Emotional Osmosis

King Lear in Arabic; a beautified departure

30 DECEMBER 2016,
Simon Russell Beale is King Lear
Simon Russell Beale is King Lear

When you talk Shakespeare, you talk tragedy, you experience the darkness within, the beauty in silence and the silent howls of pain. Shakespeare’s literary path boasts of those dark steps into death and rebirth, it leads us towards a deeply rooted culture of purging one’s self from residual emotions and sets up right before harsh reality as artistically depicted in his plays. Forget that lump in your throat as you toil at your desk or that rootless stress that you cannot bash.

Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most, if not THE most famous playwright of all time. His name is akin to that of Christ, Buddha or whatever religious figure you can bring out. I, for one, am a total fan of Shakespeare’s tragedy with a slight inclination towards one of his comedies most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the wit and humor that we miss nowadays. We, however, are not here to discuss comedies but to delve into death itself, into a world created by the renowned artist with its twists and mad turns.

I have lately had the chance to attend Shakespeare’s King Lear in Hamra’s Masrah Al Madina (roughly translated as the City’s Theatre in Hamra). But here’s the catch, the whole play was translated into colloquial Arabic; our Lebanese dialect, which is quite tricky to use in literary works and mostly seen as an amalgam of languages due to our colonial history. Revenons, upon hearing of the project through a friend of mine, who happened to be the Production Manager, I felt a knot in my throat. I mean. Translating Shakespeare is not something to be taken lightly, I even tend to frown upon such practices as the charm and wit majorly stem from the original language and cannot be replicated, at least not as easily and as subtly as the playwright intended.

So I stepped into the stuffy theater, making my way through the various invitees and attendees to sit crammed on an old seat overlooking a low stage upon which were placed 6 massive copper columns and a few copper benches fitted with concealed wheels. Looking at the setting, I felt a wave of relief, as I am an advocate of minimalism and simplicity. As my wristwatch struck 8:30 p.m. my mind started racing as to where this will lead; being a Literature grad, I have come to read Shakespeare over and over again and I have fallen in love with the strength of his narratives that are built on human psychology, search for power, for knowledge, for means to fathom the dark side and most importantly death. In short, I am no stranger to King Lear and to its heart-wrenching plot, so I found myself quite fortunate to be able to objectively watch this rendition and share with you my honest opinion.

As the play started and actors leapt onto the stage, speaking my native language, my curiosity spiked. Costumes were an combination of modern and era-related apparel, soldiers were plainly dressed and stood sentry leaving the spotlight and attention for the main characters. Out of the darkness on the wooden stage’s right-side, a Cello’s and Nay’s mellow and sad tunes silenced the very few who were still feeling chatty and the percussions used signaled every change through out the two-hour play.

I shall avoid going through the plot as it is accessible on the net and those seeking to know the synopsis can easily find it. I will, instead, focus on the adaptation into our local language that is most probably alien to many of you out there.

Roger Assaf; the actor who played King Lear, entered the stage, his voice resonating around the theatre, his presence felt truly god-like and his kingly attitude mirrored that of his character as it is supposed to, displaying emotional volatility and superfluous emotional discharge towards his daughters and later his fool. As we all know, King Lear is supposed to be living in a bubble rendering him a high and mighty ruler above all considerations. His crown; symbol of his power, is the only obstacle between him and reality, which is very much symbolic of our attempts at coping with issues that seem to overwhelm us. Mr. Assaf portrayed the king’s emotional roller coaster with such intensity, it left us in awe before his talent.

His daughters Regan, Goneril and Cordelia looked as different as they internally are. These characters were intelligently acted out as the two elder ones are supposed to play their father’s game, knowing too well his need for flattery, while the youngest, being honest and most probably blind to her father’s game, could not set her emotions into a verbal message, thus enraging the king. This scene that comes early in the play is symbolic of the shallow needs that power instills in the human mind, hence the king banishing his youngest and refusing her the rest of his kingdom. We all know how the play rolls out from here, so I will be focusing in one short passage on the language.

Translation is a balance between art and science. This statement seems a bit too cliché, I know, yet, I am compelled to resort to it since the whole play was translated into a language joining Arabic, Turkish, Italian, French, etc. wielding such a concoction means trying to figure out how to recreate Shakespeare’s intelligent wordplay, which is surely be a tough task that cannot be underestimated. The three translators who undertook this project, conveyed the meaning to a tee; they, however, seemed to focus too much on the original wording, which left the final product saturated with certain terms, such as gods, goddess and expression meaning to curse other characters. This, in my opinion, added some heaviness to the flowing Arabic language, and forced the actors to utter very long sentences that sometimes were unintelligible to the audience. I would also like to pinpoint the issue relating to the use of “disagreeing consonants,” that are akin to dissonant notes in music. Many actors slightly struggled on stage, forcing us to read the original text projected on the stage’s upper right corner.

All in all, the play was cathartic and an experience not to be missed, given the fact that it was localized and adapted. I advise those who shun the Arabic language to actually give it a shot and share their thoughts concerning this work of art; it is high time we focused on a language that has stood the test of time and that morphed itself into a multi-faceted tool for speakers in our region.