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Shai Baitel Headshot

Richard III and His Arab Heirs

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"We know which fate met Richard III. There is hope that by the time the Old Vic Shakespeare's Machiavellian masterpiece, with Kevin Spacey in the lead role, comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 2012 we will know which fate met one or the other of those Middle Eastern ghastly bastards. "
-"Power and Downfall - Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants" (Huffington Post, July 13, 2011)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As time passes and becomes history we believe we are progressing. And while we shape and are being shaped by the world we are living in, over time the human condition seems to remain essentially unchanged. Recent events in the Middle East, the clamoring to power of despots, their ruthlessness, and the fall of a select few of them, recalls similar events and personalities in history.

William Shakespeare captured an intriguing facet of this human condition -- the ruthless ambition and greed for power -- in his seminal play Richard III, which is now brought to a New York City audience in a breathtaking A Bridge Project production (presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic Theatre and Neal Street, generously supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch) under direction of Sam Mendes and starring the mesmerizing Kevin Spacey in a most memorable performance. Richard III cunningly built his power base, brutally secured loyalty of an elite group and punished anyone who was a threat or even a potential threat. Surrounded by a group of confidants, Richard III utilized them systematically to remove every obstacle in his way to become a king. But in the end, when he faced a battle of his own, he did not prove invincible, almost becoming a paper tiger.

But unlike Richard III despots in the Middle East, past and present, have and had a larger arsenal at their hands to fight for power: they are and were a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. Like many of the Middle East tyrants he was a serial killer and he did not hesitate to murder, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III's opinion or argued with him went to prison -- at best -- or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.

On the real stage of the Middle East we see and saw modern-day rulers display the most despicable traits of Richard III. Think of Muammar Gaddafi, the longest-ruling despot in the Arab world. His eccentric 42-year reign ended with his death and it was littered with human rights violations in Libya as well as terrorism abroad. Despite his defiance, Gaddafi was unable to withstand the wave of popular anger that swept away his two authoritarian neighbors in Tunisia and Egypt. He was executed in front of a mob and his body paraded through the streets. These images find a reflection in the visionary Sam Mendes's closing scene of Richard III where the tyrant's lifeless body is hung upside down.

Syria's Bashar Assad, on the other hand, is still struggling to retain his rule. With an iron fist he continues to torture and kill his own people, with the able help of international supporters of his regime (would Iran and Russia please stand up?). For Assad, his sadistic, security-dominated regime's survival trump any regard to human rights. It is not impossible to imagine that he will fight to the last moment, even at the expense of a scorched-earth policy. While the country slides into a prolonged conflict and civil war we are witnessing modern-day evil that even Shakespeare couldn't have imagined better.

Another tragic figure is Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. He underestimated the public discontent and found himself caged in a courtroom. It is only ironic that he is treated like an animal considering that not even animals behave toward their own species more benevolently than Mubarak did toward his fellow Egyptians. No matter what the verdict will be, the end will resemble the one of Richard III. The struggle to hold onto power will not have been worth the victims and the suffering. Mubarak did not foresee that the narrative he held up as a basis for his reign would count for little in the face of demands by Egyptians for internal transformation.
In the BAM staging that runs through March 4, Sam Mendes proves once again that he is a master of his craft, and Kevin Spacey is impersonating a particularly cruel psychopath Richard III. I would be amiss not to mention the exceptional performances of Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne, Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, and Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret. They are facing Spacey's/Richard III's monstrous energy quite bravely.

We know which fate met Richard III. And now that Richard III makes the final stop of its international tour in New York City, we can thankfully realize that a few of those Middle Eastern ghastly bastards have met their fate and that some others are struggling to hold onto power. But all is not well. On the contrary. With Islamists strengthened in the region and poised to take over after elections we need to be cautious not to take at face value their gentle words in English that for some, unfortunately, seem to immediately confirm their moderate, democratic credentials. We should remain wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, "the mother of all Islamist movements" and her offspring.

This transformative period in the Middle East will have tremendous consequences not only for the region but also for us in the West. Will Islamists once in power change their colors? I am not optimistic. The lesson of Richard III remains relevant as a cautionary tale. And we should pay close attention to the Old Vic Theatre's 2012 program for hints which of its productions will be relevant for and reflective of our times.