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In the wonderfully subtle The Speaker's Progress, Shakespeare's farce suddenly becomes a revolutionary weapon #hf12

Tight-lipped. Freshly cut. And with a beatific, assured voice, The Speaker - played by director Sulayman Al-Bassam - a slick public relations man. Or better: a civilised Arab dictator with an Oxford degree. One of those supported by the West and deeply hated by their own people.

He steps behind a lectern and narrates. Once he was a radical, wildly experimental theatre-maker. Now he runs fanatically in step with the arch-conservative regime, in an unnamed Arab banana republic.

The Speaker is determined to eradicate the "depraved, mental plague of theatre" once and for all. He does so by presenting, for the áll-last time, an old Arabic film version of Shakespeare's farcical Twelfth Night - a play about heady yearning, love, and with plenty of reprehensible transvestism - reenacting scene by scene. Assisted by his team of like-minded zealots. Emphatically no real actors. Because only through this detached deconstruction can the corrupting influence of the comedy be unmasked. Thus The Speaker.

In The Speaker's Progress, we witness a Kafkaesque laboratory. On either side of a small, wooden stage, officials in dust coats stand behind work tables with obscure measuring equipment. Coarse-grained black-and-white fragments of the Arabic Twelfth Night are projected against the back wall, while on a small wooden stage these dull types take turns reenacting the scenes. Everything is named in absurd detail, all poses and facial expressions are described, and the text is souffled by several officials at the same time. Toe-curlingly funny.

Director Sulayman Al-Bassam made The Speaker's Progress as the third part in an Arab Shakespeare trilogy, Al Hamlet Summit and Richard III, an Arab Tragedy preceded this. The production process started just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring. And although the play was initially intended as a pitch-black commentary on the region's nut-entrenched dictatorships, it increasingly became a paean to the spontaneous, revolutionary energy and yearning for freedom that was so powerfully expressed in the Arab Spring.

After several hideously mind-numbing scenes of Shakespeare, the dull officials slowly get the hang of it. They start having more and more fun and start taking their roles more and more seriously. Blood is thicker than water. Such is the case with the former theatre-maker The Speaker, who at one point is rudely knocked back by the fanatical Director of Tourism after a slightly too liberal game direction, and is taken to task offstage.

Of all the actors, this character - hilariously portrayed by Syrian actor Fayez Kazak, with a mix of repressed horniness and religious fanaticism - still appears to be the strictest of the lot. Not coincidentally, he also plays the role of Mullah. Halfway through the performance, he takes over the microphone from The Speaker, to briefly remind the audience of the squeaky-clean beaches in their oil state: 100% untouched by human hands, or the revolution. It is a subtle sneer at the fact that until recently, many of the toppled, brutal dictatorships (Tunisia, Egypt) were still popular holiday destinations. Especially for Westerners.

Yet. One by one, the players lose themselves in their roles and The Speaker's Progress is taken over by spontaneous improvisations, poetry readings and experimental drive. Thus, this subtle performance makes palpable how years of repressed and pent-up creative energy can suddenly erupt.

It is in this final, expressive part of The Speaker's Progress that I confess to having completely lost the thread at one point. The actors seem to refer to specific key moments in the revolution in a number of fragmentary scenes, and I felt quite a few cultural references passed me by unnamed. To really appreciate The Speaker's Progress, perhaps you should see the performance with an Arab friend. In the seat next to you.

The Speaker's Progress can still be seen 7 June, 20:30, Theatre Bellevue. More info

See also Sulayman Al-Bassam's interesting Ted talk:

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Daniel Bertina

/// Freelance cultural journalist, critic, writer and dramatist. Omnivore with a love of art, culture & media in all unfathomable gradations between obscure underground and wildly commercial mainstream. Also works for Het Parool and VPRO. And trains Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.View Author posts

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