In a rehearsal room in Dubai, Juliet Capulet – who survived her suicide attempt – is sharing a romantic moment with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Along with Othello, they’re part of a band of rebels fighting the evil alliance of Lady Macbeth, Iago and Richard III. Oh, and they’re trying to track down an elusive wizard who might have dreamt them all into existence.
Forget Kill Bill. This is Kill Shakespeare, a Canadian comic-book series in which the Bard’s tragic heroes team up to take on its villains. Live readings of the story – combining voice acting with art from the comics projected on a cinema-style screen – have already been staged across North America, and the series was described as “gripping, violent and dark fun” in The New York Times.
Now, with the help of the community theatre company Backstage Dubai and a host of local, non--professional actors, preparations are already underway for Kill Shakespeare to make its overseas debut at the Middle East Film and Comic Con next month before running for a week at The Fridge on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai.
“I was there with a big grin on my face throughout the whole first read-through,” says Ahmed Rabieh, a 24-year-old Jordanian who will play Romeo. Like the rest of the cast and crew – from Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and Dubai – he juggles rehearsals with a day job, working at Hewlett Packard when he’s not studying for his master’s degree in psychology. (He has also found time to appear in several Backstage Dubai productions and describes himself as a gamer and Manga geek.)
His character is still a great lover, Rabieh says, but more mature: he’s no longer the impulsive teenager of the original play. “You see him make a sacrifice for his love; it’s beautiful.”
Putting the fun on stage
It was at last year’s inaugural Comic Con in Dubai that all this came about. Both of Kill Shakespeare’s co-writers and co-creators, Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, flew in for the event, and were impressed.
“I think the area is on the verge of a huge explosion of geek culture and homemade talent,” Del Col says. McCreery agrees: “I loved it. It’s this amazing eye-opener into Middle Eastern culture. Back home we’re never told about the Arab world’s love for all sorts of pop culture.
“My favourite moment was probably seeing a young woman wearing a niqab and carrying a bag with the Batman symbol on it. I asked for a photo and when she posed she flashed me the kawaii sign – the “peace” symbol that Japanese people often flash when they are posing for pictures. I thought to myself: ‘You know, that’s pretty perfect. We’ve got three totally different cultural things going on here and it feels so natural.’”
Backstage Dubai’s founder and president, Gautam Goenka, who regularly directs plays for the company, was there, too. An avid comic fan (his collection at home has “everything under the sun in there”), he had just finished reading the first series of Kill Shakespeare when a friend dragged him to what he thought would be “a very boring discussion on writing comics”.
It turned out that Del Col and McCreery were on the panel, and they mentioned wanting to put on a stage version in Dubai but couldn’t find a theatre group to work with.
“I thought, OK, how is that possible?” Goenka recalls. There are four community theatre groups that he knows of, he says, besides Backstage Dubai. He has been putting on plays for 10 years and says the scene has never been as active as during the last six months.
After the talk, Goenka told them about his company and they swapped details, but says he “was fairly sure they would never contact us again”.
Two weeks later, they did, and he signed on as the director of the live reading. He laughs, remembering those first, exciting exchanges: “I think it was fate.”
Geek culture in Dubai
As actors from India, the UK, the US and elsewhere in the world hone their villainous cackles and lovelorn sighs, buzz is already building for the production.
Ticket enquiries and offers to help are already coming in and producers are in talks with schools to entice comic-loving kids to an event that will, with some luck, kindle in them a respect for classic literature. And if theatre buffs come along and fall in love with the world of fantasy and sci-fi, so much the better.
Del Col and McCreery are currently working on a feature-film screenplay based on the Kill Shakespeare series, as well as a video game version, but even amid all this activity, Del Col says that the Middle East Comic Con is going to be “one of the highlights of the year”.
He’s looking forward to chatting to fans: “Geek culture has become an international language” so there will be plenty to talk about.
The duo are also planning on running more workshops on creating comics, and will be bringing copies of Kill Shakespeare’s new, five-issue second series (set on Prospero’s island) as well as enough copies of the first series – which sold out quickly last year – to satisfy demand.
McCreery is just as enthused.
“I’m especially excited to see how the local comic arts scene has grown,” he says. “I suggested last year that they run an event to bring together aspiring comic writers and artists, so I’m hoping they do something like that to really help the scene explode.”