ABU DHABI // "The king's name is a tower of strength", the immortal words from Shakespeare's tragedy Richard III, ring true in any language. And soon, university students here will be hearing them performed on stage for the first time in Arabic. Students at two of the country's biggest universities, Zayed University and the UAE University in Al Ain, are studying a translated version of the text in the run-up to the staging of an Arabic version of the play.
The initiative, launched by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), may pave the way for Shakespeare's works to be introduced permanently to university curriculums. The official name of the text being taught is Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, by Sulayman al Bassam, a director and playwright from Kuwait. Mr al Bassam will also conduct drama workshops with the students. Nezar Andary, assistant professor in humanities at Zayed University, has been teaching Mr al Bassam's script to his drama students this week.
He said that while the language was difficult to deal with at first, it gave them an extra dimension of understanding. "The translation is a mixture of fus-hah [classical] Arabic, colloquial Khaleeji dialect and some English. It wasn't easy for everyone to handle. Some students appreciated it and some didn't, some of those more immersed in Arabic culture helped me to understand it further. But in the end their knowledge of Shakespeare will be greatly enhanced by this play."
Mr Andary said Richard III was one of Shakespeare's most important plays in terms of language. King Richard's soliloquies, which take up a large portion of the original script, were powerful, he said, and at times extremely manipulative. "Richard III is a typical Machiavellian character whose language is very strong. He spends more than three quarters of the play on stage and in that time he persuades people to do things they don't want to. For example, he seduces Lady Anne, a woman whose husband and father he has killed, and he sends one of his lords to kill his nephews.
"To understand the strength of his words in Arabic as well as in English allows the students to see the importance of the villain as a role not just in Shakespeare's time but today," Mr Andary explained. He added that he put the play in historical context by teaching students about the War of the Roses in late 15th-century England. Mr al Bassam moved the action to an oil-rich feudal kingdom in his version, first performed in Stratford-upon Avon in 2007.
Richard III: An Arab Tragedy is not the first classical work to be translated for Arabic audiences. Last year Abu Dhabi Classics staged the first Arabic performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni and this weekend a translated version of The Marriage of Figaro will be presented in Al Ain. Abdullah al Amri, director of the arts and culture department at Adach, said the latest collaboration with the universities would highlight the importance of drama education and the classical traditions of international theatre.
"Theatre should not only be entertainment, but also an educational formative experience, and an aspiration for higher thoughts and analysis of the universal human condition," he said, adding that the Richard III production would help to promote contemporary Arabic theatre. Mr Andary commented: "There are many traditional and avant-garde plays coming from within the UAE. In Sharjah, for example, in the next two weeks there is a theatre festival with many local shows."
The translation of works should be "a two-way street", he said. "If they translate Shakespeare to Arabic they should also translate Arab plays into English." firstname.lastname@example.org