I Want to Bring Cleopatra Home
Back in February 2019, I performed in 27:31 and Creative Multilingualism's co-production of Merely Players, directed by Daniel Tyler-McTighe. At the time, we decided to perform a version of Shakespeare's Cleopatra in my native language - Egyptian Arabic.
The Arabic language is what unites the Arab world, but each country has a distinct dialect and colloquial language, many of which have no official written form. Instead, these languages are passed on in the oral tradition and adapt and evolve alongside the cultures of each place. The colloquial Egyptian, called Ameya, is distinct because of its seemingly total disregard for grammatical form and its vast vocabulary taken from every language it ever crossed paths with. Not only does Egyptian Arabic seem especially irreverent and erratic, but it's also one of the most recognizable dialects of the region thanks to Egypt's enormous influence on early TV and film, which has seen it monopolize Arab pop culture to this day.
For Merely Players, we took advantage of the malleability of Ameya to weave together lines from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and take our ‘Cleo’ through the five stages of grief as she realised that what she thought was a trip to Europe to meet her husband was actually an invitation to his wake. In our rendition, Cleo was a middle-class Egyptian woman married to a renowned Italian military general who lived in a world created by Shakespeare's incredible imagery and the innate playfulness of Egyptian Arabic.
It was during our Merely Players rehearsals that it became clear that we'd hit upon something rather special regarding the intersection between Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra as a woman of extreme and changeable moods and his elevated language and the natural drama of the Egyptian tongue. We found that my local Egyptian traditions and turns-of-phrase fitted with Shakespeare's metaphors and rhythms. Cleo's melodrama might have felt a bit much to an audience with British sensibility, but for an Egyptian her manner was uncannily familiar.
It was also during this initial process that we realised that, as far as we know, Antony and Cleopatra has not yet been translated into Egyptian Arabic. Having tracked down classical and standard Arabic versions, my research has shown that there seem to be hardly any adaptations of Shakespeare in the colloquial Ameya (there are famous Egyptian versions of The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, but seemingly very little else). For a character as iconic in the national imagination as Cleopatra, it seemed strange to me that the Shakespearean version never made it to the Egyptian stage or screen in the local dialect. I’ve come to wonder if Shakespeare’s interpretation of our last Pharaoh was considered too incompatible with the Egyptian and Ancient Arab concept of Cleopatra. In the Middle East, she is a figure of wisdom and political acumen. We remember her for her intellect, her studies of herbology, medicine and cosmology, and there’s a story about how she introduced the Egyptian system of time-keeping to her Roman husband and transformed the Western calendar. By comparison, the erratic, erotic version of the queen as described by Shakespeare is perhaps not the Cleopatra Egyptians want immortalised.
After Merely Players, Daniel and I were inspired to continue developing our new version of the story and to go in search of ‘our Cleopatra’. So, with support from CML Strand 4’s Slanguages project, we met again in May 2019 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Alongside actor and theatremaker Corey Campbell in the role of Antony, we started to explore the potential we had seen for a bilingual adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
During this research and development period, we decided that it was much more interesting to have the two characters somewhat ‘lost in translation’, not really understanding the other’s language and often working in counterpoint. Dramaturgically, this conflict and consistent misunderstanding between the two protagonists provided a lot of exciting opportunities for intimacy in a play that usually sees the two lovers railing at one another in very public settings.
As part of this idea of the two lovers grappling to be understood, and divided more by their cultures than by their personalities, we began to introduce moments where both would try to code-switch into the other’s language. Cleopatra would pick up a word or two and try to switch to English in the hope of clarifying a dispute, or if repetition of a phrase occurred in the original text, we would have her echo Antony’s words verbatim (there is an excellent example of this in Act 3 Scene 13, where both lovers talk about a ‘cold heart’). There were even opportunities for Antony to use Egyptian phrases of affection, words we imagined he may only use in Egypt for the Egyptian Queen.
With support from CML, we worked throughout May and June 2020 on further developing these initial ideas, adapting and translating new scenes and speeches from the original play. We also filmed four of the new speeches in Egyptian Arabic and created even more translations of the text (see image below), often written out in Shakespeare’s English (blue), Franko (Roman script Arabic, red) and, of course, Arabic script itself (green).
As part of this most recent phase, we have found that the more we mine the text, the more choices there are to be made about the tone of the ‘Ameya’ dialect and the extent to which we preserve Shakespeare’s original images or references. Is it better to interpret the spirit of a metaphor and find a very colloquial and familiar Egyptian phrase that seems to do it justice, or does one try to introduce the image Shakespeare has provided and describe it colloquially for the Egyptian adaptation? I’d argue that Egyptian Arabic relies on metaphor, pun and alliteration almost as much as Shakespeare himself, and so part of the fun of this latest process has been grilling family and friends about turns of phrase that might inadvertently capture Shakespeare’s vision. I have even created a family WhatsApp with all of my many Egyptian cousins, encouraging them to fill me in on the latest proverbs and catchphrases.
There have often been exciting choices to be made about the characters’ cultural frames of reference. Examples include to referring to Amun Ra, the Pharaonic sun god, rather than the European’s Phoebus and replacing the ‘Wing’d Mercury’ with Egypt’s own falcon-god, Horus. Along with these examples, there is vast potential to bring Shakespeare’s Cleopatra into an authentically Egyptian context.
In a way, it is this desire to bring the last queen of the Pharaohs back to the streets of Egypt that has made this project matter so much to me. The sentiment may be romantic, but perhaps even that is in keeping with the sensibilities of Shakespeare’s original. I have great hopes for the development of this bilingual production; I want to explore code switches, diaspora culture and the power of the verbal and the non-verbal in the nurturing of relationships and the demise of kingdoms. And after all of that is done, I dream of taking our show back to Egypt: I want to bring Cleopatra home.
For updates on this project, to watch footage or to get in touch with the creative team, please visit 27:31's website.