Interview with Bayan Shbib, actor in Richard II by Palestine’s Ashtar Theater

Interviewed by Steve Rowland

 

Bayan Shbib; actress and drama teacher with Ashtar Theater, Palestine

sc-bayan shbib

Bayan joined the Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre in 2005 as an actress and drama teacher. In 2005 she won the prize for best young storyteller in the International Storytelling Festival in Birmingham, and just a year later she was awarded the prize for best actress in the International Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival. She has an MA in American Studies and Comparative Literature from Al-Quds University. 

 

Rowland:

So tell me a little bit about how this project came about and how Richard the second was chosen.

Shbib:

Well basically Ashtar Theater was contacted by the Globe because Ashtar is known for their social and political intervention as a theater practice in Palestine. Basically that’s how they were connected and afterwards Ashtar decided yeah why not, it’s a great opportunity.

Why not do a classical play in Palestine for the first time, as big as King Richard II. But first of all it wasn’t decided which play we should do. We suggested other plays but unfortunately other groups have already chosen them and we were left with King Richard II. The Globe saw that this play is very suitable for the area, the Middle East and the era we are living in right now. The political, you know, the Arab Spring etcetera.

We read the play. We weren’t very enthusiastic about it at the beginning because it’s not that well known first of all. We haven’t read it before, we haven’t heard about it and at the first reading we felt like there was no drama in it. But the more that we have done reading and exploration of text then we realized that this play is quite a great piece when it comes to, you know, the corruption of the political dynasties in the Arab world. Never the less, we didn’t decide to make an adaptation of the play or see the narrative of the play through the sociopolitical context we are living in right now.

We just—we honored Shakespeare’s words, we honored the narrative, we left it to tell the story that has been told in the past and then we leave it to the audience to make their own connections to the play. So that’s how we made this decision how to do King Richard II.

 

Rowland:

Then you performed it in April. Could you tell this a little bit about that performance and how it was received?

Shbib:

Yeah, well we didn’t make the easiest choice. We decided to make the performance in historical ruins of the Omayyad civilization.

It’s in Jericho. It’s a palace that has been destroyed by an earthquake, I think, around 500 years ago. Also an Arab king in the Omayyad period, and it’s the only ruins that we have of a historical monument, so we made use of that. And it’s inside the dessert as well, so it’s heat, dust, an open air platform. The audience is in contact with the actors. We wanted to experience the Globe atmosphere as actors and prepare ourselves for it.

So we decided to that. And in Palestine, because we don’t have these facilities when it comes to open air productions, producing the project in this place was actually also hard because we relied on ourselves as actors and as a theater director to make the right choices in terms of services and what we need on the spot. But the audience loved it. It was highly praised, and not only because it was in the open air, and you see the sunset, and you see King Richard being assassinated at the end of the play, you experience the atmosphere. Not only for that, people actually praise the play because it was one step forward when we talk about Palestinian theater. It was a development when we talk about theater and the meaning of not theater preaching or addressing political issues or social issues or educating. Theater art for the sake of art. So that’s why this play is considered quite a leap in the Palestinian theater nowadays.

 

Rowland:

So help me understand that. Are you saying then that the play is not seen as making any kind of commentary on the current situation?

Shbib:

Perhaps maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, we leave it to the audience. We are not addressing the political situation directly. We are not sending out messages, and telling the audience what to think. We are just leaving Shakespeare to tell the narrative and if they find any connections or parallel lines to what’s happening in the Arab world or maybe in Palestine, they are free to do so.

 

Rowland:

Yeah, okay. Well it brings up a lot of interesting issues and questions for me. One of them is that in places like the United States, where I am from, and in England, people live in relative quiet. In relative peace and relative luxury. And theater about kings and about wars and about assassinations is actually foreign to our day to day experience. Could you talk a little bit about what it’s like to perform in play like this from a different perspective?

Shbib:

Well let me first of all comment on what you have said about the United States.

 

Rowland:                   

Okay.

Shbib:

Well a play like that, any play that contemplates issues like corruption of dynasties or conflicts in palaces, I don’t think it’s a foreign issue to any country. It’s not something that is only relevant to the Middle East and is not relevant to the West. I think although the West, lives in a democratic atmosphere, that doesn’t mean that corruption is not available. It may be available in economical issues. It can be also available in Presidential offices; kind of monarchies that are, dressed up in suits but they still behave in the way King Richard the second was behaving.

And so I don’t think it’s a foreign issue to the United States or to the West per say. Plus, that we, if there is corruption of dynasties in the Arab world, and if we are talking about dictatorships in the Arab world, these are relevant to what’s happening in the West. We are living in one globe. That cause and effect relationship is very intense.

What’s happening in our area will affect positively or negatively what’s happening in the West and we have witnessed that in the past 11 years ago when terrorism started booming. That can tell that, if the whole globe kind of lives in a democratic atmosphere; with equal rights, equal opportunities, freedom of speech, then there will be much more openness to accept each other. And that’s why art and theater is the only way to address these issues and to actively connect people to people and make us feel that we are part of the world. That’s the genius of William Shakespeare. That he exposes issues like that that came from England and can relate to the Middle East at this era. Where it connected in the past to this empire that was colonial. And it just tells us how we are connected. We are never disconnected.

