Beyond Colonial Tropes

Two Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Palestine

in Critical Survey


This article documents two Palestinian productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that took place in Ramallah at Ashtar Theatre in 1995 and Al-Kasaba Drama Academy in 2011. This exploration demonstrates how Shakespearean plays have become a medium for international collaboration and exchange between European and Palestinian theatre training institutions. Recognizing that the works of Shakespeare have been used as a tool to further British imperialist ambitions, and drawing upon the author’s own experiences as director of the 2011 production, this article examines the ways in which these two contemporary productions both acknowledge this colonial heritage in Palestine and use it to further the mission of training emerging actors.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years in the Middle East, I was exposed to the colonial construction of Shakespeare as ‘one of the best, if not “the best”, writer in the whole world’.1 The relationship between British imperialism and the construction of Shakespeare’s plays as civilizing literature is undeniable. As Emer O’Toole rightly notes in a wonderful Guardian rant on the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival:

Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along with the doctrine of European cultural superiority. Taught in schools and performed under the proscenium arches built where the British conquered, universal Shakespeare was both a beacon of the greatness of European civilisation and a gateway into that greatness – to know the bard was to be civilised.2

In the process of decolonization, colonized artists and intellectuals have responded to the empire’s lofty rhetoric on Shakespeare in several ways, including echoing the colonists’ praise, resisting it and at times appropriating it.3 In my case, having read Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear in Arabic long before I could compose a full sentence in English, I began by echoing imperialist messages but grew critical of the Shakespeare phenomenon over time. This article proceeds from the position of having come through imperial rhetoric and out again. It explores the relationship between Shakespeare and Palestine through two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that both took place within educational institutions in Ramallah, in 1995 and 2011 respectively. In analysing these two productions sixteen years apart, I hope to show that the Shakespeare–Palestine relationship has outgrown some colonial binaries as Palestinian artists host, adapt, translate and produce Shakespearean plays.

Contextual Snapshots

In his book The History of Palestinian Theatre, 1918–1948, pioneering playwright Nasri al-Jawzi states that modern theatre in Palestine was influenced by missionary schools that opened during the Ottoman and mandate periods but also by visiting companies from Syria and Egypt. In the early twentieth century, nationalistic Palestinian schools and colleges produced plays at the end of each academic year and during religious and national celebrations. However:

While missionary schools celebrated their playwrights and authors such as Moliere, Racine, Corneille and Shakespeare in plays such as The Miser, School for Wives, Esther, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and other plays, the national schools headed in the direction of reviving Arab heritage and drew their subjects from Arab history, to remind students of the glories of their nation and its blessed heroes.4

Written from exile about a period he experienced, al-Jawzi’s book serves as a biography of early Palestinian theatre in the early to mid-twentieth century. His statement serves several purposes. First, he mentions four plays by Shakespeare, demonstrating the heavy emphasis on the Bard’s oeuvre in missionary schools prior to 1948, especially in the period of the British mandate. Second, he expresses disdain for foreign playwrights, while elevating local Arab content as the highest form of theatrical production in educational institutions. He then suggests a distinction in the languages in which Shakespeare’s plays were presented: ‘we must admit that foreign and French troops visited the country and presented many plays by Shakespeare such as Hamlet and Macbeth … and that a great number of intellectuals took to reading these plays in the original languages’.5

The categories al-Jawzi identifies persist. First, the educated English-speaking elite encounter Shakespeare’s plays in English, as do students of English literature, who are assigned the plays in Palestinian universities. Second, the plays can be read in Arabic translations, readily available in libraries and bookstores and online. Third, they are staged in English and other European languages by visiting troupes. In 2012, for instance, Al-Kasaba Theatre hosted Thomas Ostermeier’s German-language production of Hamlet, which visited from the Schaubühne in Berlin,6 and in the autumn of 2015, Ashtar Theatre hosted Hamlet at the Ramallah Cultural Palace as part of the Globe Theatre’s ‘Globe-to-Globe’ tour.7 Fourth, Shakespeare’s plays are staged in educational institutions, including missionary schools, continuing the tradition of holiday and year-end performances.8 Finally, the plays are occasionally staged by professional troupes. For example, Al-Kasaba Theatre, in collaboration with West Jerusalem’s Khan Theatre, staged a bilingual Hebrew and Arabic-language production of Romeo and Juliet in 1996.9 In 2012, Ashtar Theatre staged Richard II for the Globe-to-Globe Festival in London in collaboration with Irish director Conall Morrison, also performing it in Palestine. Both Al-Kasaba and Ashtar have also staged Shakespeare plays as part of their student training programmes.

