Theatre-hungry Doha looks forward to a December 16-17 performance of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey.
Kevin Spacey to grace theatre-hungry Doha's stage
After months of rehearsals, Kerry Suek, a Canadian expatriate in Qatar, was finally on stage playing Feste the clown in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It was Saturday, the evening of March 19, 2005. In the audience were around 70 people.
The performance was by the Doha Players, a local amateur theatre group that has existed for more than 50 years. The play was being performed in the members' own theatre, built in 1979 and funded by the country's former ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Muhammed Al Thani.
On the night of the performance, a car bomb blast ripped through the theatre.
"I think it's the only Shakespearean play to be hit by a terrorist," says Suek.
The tragedy, a suicide attack, killed both the bomber - an Egyptian who was apparently marking the second anniversary of the invasion into Iraq - and the play's director, Jonathan Adams.
"They portray this kind of thing in movies, when everything slows down. I was so surprised, that was exactly how it was," Suek recalls. "Everything was in slow motion - I don't remember a big sound."
The group has built up the courage to enact just one Shakespearean tale since then, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
On Friday and Saturday, Doha is set to host a larger theatrical production by the world's most famous playwright. Around 3,000 people are expected at the newly built Qatar National Convention Centre, a gargantuan exhibition hall in the city's education zone, to watch a three-hour performance of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey.
While Qatar's cultural scene is progressing in the film and music arenas, with the annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) and a national philharmonic orchestra, large-scale theatre productions rarely reach the country.
It's an important moment, not least for members of the Doha Players who have already bought tickets and hope that this marks another turning point for the Gulf state's relentless pursuit of cultural initiatives and partnerships.
"As soon as we hear of anything like this, I send out an email to all of our members," said the group's administrator Elaine Potter, who bought her pair of tickets immediately after the sale was announced on a Facebook page. "We had such a big reaction. They're really hungry for theatre. There's not much of it here."
Richard III, which will have Surtitles in Arabic, is top-billed by the Hollywood heavyweight Kevin Spacey and directed by Sam Mendes, the Briton more well-known for directing the films American Beauty and Road to Perdition than his acclaimed stage reinventions of Cabaret and Oliver!
Spacey said in a statement: "Sam is one of the finest directors I have had the pleasure to work with and to gain this opportunity is beyond my wildest hopes. I love his perspective on a role, carving and shaping the actor. With such a remarkable character before me, I have a feeling this one is going to be a memorable experience."
Mendes, who will not be in Doha for the show, said: "Richard III is a play I love, and a role I think Kevin is born to play."
The two previously worked together on American Beauty, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor (for Spacey) in 2000.
Richard III is currently on a world tour and is part of The Bridge Project, a three-year-old transatlantic collaboration that brings together British and American actors in classic theatre productions.
Richard III's London debut at The Old Vic sparked a flurry of positive reviews.
"Spacey's triumph. A five-star Richard III," said The Times.
"Electrifying," praised the Daily Telegraph.
"Spacey is superb," TheGuardian wrote.
A production team of 42 actors, musicians, technicians and stage management will fly in from Sydney, the latest stop of the tour before Qatar. The show has performed in Athens, Hong Kong, Spain, Istanbul, Naples, Beijing and Singapore. After Doha, the show is due for a New York finale.
The play is a venture between London's Old Vic Theatre Company (where Spacey is the artistic director), the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the independent UK production company Neal Street. The Doha Film Institute, the same organisation that produces the yearly film festival, is "co-commissioner" and the one ultimately responsible for bringing the production over to Qatar, the only Middle Eastern country to stage the show.
In Doha, theatre is predominantly performed by amateur groups at various schools, although there is a National Theatre near the city's corniche.
As such, importing the right equipment for such a high-scale production will not be a simple process.
"The scenery has been built in the UK, and is being shipped to Doha from San Francisco, where we performed in October," said Nick Schwartz-Hall, the line producer for The Bridge Project. "The props and costumes will arrive with the company by air from our engagement in Sydney. Half the company comes from the UK and the other half from the United States. We have been working with the DFI for more than six months on the planning and preparations for this."
One student who intends to watch the performance is Nasser Al-Naama, an undergraduate at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.
"This is the first time I can think of something that's like this, that brings us theatre in this way," he said. "It's a turning point. It's good to diversify the cultural scene."
During Spacey's stay, the actor plans to hold theatre workshops in two local schools. It will be his second time in Doha: in 2010, he attended the DTFF where he also held an acting class.
"It is my hope to bring a comprehensive educational programme and opportunities for emerging artists along with our travels, making an argument for the living theatre in all the major cities we will visit," he said.
The Doha College is one of the two schools awarded with the Kevin Spacey Foundation workshop. The school had to undergo an application process that involved producing a video and submitting several statements by students.
Twenty-eight students and two staff members will attend.
"To see a professional production that kids can work on and write about is really important," said Nicola Marks, the school's head of drama. "This is physical theatre that has probably never been done before in Doha. It's really special."