 

Rowland:

So in that way do you think Shakespeare has already become or is becoming kind of a center for global conversation?

Shbib:

Yes, surely he is. He is one of them. He is one of the main writers, thinkers if we can call him a thinker as well.

And his art as a genre is an open platform for cultural dialogue, political dialogue for sure.

 

Rowland:

Okay tell me a little bit more about what you just said, which I think is really important and fascinating, which is the role that theater has in contemporary dialogue.

Shbib:

Yeah I mean I will give you another example, maybe Othello, maybe Lady Macbeth; I will give you so many examples that, you know, its universal themes. It beholds really universal themes and when we are talking about characters that he named his plays; he named his plays in specific character names you know. It was a very smart choice just to tell people, that this individual can be so many other individuals. And this person can be multiplied in so many other places and colors and religions and ethnicities and there is much more openness in Shakespeare than we actually tend to see as human beings. And I think he was already global at his time. I mean when he presents a character like Cleopatra, and he has never lived in Egypt for God’s sake. I mean how can he write her, , just describe her, bring her life, her heart, her flesh, her desire, her politics, her nastiness, her beauty, all of this. In a character he names it in her name you know, at the end he gives her this platform. Then he goes to another character like Othello, He may be dark, he may be Arabic, he may be also African American, I don’t know. He can be anybody you know.

So I think that’s why he was global, he was universal and he was never a racist himself. And that’s why art should be about that, it should be about this diversity.

 

Rowland:

Tell me a little bit about the history of your theater company and the political engagement that you’ve had, because it’s almost like on one hand, the stepping up and doing Shakespeare is as you said, it’s a –

Shbib:

A step forward.

 

Rowland:

A step forward, but at the same time it’s almost—well, let me ask you, does that mean that when you are producing that you are less engaged in the conversation?

Shbib: In which kind of conversation?

 

Rowland:

Less engaged in the conversation you started out to be when you were doing the other kind of theater.

Shbib:

Well it’s not really the other kind of theater. Look, in Palestine, I am talking personally here; I am representing my own personal point of view.

There are two kinds of theater; there is one that is struggling to be what is art for the sake of art, and this doesn’t get any funding nor resources not from the government and not from donors, foreign funding. And there is the one that is receiving quite a lot of funding which is the one that deals with social issues; like raising awareness, education, and telling the Palestinians you are oppressed. You know, let’s do theaters that tackle your oppression which is usually social not political. Like let’s talk about honor killing, let’s talk about drugs, like talk about women’s affairs, let’s talk about this and that. And there are already agenda’s from foreign countries set before hand and they tell you what to do.

And that, from my point of view, is another form of cultural and mental occupation. And it’s worse and more dangerous than the political occupation we are encountering in Palestine because it brain washes people. It just empties them from their strive for living in existence and for freedom. And then they are too busy talking about these issues, which are important, but they can come if you are talking about a wider perspective which is art for the sake of art, if you know what I mean. Like Shakespeare’s works, classical theater, plays that are not already, fulfilling certain agendas.

And these are the two kinds of theaters right now. They are bullying each other and hopefully the stronger one will win. And that’s why it was important, this experience is. As much as we think that we enjoyed it as actors, I think the audience are cherishing it and they want more of that. And that’s enough to tell also donor funding, to tell agencies that come into Palestine to stop giving us money to talk about these issues. Let’s do art for the sake of art, let’s be free, let’s have our own platforms, let’s get exposed, let’s get into international platforms like the Globe, let’s go to the US and perform, let’s tour the world with equal opportunities just like any other country, not less, not inferior, not marginalized, not oppressed. That’s what I would like to say, that’s why I love King Richard II, as an actor and as a play.

 

Rowland:

Wonderful. So then tell me what does it mean for you to be part of this festival and what was it like to be on the stage yesterday?

Shbib:

It was amazing. I mean the audience is so energetic yesterday, you can see the vibes you know, there was a lot of energy in this place. Plus being in this place. The place serves the actor, it makes you a star whether you like it or not, you have a lot to give because you are already enveloped with audience’s eyes from every side, from every angle. You have to stay in character.

You are very attached to the openness of the sky, to the gods and the goddesses. It’s a unique experience. Plus being in the center of culture, historical culture, the United Kingdom, London, Shakespeare’s space. It’s all like emphasizing and heightening the drama of performance. Plus being in the United Kingdom, as I said that, we have a history as Palestinians with the UK, not one of the best, but Shakespeare is the best. You know, if it comes to the colonial history it wasn’t that nice but I think we can preserve a better future if we connect with the United Kingdom culturally and artistically. We can preserve our future and our present and reconcile and look in positive way towards our futures and forget maybe the past or get over it.

If we look at being in the United Kingdom as an experience, us Palestinians, we don’t have the best experience with the United Kingdom being a colonial empire that resided in Palestine and handed us over to the Israeli presence right now. I think connecting with the United Kingdom on the artistic and cultural level is more important because it preserves our future and our present and may bring us to a reconciliation for the future rather than looking into the past and being oppressed and angry all the time. Just look positively.

 

 

 

 

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