Echoing al-Jawzi’s account, Ashtar’s artistic director Iman Aoun has remarked that historically, foreign schools, especially the ones that hired English language teachers, fostered the adoption of Shakespeare and drama in Palestinian curricula: ‘The French produced Molière and the Brits did Shakespeare. If the Greeks were here, they would probably have pushed for Sophocles’.10 Ashtar’s co-founder, Edward Muallem, further declared: ‘When Arabs began to develop their own curricula, they told the stories of Saladin’.11 In 2016, the Ashtar team’s testimony still corresponds to al-Jawzi’s account of Palestinian theatre of the early to mid-twentieth century. These separate accounts, emerging from past and contemporary theatrical practice, provide similar observations: missionary and private schools produce the works of Shakespeare, as do the recently developed theatre training initiatives.12 The continuing pattern makes it interesting to ask: how do contemporary productions of Shakespearean plays in Palestine, and specifically Ramallah, work to differentiate themselves from the so-called Universal Shakespeare and its history as an ideological tool of empire?

The two Midsummer Night’s Dream productions I analyse – both Palestinian, though of course neither one can be taken as a comprehensive representation of Palestinian cultural life – took place in Ramallah for teaching purposes nearly two decades apart. These two productions suggest that the artists involved made conscious choices about how to use Shakespeare’s plays in education and as a forum for international collaborations. In the case of Ashtar’s 1995 production, Midsummer was not a vehicle to tell a Palestinian story through Shakespeare. On the contrary, Edward Muallem insisted: ‘It was a pedagogical project. We wanted the students to encounter Shakespeare’.13 Ashtar chose to stage the play and to collaborate with the Swiss Maralam Theatre to produce it. In the case of Al-Kasaba Drama Academy’s production, which I directed in 2011, the school did not select Midsummer; rather, the production was part of a Shakespeare festival hosted by its partner, Folkwang University in Essen, Germany. The academy’s subsequent productions of Shakespeare plays (Romeo and Juliet in 2013 and Much Ado About Nothing, anticipated in 2016) were also chosen as part of the same festival. For both Ashtar and Al-Kasaba, the experience of staging Midsummer sheds light on aspects of the ongoing connection between educational institutions and Shakespeare plays in Palestine.

1995: Ashtar’s Midsummer on Al-Siraj Stage

In 1991, theatre artists Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun, former members of El-Hakawati theatre troupe, founded Ashtar for Theatre Productions and Training. Shortly thereafter, Ashtar established a partnership with Switzerland’s Maralam Theatre, which defined itself as a cultural project by and for refugees:

MARALAM Theatre (Zurich), founded in 1984, is the first ongoing intercultural theatre company in Switzerland. MARALAM’s first productions were staged by exiled actors and actresses and one of their main themes was being a refugee in Switzerland. Migration, racism, loss of cultural identity, and living in multicultural societies are also themes that have become the signature of this company. MARALAM theatre has become a model for artists coming together from different cultural backgrounds. This theatre company is also active in schools and other educational institutions in Switzerland.14

Maralam’s social justice mission aligned with Ashtar’s determination to train a generation of well-educated culture-makers. According to their agreement, co-founder, producer and artistic director Peter Braschler would visit Palestine twice a year to conduct acting workshops and direct a play at the end of each summer’s eight-week intensive theatre education programme.15 With the inauguration of this programme in the summer of 1992, the nascent theatre company had successfully established the first independent theatre training school for youth in Palestine. Before the end of the decade, they became a local producing house for professional theatre and a centre for training in the techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed.16

Ashtar’s student training functioned on three separate levels. First, students would participate in extra-curricular instruction for three years, which included their eight-week summer intensive. Advanced students would have access to an additional two-year programme. Second, the company trained schoolteachers to prepare them to become drama teachers within the Palestinian school system. Third, during each year’s summer production, the company trained a technical team to excel in various aspects of design and production. Within the first three years of partnership and development with Maralam, Braschler directed Beauty and the Beast (1993), Arnab Arnab… Do You Read Me?! (1994) and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (1995), all of which were staged at Ramallah’s Assiraj (also al-Siraj) Theatre.17

Midsummer (Figure 1) was chosen because it provided fertile ground for training students, particularly through its accessible main plot of youth falling in love and running away from authority. The play addressed the emotional and personal struggles of teenagers, the age group (fourteen to eighteen) who made up the majority of the cast. As Iman Aoun told a Palestinian media outlet:

… we took into consideration the psychological and physiological development of our students and their control over their muscles. The age of our students is the same as that of the characters in the play and, given their age, the themes and problems are very much the kind our students have on their minds.18

Figure 1
Figure 1

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1995) courtesy of Ashtar Theatre.

