Interview by Mamoon Alabbasi – London
The UK-based Palestinian dabke theatre group Al Zaytouna will present its new production entitled Unto the Breach, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V set in modern-day Palestine. The show, directed by Ahmed Masoud and co-directed by Hadjer Nacer, will be performed in London in November 2012. Al Zaytouna board member Souraya Ali gave the following interview ahead of the full production's debut.
Q- Could you give a brief introduction to the show?
Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre’s new show Unto the Breach is a dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V, set in modern-day Palestine. Paralleling Shakespeare’s account of the young English monarch, King Henry V leading his people in battle against the mighty French army, Unto the Breach tells the story of the Chairman, a Palestinian leader who, moved by his people’s suffering, leads them in a revolution against a more powerful force to free them from oppression.
As in Shakespeare’s original play, a Chorus leads the audience through the show, but here she urges them to imagine “the vast olive groves of Palestine” and “the very gates of Jerusalem” rather than the 15th century battlefields of France, and the scenes she narrates are brought to life not through Shakespearian dialogue, but through traditional Palestinian dabke and contemporary dance against a backdrop of digital media.
Q- Some have interpreted Shakespeare's Henry V as a play that celebrates patriotism while others have viewed it as exposing the Machiavellian characteristics of a king - shedding light on the horrors of war. How do you understand the original play? And how does your show relate to that?
We don’t see Shakespeare’s play as a straightforwardly patriotic account of King Henry V’s French battles. Whilst the play does depict an extraordinary victory against all odds, it also shows that the motives behind this victory were not all virtuous, and that the means of achieving it were not all noble. For example the two clergymen who put the case for war to the King at the beginning of the play are driven by financial motives, as are various unsavoury characters who join the king’s army because of prospects of plunder. King Henry himself also shows a darker side to his character with a controversial decision to execute defenceless French prisoners during the battle of Agincourt.
Unto the Breach captures something of this ambivalence towards war. On the one hand, it celebrates Palestinians’ efforts to change their circumstances and shape their future through revolution, but on the other it recognises that these efforts have not yet succeeded. Palestinians still live under occupation and are far from achieving the freedom and sovereignty that they have been fighting for. The show also highlights the internal power struggles that have undermined Palestinians’ campaign for freedom, and depicts some of the darker outcomes of such struggles, such as in a scene where the Chairman executes two of his own people to quash a rebellion.
In the original play, the Chorus repeatedly draws the audience’s attention to the inability of the theatre and actors to accurately convey all aspects of the historical tale. Instead, the Chorus resorts to hyperbole and appeals to the audience’s imagination, indicating just how much our understanding of past events is constructed – and embellished - by those who recount them. Shakespeare thus highlights the power of rhetoric and political myth in re-telling military history. Unto the Breach reflects this idea with a scene where the world’s press attend the signing of a peace agreement, and then the journalists file their reports, constructing people’s understanding of this historical event.
Q- You noted that the launch of the show would coincide with the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. In light of recent reports suggesting that the late Palestinian leader may have been assassinated via the radioactive element polonium-210, is there a reference to that incident in your show, since the theme of assassination is present in the original play where Shakespeare's Henry V survives an attempt on his life (albeit by friends not foes)?
This incident is not addressed in our show.
Q- Although King Henry V, at one point in the original play, comes to the humble realisation that he is but a man; he is nevertheless the person responsible for rallying his men to victory. How does that reconcile with your show, given that: a- Yasser Arafat, who in the director's words is "the great figurehead of the Palestinian struggle", has died before managing to lead his people to liberty; and b- The Arab Spring, which you cite as among the inspirations for the show, had been sparked without any outstanding movement leaders?
