and exclusive cultural institutions, and Yemen was checked off the list through a performance in a Yemeni refugee camp in Djibouti. Hennessey rightly contrasts these limited and checklist-structured productions to the local productions that aim to build “new locals” and “assist” in addressing local concerns. One might take this critique one step further. Perhaps the problem is not that the Globe toured to Djibouti or exclusive universities, but that it toured at all. Would it not prove more to spend that money helping local companies mount their own visions of Shakespeare, rather than tour British productions around the world? This is the tension that Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula leaves for future scholars: why do so many expats feel the need to perform Shakespeare wherever they go? What does it mean to have foreign workers and universities and touring companies constantly producing Shakespeare in other countries? Certainly, as Hennessey suggests, local audiences can see their own struggles with gender and monarchy in these performances. But if the work of Shakespeare speaks so universally on its own, then why is this foreign superstructure (including the scholarly one) needed to sustain it?

These questions remain for other scholars to dig into now that Hennessey has done the important work of charting the landscape of Shakespeare productions on the Arabian Peninsula. The points she makes certainly stand: local productions of Shakespeare are more complex and nuanced than some of the imported ones and local audiences learn from an early age to read their own struggles into the texts, performances, and adaptations of Shakespeare presented to them. In an English-language (and even sometimes Arabic) context that often flattens lives in the Peninsula, Hennessey has provided a necessary alternative, as well as an in-depth study of the many different Shakespeares who also inhabit the region.

SHAKESPEARE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA. By Katherine Hennessey. London: Palgrave, 2018; pp. 340 +xxi.

George Potter is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Valparaiso University. He has published in College LiteratureThe British Journal of Middle Eastern StudiesArizona QuarterlyThe Journal of American Drama and Theatre, and multiple book collections. His current research focuses on Islamophobia in liberal responses to the war on terror. His directing credits include a production of Jamil Khoury’s play Mosque Alert at Valparaiso University and a staged reading of Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s play Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! at Silk Road Rising in Chicago.


Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 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: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo


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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