x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Method in madness as Shakespeare comes to Abu Dhabi

"The play's the thing," wrote William Shakespeare in his tragedy Hamlet. But the Bard never imagined his immortal lines on a stage in Abu Dhabi and in the the hands of the Bedouin Shakespeare Company

Bedouin Shakespeare Company members from left back row; Jimmy Walters, Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer. Front from left; Edmund Digby-Jones, Eleanor Russo, Laura Corbett and Elliot Hardy at their theatre studio in London.
Bedouin Shakespeare Company members from left back row; Jimmy Walters, Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer. Front from left; Edmund Digby-Jones, Eleanor Russo, Laura Corbett and Elliot Hardy at their theatre studio in London.

To this day, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke remains the most popular of William Shakespeare's plays. Certainly it is the one that has been performed most often by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) since its foundation as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in 1879 and, says the RSC, "every minute of the day, it is being staged somewhere in the world".

Now, in an inspirational tour of schools and universities, Hamlet is coming to the UAE, courtesy of a newly formed company of young British actors, three of whom were raised and educated in Abu Dhabi and who want to give something back to the education system that served them so well.

Over the centuries the play's dramatic and familiar scenes have captured the imagination of artists as diverse as Delacroix, Millais and Moreau, and attracted the best actors of the day to its title role - from Shakespeare's contemporary Richard Burbage to Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kenneth Brannagh, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellan and Edwin Booth, the brother of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Its greatest asset, however, is its language, a gift that has seeped out into the vernacular, putting its words and phrases into the mouths of millions who have never even seen the play.

When we say we are sick at heart, or claim there is method in our madness, or see something in our mind's eye or act more in sorrow than in anger, we are, often unknowingly, speaking lines penned in England in 1601.

Likewise, when we utter such aphorisms as "neither a borrower nor a lender be", "there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of" and "brevity is the soul of wit", we are channelling the sagacity of Shakespeare - as we do when, stumped by some dilemma, we pose the rhetorical "to be or not to be, that is the question".

The Bedouin Shakespeare Company, which flew into Abu Dhabi last week in preparation for a three-week tour of the UAE, was founded by Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer, both 23, who came to live in the Emirates with their parents in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

Edward's father was working for the UAE Central Bank, Mark's was an IT consultant for the police force, and they met and became friends at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

After school, Edward trained at Drama Studio London, during which time he played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet and Proteus in a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, while Mark graduated from the university of Lincoln in 2011 with a BA Hons in drama. Also part of the company of seven is Laura Corbett, another British expatriate who moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 9 and joined the British School after her family transferred to Abu Dhabi.

The company's name, says Edward, partly reflects its roots in Abu Dhabi. "It has Arabic ties, of course - nomadic, the desert, the traveller - and we are a homeless theatre company, nomadically travelling and performing around the UAE".

They hope to engage Emirati students with the play, with special performances at Zayed University and UAE university in Al Ain.

Since training, Edward has gained a great deal of experience in staging theatre workshops, running improvisation sessions in schools and in homeless shelters around Leeds.

Last summer he ran improvisation workshops for the participants of the Global Young Leaders course at Our World English School, Cobham, and in December he played the Prince in the pantomime The Princesses' Dresses, which toured primary schools in West London.

The idea of the company, Edward says, "all happened quite quickly. Only a few months ago I decided I wanted to be serious about it". He and Mark "had spoken about it for years. We still come back to Abu Dhabi every year on holiday and every time we've said that you could bring a theatre company here because there is no theatre and people would really love it.

"We've been saying that for years and years. Then this year we actually decided, well, let's try to do it."

Getting work as a young actor can be tough, but none of the company was prepared to sit around waiting for the right auditions to come along.

"We were told so many times early on that you have got to make your own work. In your early stages as an actor you've really got to try to make work yourself."

That is one of the lessons the cast will be bringing to would-be actors throughout the UAE, in a series of workshops and talks that will accompany more than 15 performances of the play in schools and universities.

There will even be a command palace performance staged for their patron and sponsor of the tour, their former fellow pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa, and his sister Sheikha Hissa.

So why Hamlet? Partly, says Edward, because "it's been my favourite play since I was about six. I only found out later that it was the Mel Gibson film version I was obsessed with".

"We wanted to do a tragedy and originally we were thinking about Macbeth, but in the end we chose Hamlet because it's a play that can be cut down for seven actors and the story itself isn't that complicated.

"Essentially, it's a story about a family - about a son whose father has been killed and his mother marries his uncle," says Edward. "OK, it's not exactly everyday life, but the questions Shakespeare asks about it are about how most people would react. The play asks universal questions in a very clear way - if this happened, and this happened, what would you do about it?"

Of course, there is also a classic ingredient that is bound to find favour among young audiences: "It's got sword fights."

And good ones, at that. The company was lucky enough to have its swordplay choreographed by Philip d'Orléans, a hugely experienced member of the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat, who has worked with many professional companies, including the RSC, Royal Opera House and Shakespeare's Globe.

"He is one of the best fight choreographers in the country," says Edward, clearly delighted by his coup. "He was head of combat at the drama school I went to. I asked him, 'If we all get distinctions in our fight exam, would you choreograph something for us?', and so he did."

Although, in Hamlet's own words, "the play's the thing", it was never going to be enough for the company simply to stage a series of performances.

"We knew that if we were going to sell it to schools we had to make it as useful as possible, to help kids with their exams, but on top of that we wanted to do acting workshops. That comes from Mark and I being professional actors who grew up in the UAE, coming back to England and seeing people all our mates in the National Youth Theatre and so on when they were young, all these opportunities we didn't have living out there.

"I wanted to try to give some of the young actors out there tips on auditioning, what an actor's CV should look like, and so on, so if they want to go to drama school and become actors they've got a better chance."

There is, Edward says, something about Hamlet that makes it an ideal "meet Shakespeare" event.

"You realise that so many lines in Hamlet are part of everyday speech today," he says. "Even if you've never seen Shakespeare before, you will know of 'to be or not to be', for example, as an expression.

"So the play is not a completely abstract concept."

For tour sponsor and company patron Sheikh Sultan, the young actors' return to his country "to share their love of Shakespeare is indeed a great reflection of the message of entrepreneurship and leadership that is witnessed throughout schools and universities of the UAE".

"It is also a gracious thank you to the Abu Dhabi community who nurtured their talent on the stage".

In a message of support for the tour, he also acknowledged the universality of a playwright and a play that, according to the RSC, saw its first documented production in 1607 - not in London but on board a ship called The Dragon, staged by the crew for visiting dignitaries as the vessel lay anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone.

"We hope that over the coming years many of the works of Shakespeare will strike a chord with the youth of the Emirates - as it has done over centuries and across continents," Sheikh Sultan says. "And that the poetic language, and the sheer beauty of the story telling will resonate with the Emirati love of the cultural traditions of storytelling and lyrical Arabic poetry."

To find out more about the Bedouin Shakespeare Company's programme in the UAE and to book tickets, visit www.bedouinshakespeare.com.

jgornall@thenational.ae