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Arab Shakespeare


Arab dramatists have been translating and adapting Shakespeare’s plays for over a century, but research undertaken by Professor Graham Holderness, University of Hertfordshire, has developed Arab Shakespeare as a new area of Shakespeare Studies, creating opportunities for the sharing of cultural experience across ethnic, political and religious barriers. Holderness has worked with successful dramatist Sulayman Al-Bassam, sustaining a collaboration that has influenced theatre companies, actors, and audiences across several continents.

AHRC funded research, led by Professor Holderness, has developed from a critical study of Al-Bassam’s work, into a public dialogue with the writer, leading to insights from the research being internalised in Al-Bassam’s plays and disseminated via accompanying public events. The play Richard III: An Arab Tragedy toured across the world, attracting positive reviews and achieving an impressive global reach for the research that contributed to the production.

‘The Speakers Progress’ Credit: SABAB Theatre

Holderness, a specialist in Shakespeare’s history plays, offered specific advice on Al-Bassam’s adaptation of Richard III, helping the dramatist achieve broader political and cultural horizons in the work. The collaboration allowed the medium of Shakespearean historical drama to represent a contemporary region in a form intelligible to both Eastern and Western audiences. Commissioned by the RSC and premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, in 2007, the play subsequently toured in Washington DC, Abu Dhabi, New York, Kuwait, Damascus, Paris and Amsterdam. The play attracted favourable comment from the Financial Times, the New York Times, with the Washington Post considering it ‘an estimable example of cross-artistic fertilization’ (2009).

During this world tour, Holderness presented the underpinning research at conferences for academics and theatre professionals, including at Shakespeare’s Globe and the British Shakespeare Association’s 4th Annual Conference. This fertile interplay of research and practice was repeated for Speaker’s Progress, Al-Bassam’s adaptation of Twelfth Night, which also toured internationally. This new play again earned reviewers’ praise, with many applauding how Al-Bassam’s adaptation had represented the contemporary East-West relationship, thereby facilitating common understanding and reciprocal recognition.

This mutually beneficial collaboration has continued, with performances and contextualising materials made available online (attracting worldwide visitor interest), and Holderness’s and Al-Bassam’s work brought together for The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy, published by Bloomsbury in 2014.

For more information on the project visit: Project website

Gateway to Research Project Links: Gateway to Research, Arab Shakespeare: the work of Sulayman Al-Basam and the Zaoum Theatre Company, 2006-07