Citation: Critical Survey 28, 3; 10.3167/cs.2016.280303

Dramaturg and translator Sameh Hijazi reads Shakespeare’s text as exploring the fine line between ‘dream and reality’ and the ‘nightmare and the beautiful dream’.19 Given Ashtar’s mission to train not only actors but future leaders, the play’s driving through-line provides ample opportunities to discuss the decisions of the characters, the context of the dream world, the politics of daily life and the consequences of errors in judgement. Although these struggles are not necessarily universal, they are relevant to Ashtar’s training programme.

On the curricular level, Aoun explained that staging plays from the world repertoire inspires students to access a dynamic world heritage. Simultaneously, through the plot, Ashtar wished to raise the students’ awareness of the complexities of their interpersonal relationships. Aoun remembers asking: ‘How can teenagers access their emotional needs? Should they go along with these needs? Do they go with it or not?’20 Furthermore, the play’s sensual world challenged students to sense their own surroundings and question the limits and possibilities of their own personal relationships. The multiple layers of character analysis appealed to the teachers, students and professionals who participated in the production.

Hijazi completed the translation from the original English, working closely with the director and also consulting two German translations.21 In collaboration with director Peter Braschler and artistic director Edward Muallem, he created a seventy-minute script infused with Arab motifs, but keeping the majority of the original names. He described the play as locally relevant due to its conflicting archetypal characters: a powerful authority, a magical dream world and a gritty underclass of workers. Similarly, he saw the characters as divided into emerging youth, political old guard and supernatural fairies. In the script, the old guard spoke in classical Arabic verse, whereas the youth spoke in Palestinian vernacular.22 Aoun explained that the local dialect assisted young actors as they approached the text in rehearsal, and in performance brought the audience closer to the story and its characters.23

Hijazi said his intercultural approach to the text was inspired by a Midsummer production he saw at the Mülheim festival in Germany in the late 1980s, during his dramaturgy studies. He recalled that the production took on an ethnic dimension and emphasized class distinctions by casting Middle Easterners as the Mechanicals. His own dramaturgical choices likewise highlighted class divisions among the characters. Although the production maintained the original plot, the text took on local colour through choices of language and vocabulary. But he insisted that the class divisions also reflected the Palestinian national condition, as students carried different identity documents based on their residence in Jerusalem or Ramallah, and their neighbouring villages. The cast also came from various strata of Palestinian society, which traditionally encompassed Christians and Muslims as well as the rich and the labouring class.24

The most significant localizing move was Hijazi’s replacement of the names Pyramus and Thisbe with the names of traditional Arab lovers Qays (Majnūn) and Layla.25 While Act 5 retained the comic motif of the Mechanicals’ repeated failure to perform their play, the shout-out to Arab heritage played a dual role, connecting the audience to the humour of Act 5 while simultaneously localizing the myth within the cultural world of the production’s Mechanicals. Although Ashtar’s characters, such as the tailor ‘Abu Khait’ (Mr Thread) and the tinker ‘Abu Nhaseh’ (Mr Copper), might lack access to Greek myths, they would surely know some poetry about the love story of Qays and his forbidden beloved Layla. These Palestinizing elements served to endear these characters to both the actors and the audience. ‘The language was quite similar to the original, but we put it in Palestinian shoes’, Aoun said.26

Hijazi’s version preserves the combination of verse and prose of the original text, but it foregoes the rigorously formulaic iambic pentameter of the verse in favour of end-rhymes and rich rhymes using homonyms.27 The labour-intensive task of rhyming the verse produces a text that is elevated, but in easily understood vernacular. For example, Titania’s ‘forgeries of jealousy’ speech tells the story of Oberon and Titania’s feud, as Oberon interjects and interrupts the activities of the fairies throughout the forest. In Shakespeare it begins:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Ashtar’s Titania states:
تيتانيا : هذه صور خيانة طلعتها الغيرة.
، من اول الصيف ، ما التقينا و ال مرة فقيرة
، ال في السهل و ال في الوديان ، ال في الغابات و ال في البراري
لا بجنب الينابيع و لا فوق الحصو بجنب السواقي
و لا حتى ع رمل الشواطيء ع شان نرقص بحلقاتنا
ع هدير الرياح من دون ما مخانقاتك تزعجنا!
In the translation, Titania’s lines keep the spirit of the monologue as a picturesque rendering of the fairies’ dances in the forests, plains, valleys, wilds, springs and beach sands. The lines rhyme the following words: jealousy (ghīra) with rare (faqīra), wilds (barārī) with water wheel (sawāqī), dance circles (halaqātinā) with disturb us (tuz‘jinā). By contrast, the lines in Shakespeare do not rhyme, but keep to blank verse. The translation choice preserves the wild spirit of the speech, especially since the argument’s overall syntax remains similar. As in the original, the action verb ‘to disturb’ occurs at the end of the argument: ‘Thou hast disturb’d our sport’.28

