The digital clock in the studio space on the Downtown campus of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) gives the time in Abu Dhabi, New York, Tokyo, Paris and London in bright red dots. Milling around on the floor below are 28 students from NYUAD, the American University of Sharjah, Cairo University and the Lebanese American University; drinking coffee, laughing and complaining of muscle aches.
It’s day two of the second Global Shakespeare Student Festival (GSSF) and spirits are high even though the rigours of exploring the physicality of Shakespeare in yesterday’s workshop have taken their toll. One student approaches her peers with a cheery “Good morning” and everyone responds to her camera lens with a pose or a gesture and a smile.
Their incessant cheer somewhat belies the seriousness of NYUAD’s Global Shakespeare Project. “Global Shakespeare”, as opposed to plain-old “Shakespeare Studies”, is not only a hot academic research topic but a concept that dovetails neatly with the discourse of an international university, rooted in western traditions, seeking a distinctive regional identity.
As Cyrus Patell, an associate professor of literature and co-director of the Global Shakespeare Project, says: “Ultimately, Global Shakespeare started to be used when people were describing what the curriculum would be like in advance of us having students, as an example of what NYUAD would do differently and would enable.
“That we wouldn’t just do Shakespeare, we would do Global Shakespeare; or we would get people to think about the idea of what the global means through the avenue of Global Shakespeare. It became an emblem of what our curriculum might be able to realise.”
The Global Shakespeare course at NYUAD is fundamental to its humanities programme and Patell is certain that the school is uniquely placed to add something to the study of the Elizabethan dramatist. “When we started investigating what Global Shakespeare meant in the scholarly world,” he says, “we discovered that Global Shakespeare was primarily about translation, adaptation ... You might say post-colonial approaches to Shakespeare.
“It seemed to me that there were at least two other stages that most of the field were not thinking about, that we had the opportunity to think about.”
One of these is an investigation into the global imagination evidently at work in Shakespeare’s plays and the second is the process through which, as Patell says, “Shakespeare, the man, the playwright, the actor becomes Shakespeare in scare quotes, ‘the monumental global figure of culture’.”
For the group of international students learning about Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III and looking forward to reading an English translation of Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête — two plays that update the 16th-century drama by charging it with racial tension — Shakespeare made global means confronting their own experiences of racism.
The playwright and novelist Gerty Dambury, who has researched the history of the real African Company, an early 19th-century American theatre company set up to entertain New York’s population of freed slaves, opens that morning’s discussion with an observation on the present company: “We’re all mixed up and it’s a happy thing to be together ... it was not that easy to be together [in 1820s New York].”
What quickly becomes clear is that the social inequality of Shakespeare’s world, which resonated with William Henry Brown, the founder of the African Company 200 years later, and later still with the French playwright Aimé Césaire, who recast Ariel as a mixed race and Caliban as a black slave in his version of A Tempest, is still relevant. The students have just given a public reading of The African Company Presents Richard III with female actors in roles that black actors would originally have played, an experiment in cross-gender casting and the politics of identity, but when Dambury explains why she recently signed a petition to the French government to complain about their response to racial slurs against the justice minister Christiane Taubira, the students turn their thoughts to modern race relations.
An Egyptian student is quick to complain that she had been insulted by someone who had first asked whether she was Egyptian. Another responds to her anger with an observation on the complexity of racial relations in the UAE: “It’s so multicultural here. You might sit next to someone you hate but in order to live here you suppress it. You go on with your life and it comes out in odd ways.”
“Being an international school,” an NYUAD student says in reply, “race is almost forgotten.” Another NYUAD student from Chile says: “You go home and you are not so Chilean anymore. There is a tension. Are we all global? But I want to retain my own culture.” For Rubén Polendo, executive director of the Arts at NYUAD and the founder of Theater Mitu, a New-York based theatre company that regularly stages performances in Abu Dhabi, their comments are a validation of the “Global Shakespeare” approach as the students discover in Shakespeare a vehicle for discussing their own concerns.
The theatre director has been living in the emirate for the past four years and Polendo says that his experience of the capital has influenced his work in many ways. “One of those ways has been this ability to instinctively view things as a cross section of cultures in conversation,” he says. “Not as cultures next to each other but actually in conversation. Whether it be the way that the city functions [or] the way this university exists ...
“That conversation can be rough, can be beautiful, can be complicated, can be unhealthy but it exists. Sometimes out of need, sometimes out of proximity, sometimes there’s just tension, but I think what has really stuck with me is this idea that culture makes noise.”
Polendo’s theatre company is currently developing an adaptation of Hamlet that will draw together different performance traditions from East and West with a translation of Shakespeare’s words into modern English by Jocelyne Clarke, a dramaturg contributing to the GSSF. Theater Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur Hamlet will be performed in Abu Dhabi and its cast are due to get together for an intensive three weeks of collaboration and planning at NYUAD in the spring. The company’s three previous productions have drawn a dedicated and perhaps even more importantly, a wide audience here, as he explains:
“It has been diverse, it has been the national population, an Arab diaspora population, an expat population. We have made a lot of inroads into bringing the worker population. We really created a communal space in which all those people can sit together.
“I sat in a production that we did and saw these different groupings as a community and I thought that is remarkable. Laughing at the same thing, gasping at the same thing and so I think there is a space for that but it will take some time. And I feel like either this is a great moment for it ... or it’s not. And so I am hoping that it is.” It’s a sentiment that no theatre-goer would dispute.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.