Whilst the launch of Unto the Breach coincides with the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, and there are parallels between our depiction of the Chairman and that of the late Palestinian leader, the show is not a historical account of his life. It does, however reflect on the value of a figurehead such as Arafat, in uniting people behind a common cause, enabling them to stand up for their rights and to stake their claim for sovereignty on a world stage. The show recognises this value but also acknowledges that the Palestinians have not yet achieved their objectives, and so the Chairman in our production dies without securing the liberty that he craved for his people. The achievement of victory is thus far less clear-cut in Unto the Breach than it is in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
In the show, the Chairman’s death leaves the Palestinians without a leader, and so the onus is on them to once again rise up and claim their rights. The idea that this is possible – that people can bring about change if they unite and call for it with a common voice - flowed strongly from the Arab Spring, and inspired us to create the show. Although we recognise that any such struggle is fraught with difficulties, it is this idea of hope that continues to drive us forwards.
Q- In the original play, future unity between the British and French kingdoms is suggested following the marriage between Henry and the daughter of the French king, Catherine. Monarchies aside, do you see the One-State solution as some sort of a modern day parallel to that?
Whilst Shakespeare’s play ends with King Henry V’s marriage and the expected union of England and France, the historical reality is that Henry V never succeeded to the French throne. He died two years after his marriage and two months before the King of France, and his French conquests were lost over the ensuing years under the reign of his son King Henry VI. Unto the Breach reflects this more sombre reality. In the production the Chairman also dies, and much of what he has fought for is dissipated as conflict and the grip of occupation continue, and his successors are debilitated by internal power struggles. The show has a deliberately ambiguous ending, leaving open the question of how the Palestinian question is to be resolved, and what the nature of the solution might be.
Q-Following a very impressive performance of your show Between the Fleeting Words in 2010, do you expect to outshine such success with Unto the Breach this year? Also, has there been any change in the way you do things or in the group members?
Since Between the Fleeting Words debuted in London in 2010, Al Zaytouna has continued to develop as a troupe. Thanks to the phenomenal support that we received for the last show, we toured it in the UK, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Germany. This experience helped us to hone many performance and production skills, which we believe will make Unto the Breach even better and stronger.
Al Zaytouna has also continued to grow, with new dancers joining us, and many of our members pursuing new artistic endeavours. These have included our artistic director Ahmed Masoud writing a radio play for BBC Radio 4, entitled Escape from Gaza, in collaboration with Justin Butcher, and winning the Muslim Writers Award 2011 in the Unpublished Novel category for his book Gaza Days. Several of our dancers have developed their own dance theatre work, such as Lorraine Smith’s Pictures of Life and new work Disco Babies, whilst others have taken on new performance roles, such as Umut Uysal who drummed in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. All of these experiences have enriched the group bringing new expertise and fresh ideas.
We were also fortunate to secure a grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund to support the development of Unto the Breach, which given us the support and profile to take this show to the next level. We have been able to invest more in the show’s development and to reach out to new partners and collaborators. We are, for example, very happy to have professional actress Clare Quinn performing with us in this show, and we have been able to secure a really wonderful performance space at the artsdepot. All of these factors make us confident that Unto the Breach will be even more successful than Between the Fleeting Words.
Q- Again with regards to Between the Fleeting Words, the 2010 show featured a beautiful blend of music genres, projecting a mix that crosses cultural and generational divides. It also included the notable presence of the talented Palestinian artist Nizar Al-Issa. What music variety should we anticipate with Unto the Breach?
Unto the Breach builds on Al Zaytouna’s tradition of working with leading musicians, and features a collaboration with David Randall. David is a guitarist, composer and producer who has contributed to multi-million selling albums by Grammy-winning artist Dido, toured extensively with UK dance act Faithless, and released his own critically acclaimed albums as Slovo. He also wrote and produced the One World single Freedom for Palestine, and has published articles on the role of music in political campaigns and on Palestinian Hip Hop. He is a highly talented musician who is passionately committed to the Palestinian cause and his contribution to this production has been invaluable. David has composed and recorded a number of tracks especially for Unto the Breach, which are woven together with traditional Palestinian songs to create a powerful and moving sound track.
For information on booking, visit: www.alzaytouna.org/productions/unto-the-breach
- Mamoon Alabbasi is a news editor and translator based in London. His op-eds, reports, and reviews appear in a number of media outlets. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.