In this production, Ashtar attempted to provide students with a text that conserves the plot, syntax, structure and patterns of the original text, because the school’s curriculum promised the experience of staging a play from the international canon. Artistic director Edward Muallem recalled: ‘the production was a training opportunity. Our goal was not to politicize the text, but to train acting and technical aspects of production’.29 Iman Aoun insisted that the students must be exposed to the classical repertoire, but maintained that the choice of play had to explore their own emotional struggles.30 Ashtar’s choice to stage the play in translation – however localized through the aforementioned use of language – rather than adapting it into an entirely Palestinian context, rendered the production as a medium of education, not a political statement. Muallem stated: ‘We let the play tell its story’.31

The production’s staging was both educational and experimental. From Beit Jala, the production team acquired four trees that they attached to casters and moved on stage to suit various scenes. French designer Phillip Andrieaux designed the lighting as part of a workshop with students. Acknowledging that trainees learn from watching as well as performing, the fifteen actors sat on stage during each performance. Each actor, dressed in a black base costume, kept token costume pieces and props underneath their chairs. Whenever a scene began, the actors stood and set up the stage as the play unfolded before the audience. Playing at Assiraj Stage (also known as Assiraj Cinema) in downtown Ramallah, the show had the recognizable aesthetic of a travelling company of actors: minimal technical elements, a black box aesthetic, visible offstage performers, a sloped audience and open wing space.

2011: Al-Kasaba Theatre Academy

When I arrived in Ramallah in August 2011, the teaching team at the Drama Academy and visiting faculty from Folkwang University were conducting auditions and workshops for the entering class of 2011–12. I interviewed faculty from both campuses in order to understand the purposes of the production and the curricular expectations of the second- and third-year student participants.32 I conducted an interview with Folkwang University’s vice president for international affairs, Hans Schmidt, who recalled that the partnership with Al-Kasaba to establish a B.A. programme in theatre began as an individual volunteer effort by various Department of Theatre faculty, who believed in the necessity of creating exchange programmes with Israel/Palestine.33 Volkmar Claus, a retired artistic director from Berlin, had long been interested in the region and, after the Oslo peace accords in 1993, began to build relationships in the Palestinian theatre community. When he met George Ibrahim of Al-Kasaba Theatre, he found a suitable partner:34 Ibrahim had been producing theatre in Jerusalem since 1970. In 2001, Al-Kasaba opened a new branch in Ramallah in the old Assiraj Cinema, in the heart of the city.35 By 2007, Ibrahim and Claus had created the basic framework of the partnership to create a drama academy in Ramallah. In 2008, the German partners acquired funding through the ‘Future of Palestine’ initiative at the German Mercator Foundation, which provided 300,000 euros of funding over three years.36 Folkwang has subsequently renewed its commitment until 2018.37

In 2009, Al-Kasaba Drama Academy opened its doors to the inaugural cohort at the first acting conservatory in Palestine. After a three-year period of training in voice, movement, textual analysis and theatre history, Al-Kasaba graduates students with a bachelor’s degree in theatre. The degree bears the name of Folkwang University along with Al-Kasaba Academy. Although graduating students in Germany and Palestine technically hold the same degree, the German partners saw fundamental differences between their students due to the socio-political conditions in Palestine. In auditions, Palestinian and German faculty found that Palestinian students often struggled with social and familial objections to the theatrical profession. Schmidt recalled differences in the audition process: ‘It is not like in Germany, “He will be a good actor!” Here it is more about personality, communication, personal background, and we try to get as much information as possible. Is the person coming from a poor family in the countryside or [from] Haifa? So there are many aspects’.38

The programme’s academic goals reflect its political context. The faculty seeks students who wish to effect social change and impact Palestinian society in ways valued by Folkwang University. Matters of artistic freedom, gender equality, social responsibility and Western modernity held the greatest priority. From the beginning, the project emphasized the necessity of German–Palestinian interactions that would support social transformation through the theatrical profession on the one hand, and personal relationships among student and faculty participants on the other. This exchange would enrich German students as well. Schmidt stated:

For us, if becoming an actor means so much for people here, I have to think about my own life. And the other way around: to see what it means to live in a more or less totally free country; and to see what it means to fall in love and you don’t have to justify yourself … That’s what the students see in Germany. Then you come to different conclusions. For us, it means a social reality, which is totally opposite to us.39

Folkwang faculty and students had learned during Palestinian students’ previous visit to Essen that the latter appreciated basic freedoms taken for granted in Germany, such as the ability to drive for several hours without seeing a checkpoint, or the ability to travel long distances within Germany without having to carry identity cards. Conversely, on their visit to Palestine, German students were shocked at the limitations of Palestinian everyday life, such as the inability to travel freely or the need to adapt to local norms such as modest behaviour or dress. Most importantly, German students witnessed the extent of the personal sacrifice that Palestinians endured in order to study and produce theatre.

