ABU DHABI // A comedy of love in 18th-century England is being retold for the UAE, and its director says the issues it deals with go right to the heart of modern Emirati society.
Maggie Hannan, the founder of Resuscitation Theatre in the capital, said she had decided to direct Richard Brinsley Sheridan's romantic comedy The Rivals because the story explored issues often found in the local community. The play is being staged as part of this month's Abu Dhabi Festival.
Her co-director Faisal Al Zaab is Emirati, as is her leading lady Sara Al Nuaimi, who stars as Lydia Languish, a teenager from a rich English family who wants to marry for love.
To win her heart, Capt Jack Absolute pretends to be a poor officer. Despite having two wealthy suitors, Lydia falls for Capt Jack's alter ego, Ensign Beverley.
"I like to choose plays that are relevant, and this play is so relevant to the life and culture here," said Hannan, who is from New York.
The Rivals is set in the spa town of Bath in the west of England in the late 18th century.
"People don't realise that wasn't very different to what life is now, with matchmaking and arranging marriages too," Hannan said. "We are having a hoot - in rehearsals we fall about laughing half the time."
The play is part of the festival's community programme and will be performed in English at 8pm from March 28 to 30, in a tent at Sahil Al Meydan on the Corniche, at the end of Khaleej Al Arabi Street.
It will be the first time the theatre company has taken part in the festival, after support from the Abu Dhabi Arts and Music Foundation.
"Be prepared for a hilarious night out. It's a real fun fusion of Arabic and English culture," said Hannan. "In the West you have arts council funding and we are so honoured to be funded for this show by Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. We are aiming for sustainable theatre."
Al Nuaimi said Hannan's passion for integrating local and international culture had driven her to become involved.
"What she does is rare because usually you see either theatre plays that are international or Emirati theatre," she said. "You don't often find something in the middle.
"In this culture, a lot of arranged marriages take place and they usually arrange the matchmaking on having the same social status, and to rebel against that, when you want to just marry for love, it could be anyone you set your eyes on."
It is a similar situation today in many parts of the western world, said Hannan.
"In some families in England they still arrange marriage, like much of the Royal and wealthy families," she said. "And in America, if you have some old money, family are going to be very careful who their daughter marries."
Resuscitation Theatre, which has been active since 2002, has also staged The Seagull by Anton Chekhov and The Cocktail Party by TS Eliot, which played last year to a sold-out crowd in Abu Dhabi.
Hannan believes an integral part of her job is to encourage and ensure Emirati involvement, and to do it while "maintaining the cultural sensibilities and the strict code that Emiratis have to live by".
The Rivals fits that perfectly, she said.
"It used to be called 'the comedy of manners' because of the strict protocol that England used to live by then," Hannan said.
"It's not so different from here."
Many of the cast grew up in the UAE and related to the storyline from the first reading.
"I love theatre because it's more immediate," said Hannan, who is calling for more support and funding to nurture local artists and eventually create a theatre culture. "Theatre is still a bit of an unknown territory.
"There is a culture that everything needs to be imported. There is not enough reliance on grassroots and that's a big hurdle - to get people to understand that instead of bringing things in, put that same effort into nurturing this here and take that group of actors abroad to see theatre. That's the education."
Al Nuaimi, who studied cinema in California, said the arts were still under-appreciated here.
"Worldwide, art doesn't have as much value as other ways of life," she said. "But here especially, art is not understood.
"Now they are starting to understand it in the sense of tourism, that art is good to portray a good image for the country, but in terms of art instilling awareness and value as having a positive influence on society and ways of thinking, that's not yet explored."
What is needed, the director and actress say, is an art centre to instil creative and "critical thinking".
Admission to The Rivals is free. More information is available online at abudhabifestival.ae