Productions of Shakespeare plays form a foundation of the student and faculty interactions between Al-Kasaba and Folkwang. Folkwang regularly holds an international Shakespeare festival, which functions as a platform for international exchange with partner universities.40 For example, in 2011, the festival hosted five productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; these came from Al-Kasaba Academy, Columbia University (USA), Shanghai Theatre Academy, Romania’s Lucia Blaga University and Folkwang itself. Over a period of two weeks, the participants performed their own productions. The festival culminated in a joint production combining seventy actors, five production styles, five languages and the contribution of directors, dramaturgs and choreographers from all participating universities.41

To share in this undertaking, we began rehearsals on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in late August 2011. In the early stages of rehearsals, dramaturg Hans Schmidt (also Folkwang’s vice president for

Figure 2
Figure 2

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2011), courtesy of Al-Kasaba Drama Academy and Folkwang University.

Citation: Critical Survey 28, 3; 10.3167/cs.2016.280303

international affairs) presented the cast with his research on the play. The director of the German production, Brian Michaels, explained his editorial choices about what to include and what to cut in the common text of the play; all participating universities adopted the common text. The presentation emphasized the power struggle between characters, particularly the pervasive theme of eroticism in the play. Reviewing these materials makes clear the vast distance between Palestinian realities and Shakespeare’s Green World:42 the German faculty members’ rational analysis of the text situated it within the usual ideas of teenage love, erotic fantasy and female heroines. While I recognized the scholarly, artistic, and historical merits of this vision, I also saw that the absence of a robust critique of Shakespeare’s work being used as part of a British imperialist project presented an opportunity for our production to look for an alternative, consciously postcolonial approach to producing it in Palestine.

George Ibrahim, the general director of Al-Kasaba Theatre, translated the common text Brian Michaels had edited.43 Ibrahim’s text remained faithful to the Folkwang-approved version, which was primarily driven by plot and by the festival’s requirement that the performance clock in under an hour. Ibrahim rendered the text entirely into Palestinian vernacular and infused touches of traditional local humour. For example, when Titania declares her love for a donkey, Ibrahim’s choices of rhythms and vocabulary appealed to the humour of the Palestinian street. Similarly, his text illuminated the plot through a language commonly used for fairy tales and Palestinian children’s theatre, which Ibrahim had excelled at producing since the 1970s.44 The translation and editing left us with a text whose humour was based primarily on situational comedy, which prompted a directorial question: in the context of an international festival, what does a Palestinian company of actors bring to the table?

This consideration prompted my direction for the play. In the programme notes, I described the sources of inspiration, the rehearsal process and the directorial concept of this Palestinian Shakespeare product:

Shakespeare’s work is not universal.

If he were alive today, he would be proud to hear that his play is being performed in Palestine, the holy land.

In our version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we aren’t as interested in Shakespeare’s 16th century and its text as much as we are enamored with the process of building this play from our own stance and moment. Denial is not allowed. We ask real questions: If the starting point for this production were a group of Palestinian acting students in a nation under occupation, what might the production look like? How do the restrictions of the minimal requirements of a festival, the foreign names and ideas in the story, the conceptually Western play text and the harsh realities of Palestine intersect on the stage in front of the audience? Should we stop ourselves from being lost in the fantasy or must we embrace it?

Our starting point is the act of building. As Palestine and its youth constantly struggle to rebuild this nation, our acting company struggled to make and perform this play. We started from the mess: An ugly apartheid wall, epistemological destruction, psychological damage, and social disintegration. From mess, confusion, rubble, and forced illusion, we built.

If Shakespeare were to see our play, he would recognize the names of his characters and places, the sequence of his scenes, and the general motif of his green world, but he may not recognize the mixed color of our skin, the tone of our language, our sense of humor, and the direction of our imagination.

From the Western Shakespeare, we recognized our estrangement.

From the violence, we found laughter.

From Palestine, our starting point, we launched into self-discovery and revelation.45

In the early stages of rehearsals, the context of Palestinian everyday life (the outside) clashed with the given circumstances of Al-Kasaba Academy within the theatre building (the inside), causing a constant need to readjust expectations. Outside, the actors lived the occupation’s difficult realities: political uncertainty, limited freedom of movement, financial duress, familial opposition to theatre education, societal pressures, government dysfunction and an overall irrational existence. Inside, they experienced admirable, albeit limited, attempts at personal and professional liberation: daily physical exercises in voice and movement, open discussions on issues of equality, creative self-explorations, freedom of interpersonal relationships and studies of foreign plays and aesthetics. The outside/inside tension often appeared in the form of unhealthy competition among the actors, and individuals’ attempts to assert their artistic and personal identity within the building. In addition, the daily grind pervaded the thought process and behaviours of the cast, evident through absences, lack of punctuality and unease with the director’s authority in rehearsal.

In the quest for a Palestinian rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we began rehearsals with company-building exercises and established periods of open discussion and a culture of democratic conflict resolution. I relinquished patriarchal control in favour of collective decision-making.46 As the actors – three women and eleven men – discovered their own place within the company, they began a series of improvisations emphasizing personal stories and images of everyday life. For example, in an exercise called ‘Palestinian Moments’, the actors created a series of frozen tableaux from the Palestinian streets. These moments became the foundation for the characters of the Mechanicals and artisans in the play. To build up an archive of source work, they researched and brought potential character props and took photographs representing various locations and characters in the play. They also built an archive of musical tracks for the characters. The rehearsals transformed from a traditionally hierarchical process to a decolonized democratic creative space, where the company had equal creative sway over rehearsal outcomes. During this period of company building, the actors demonstrated interest and understanding of specific characters, which became their assigned roles in the final production. The actors cast themselves, and in one instance, two actors, playing Demetrius and Peter Quince, decided to exchange roles. I supported their decision.

The rehearsal process proceeded from a state of chaos and disarray to a production concept that emerged from the actors’ understanding of the play and their Palestinian locale. For example, Ibrahim Mozain, director of the academy at that time, suggested that ropes would be useful props for building abstract trees. When technical director Moaz al-Ju’beh set up the ropes on stage, the actors creatively worked with them like a group of circus performers. Based on this rehearsal, we arranged the ropes in what became the set of the play. In another rehearsal, the actors raided Al-Kasaba Theatre’s costume closets to research potential costumes for their characters. They continued to experiment with various costumes for several weeks until they settled on their final choices, which became their performance costumes. Similarly, whenever an actor felt the need to use a prop, he or she brought it to rehearsal. In a meeting with the technical director, the actors suggested images that inspired the final lighting design choices. Eventually, the unstructured atmosphere of rehearsals led to a company-led design.

From 22 August to 22 October 2011, rehearsals occurred between 9 am and 6 pm, five days a week. On occasion, special rehearsals took place on weekends and coaching sessions on weekdays after 6 pm. A full rehearsal day contained three simultaneous rehearsals at all times: one with the director, one with the assistant director and movement coach Petra Barghouthi, and one scene rehearsal without an authority figure. Special weekend or evening rehearsals included dance choreography with Petra Barghouthi as well, and a site-specific rehearsal to run the play in a nearby forest. Throughout the process, there was tension between the actors’ need for finalized scenes and their freedom to make new choices on a daily basis. As the first preview performance approached, I gave extensive notes at the end of each run and the play began to take shape.

The aesthetic of the final production was hybrid: a mixture of the inescapable English origins of the play, Palestinian moments, a Shakespearean plot, found objects and the bodies of Palestinian youth constantly between the ‘outside’ occupation and the ‘inside’ freedoms within the Academy. For example, before the play began, the ensemble of actors appeared on stage, as themselves: preparing for the performance, collecting their props and dressing up in their costumes. The Mechanicals, figures for Palestinian labourers, set up the first scene as if they were staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Palestinian audience. Egeus opened the play in a traditional patriarchal costume, wearing a black abaya (robe) and forcing his daughter to marry Demetrius, who dressed in modern pants and shirt. The Mechanicals spoke in street vernacular and behaved like Palestinian tradesmen, based on the actors’ research in nearby markets in Ramallah and their own experience as children of working class families.

Trees made of suspended ropes functioned as swings, seats and climbing ropes. The fairies had no identifiable local characteristics, nor did Puck, but in the initial meeting of Oberon and Titania, her red-clad fairies and his black-clad followers simulated a civil war in a dance choreographed by Barghouthi.47 In Act 5, the Mechanicals also alluded to local politics when Tom Snout played the Wall wearing a jalābiyya printed with the image of the Israeli Wall near the Qalandiya checkpoint. In keeping with the Palestinian spirit, a dabka dance closed the play’s final wedding celebration.

The context of Al-Kasaba’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream lent itself to a combined approach of ensemble building, improvisation and traditional staging techniques. The Shakespearean source text permitted untraditional approaches in rehearsal because of the long tradition of adaptation, editing and co-optation that had been established on the Western stage and emulated on world stages. Had the text been based on the work of a modern Arab playwright such as Sa‘dallah Wannous or Alfred Farag, the margin for circumventing or subverting the text would have been narrower. While such adaptations of Arab plays do take place in Palestine, Shakespeare continues to be used openly as a common open source text that is adhered to or entirely transformed based on the needs of the production. In addition, the simultaneous reverence for and desire to localize the original text inspired the actors to draw on personal experiences in their character development. Perhaps it is as O’Toole says: ‘What’s interesting about Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare at all – it’s the themes and innovations that theatre artists bring to the texts’.48


In describing an era of direct colonialism and its consequences, Loomba and Orkin remark: ‘Colonial masters imposed their value system through Shakespeare, and in response colonized peoples often answered back in Shakespearean accents’.49 But to characterize these two recent productions and the numerous Shakespeare plays produced by schools and theatres like Ashtar and Al-Kasaba as predetermined by a colonial legacy would be ingenuous and simplistic, because these schools and the artists involved have demonstrated artistic agency in the choices within and around the production process. The reasons to engage with Shakespearean texts far exceed the impositions of the civilizing missions of the past. In neither case was Midsummer chosen, rehearsed and performed as a vehicle for writing back to the empire, nor as an ideological export from an overbearing colonial master.

Nonetheless, despite and because of the aforementioned connection to missionary schools and through the British Empire’s occupation of the region, the Bard remains one of the most recognizable playwrights in Palestine. His plays are familiar, if not by content then by title, and well regarded as both theatre and literature. The ability to produce them on the Palestinian stage suggests to the viewing public that a troupe possesses a high degree of intercultural awareness and technical competence. In the absence of canonical translations, local artists have taken on the challenge of both translating and adapting the plays into Palestinian dialect, which they have produced successfully. On a financial and administrative level, Shakespeare’s plays have become a forum for collaboration between Palestinian theatre artists/schools and international partners such as Folkwang University and Maralam Theatre, particularly as part of theatre training programmes.

Although the contexts of these two productions and their producing schools differed in many respects, they similarly exploited Midsummer as part of their educational programming, seizing the opportunity for these collaborations. The two productions used their present realities as the basis for their final product: minimal sets, lighting and costumes, student actors, Palestinian vernacular and local elements to mediate the text. In both productions, the student actors appeared as themselves on stage, suggesting to the audience that local capacity building takes precedence over a faithful rendition of Shakespeare’s play. In speech, characterization, situational humour and cultural spirit, the actors played the Mechanicals and artisans as local labourers who closely resembled a commonly recognized working-class Palestinian identity. The productions also consciously preserved the Shakespearean storyline, and to a great degree the dramaturgy, translation and directorial concept maintained recognizable elements of the play.50

Claiming that a Shakespeare production in Palestine simply reinforces a history of colonialism undermines the agency of the artists. Certainly, tension may arise as directors or instructors attempt to emphasize Palestinian culture and heritage while simultaneously preparing students to produce plays from the international repertoire. However, in my own attempt at a resistant reading of the play and in my emphasis on exposing the actors to the construction of the Shakespearean text, I found a vast space for interpretation and creative instruction. In my study of the Ashtar production and in my conversations about it with Edward Muallem, Iman Aoun and Sameh Hijazi, I have noted a similar critical distance and intellectual dexterity. In sum, while I would not seek to deny the roots of the Shakespeare phenomenon in the impositions of British imperialism, I have also become more cognizant that training, collaboration and exposure to the international canon are among many valid reasons to engage with the Bard in Palestine, whether in schools or on public stages. And yet I can’t help but ponder the merits and ironies in Palestinian productions of a play in which Wall ‘away doth go’ and Puck declares by the end of the performance that ‘all is mended’.


I would like to thank Iman Aoun, Petra Barghouthi, Volkmar Claus, Lina Ghanem, Katherine Hennessey, Sameh Hijazi, George Ibrahim, Margaret Litvin, Edward Muallem, Hala Nassar, Beesan Ramadan, Hans Schmidt and the cast of Al-Kasaba’s Midsummer (2011) for their support and assistance in carrying out this project.


Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin, eds., Post-Colonial Shakespeares (Florence, US: Routledge, 2003), 1.


Emer O’Toole, ‘Shakespeare, Universal? No, It’s Cultural Imperialism’, The Guardian, 21 May 2012, (accessed 14 July 2016).


See Loomba and Orkin, Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ‘Introduction’, 1–22.


Naṣrī Al-Jawzī, Tārīkh Al-Masraḥ Al-Filasṭīnī, 1918–1948 (Nīqūsiyā, Qubruṣ: Sharq Briss, 1990), 14. Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Arabic are mine.


Al-Jawzī, Tārīkh, 17.


Emile Ashrawi, personal interview, 11 January 2011, Ramallah. Ashrawi recalled the occurrence of such productions when he was a student in Jerusalem in the 1960s. He referred to the end of year productions as part of his yearly extra-curricular activities.


See 30 Years: Al-Kasaba Theatre 1970–2000 (Ramallah: Al-Kasaba Theatre, 2000) and George Ibrahim, ‘Lysistrata’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28, no. 2 (2006): 34–36.


Iman Aoun, personal interview, 1 June 2016, Ashtar Theatre, Ramallah.


Edward Muallem, personal interview, 1 June 2016, Ashtar Theatre, Ramallah.


For a similar account of Shakespeare’s legacy in educational institutions (particularly in missionary schools) in Africa, see David Johnson, ‘From the Colonial to the Postcolonial. Shakespeare and Education in Africa’, in Loomba and Orkin, Post-Colonial Shakespeares, 218–34.




Beauty and the Beast performance programme (Ramallah: Ashtar Theatre, 1994). In Arabic.


Edward Muallem, personal interview, 26 October 2010, Ramallah.


Rania Jawad, ‘Ashtar’s Forum Theatre: Writing History in Palestine’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 23, no. 1 (2008): 115–30.


‘The Training Program’, in Ashtar: A Blazing Stage (Ramallah: Ashtar Theatre, 2005), second printing, 18–26.


Quoted in Rana Anani’s ‘Adroit Rendering of a Shakespearean Classic’, Jerusalem Times, 25 August 1995, 13.


Quoted in ‘A Shakespearian Meal on Palestinian Fire: Ashtar School’s Students Dream of a Summer Night in Ramallah’, Kul Al-‘Arāb, 25 August 1995. In Arabic.


Iman Aoun, personal interview, 1 June 2016.


No colloquial Arabic translation existed. Working together from English (rather than adapting an existing literary Arabic [fuṣḥā] translation) allowed Braschler to be involved in the process.


Sameh Hijazi, personal interview, 15 May 2016, Bethlehem.


Quoted in Jerusalem Times, 25 August 1995.


Sameh Hijazi, personal interview, 15 May 2016.


Anani, ‘Adroit Rendering of Shakespearean Classic’. Dating from pre-Islamic oral poetry, the legend of Qays ibn al-Mulawwaḥ (known as ‘al-Majnūn’, The Madman) and his beloved Layla has inspired artworks ranging from Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s The Quintet to Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’.


Iman Aoun, personal interview, 1 June 2016.


In English, the words won and one would be an example of a rich rhyme.


William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 75.


Edward Muallem, personal interview, 1 June 2016.


Iman Aoun, personal interview, 1 June 2016.


Edward Muallem, personal interview, 1 June 2016.


For an alternative critical perspective on this production, see Rand Hazou, ‘Dreaming of Shakespeare in Palestine’, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 20, no. 2: 139–54, 2015


Hans Schmidt, personal interview, 25 August 2011, Ramallah.


Volkmar Claus, personal interview, 26 August 2011, Ramallah.


George Ibrahim, personal interview, 8 January 2011, Ramallah.


George Ibrahim, personal conversation, 24 May 2016, Ramallah.


Hans Schmidt, personal interview, 25 August 2011.




The Al-Kasaba Drama Academy participated in the festival in 2011 and 2013. For more information on the history of Folkwang’s international partnerships through this format, see (accessed 15 July 2016).


Folkwang University continues to host a Shakespeare festival regularly. Al-Kasaba participated with Romeo and Juliet in 2013 and Much Ado About Nothing in 2016.


Northrop Frye coined the term ‘Green World’ in The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957) to describe a place of escape, typically a forest, in Shakespearean comedies.


He consulted but did not end up using an existing fuṣḥā translation, finding it easier to work from the English.


On George Ibrahim’s work, see Chapter 5 of my ‘Permission to Perform: Palestinian Theatre in Jerusalem, 1967–1993’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 2013).


Samer al-Saber, ‘Director’s Notes’, A Midsummer Night’s Dream production programme (Ramallah: Al-Kasaba Theatre, 2011).


Early in the rehearsal process, the actors agreed to make decisions as a company; subsequently, they voted on issues as they arose. Some of these decisions influenced production design.


While the production did not declare the significance of the colours, the warring factions could have suggested to some audience members a reference to division within the Palestinian authority. According to Iman Aoun, a recent production by Ashtar in Gaza explicitly represented the Fateh/Hamas division in the conflict between Oberon and Titania.


O’Toole, ‘Shakespeare, Universal?’


Loomba and Orkin, Post-Colonial Shakespeares, 2.


Hazou addresses some of the tensions that arose in my own attempt to both Palestinize the text and maintain its core theme and plot. See ‘Dreaming of Shakespeare in Palestine’, cited above.

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Contributor Notes

Samer Al-Saber joined the faculty at Florida State University’s School of Theatre in 2015 as Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies. He holds a Ph.D. in theatre history, theory and criticism from the University of Washington and held a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Davidson College from 2013 to 2015. His teaching, practice and scholarship focus on the intersection of cultural production and political conflict in the Middle East.

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    A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1995) courtesy of Ashtar Theatre.

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    A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2011), courtesy of Al-Kasaba Drama Academy and Folkwang University.