NEW YORK - Last fall, when Sulayman Al-Bassam set out to write a piece of theater about the decades of political paralysis and societal stagnation that have gripped the Middle East, he couldn’t have predicted the revolutionary transformations that would sweep across the Arab world only a few months later.
The play, “The Speaker’s Progress,’’ is a loose variation on “Twelfth Night’’ and the final installment in his company’s Arab Shakespeare trilogy. Initially, it was intended as “an anguished cry of despair at the inability of art, and even people, to make change happen,’’ says Al-Bassam during an interview near the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he’s prepping the play for its United States premiere at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. On Wednesday, ArtsEmerson brings the production to the Paramount Theatre, where it will be performed through Oct. 16 in English and Arabic, with surtitles.
In the Middle East this year, bitter howls of despair have turned into exuberant expressions of hope and joy, as the seismic events of the incendiary Arab Spring reverberated from Egypt’s Tahrir Square to Tunisia. Dictators fell, and entrenched regimes enacted major reforms. To Al-Bassam, this meant the play needed to change as well.
“The seminal thing that was being said in the original version of the piece was no longer true,’’ he says over lunch at a cafe during a rehearsal break. “We had been happily invalidated by this momentous turn of events.’’
In February, Al-Bassam and his actors began to alter the play to reflect the new, turbulent forces pushing back against a repressive political culture - but events were unfolding fast. Indeed, just days before the show began previews in Kuwait that month, Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.
“The ability of people to make peaceful protest and to achieve what had been unimaginable . . . worked its way into the performance in a way that was very spontaneous and open and relating to these current events and the actual sense of euphoria people were experiencing,’’ says Al-Bassam, 39. Half-Kuwaiti and half-British, he founded the eponymous Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) in Kuwait almost a decade ago.
Since the performances in February, Al-Bassam has done a wholesale reworking of the text, particularly in the play’s final section. Set in an unnamed totalitarian state where all forms of theater have been banned, the piece was originally meant as a dark satire on the demoralizing decades of political stagnation in which Arab states have been mired. Instead, it has turned into a sharp theatrical metaphor for social and political transformation, the ways in which resistance takes hold, and the limits of silencing dissent.
“The metaphor for change had to come from within the vocabulary of theater. But we needed to find a more sophisticated theatrical language to describe change - a language that wouldn’t need altering with every turn of event,’’ says Al-Bassam, a tall man with a smooth, confident voice and a mass of dark hair speckled with gray. Born and raised in Kuwait, Al-Bassam spent nearly 15 years of his life living mostly in Britain, starting in his high school years, before moving back to Kuwait in his late 20s.
“The Speaker’s Progress’’ centers on a fictional classic play that’s been condemned by an autocratic government. Loosely based on “Twelfth Night,’’ the text has become a rallying point for an underground, Internet-fueled resistance movement.
Intent on suppressing dissent, the state decides to create a “forensic reconstruction’’ of the play in an effort to denounce its content. But as the play-within-the-play unfolds, those performing it become increasingly engaged with the material they’re supposed to be denouncing. Their public presentation becomes a subversive act of defiance against the state - a metaphorical middle finger, if you will.
“That’s where we come to the idea of a metaphor for change,’’ Al-Bassam explains. “How does radical change come about? Where do you go next? What do you do when you no longer have the institutions, the texts, the directions, and the road maps that have been part and parcel of a society for so many years? How do you move beyond the euphoria of change?’’
Al-Bassam acknowledges that creating a play about an abstract idea like change can be a challenge. He says the first two installments in SABAB’s Arab Shakespeare trilogy, which explores Middle Eastern politics in the post-9/11 world, had more concrete concepts to theatricalize: power and radicalism. The acclaimed “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,’’ commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, depicted the maniacal king as the product of a corrupt, power-hungry society. The “Al-Hamlet Summit’’ explored the effects of a growing militant Islamic movement.
Rob Orchard, ArtsEmerson’s executive director, says he wanted to bring SABAB to town because it was a rare opportunity to host a Middle Eastern theater company in Boston and because of the play’s connection with the revolutionary change that’s still unfolding in the region.
“I think it’s important for us to remember that this is dangerous stuff for these performers and artists,’’ Orchard says over the phone. “And you see that in the performance; you see that in the urgency of their work; and you see that in the focus, the buoyancy, the energy, and the joy of the play.’’
Indeed, it was a challenge just getting some of the actors, who come from across the Middle East, out of their countries and into this one. Even in Kuwait, a relative bastion of artistic free expression in the Arab world, SABAB had its recordings of the play from last February impounded and then ostensibly “lost’’ by the government’s ministry of information.
“Which is bitterly ironic,’’ says Al-Bassam, “because the original piece that we made in February was about a recording of a play that had been seized and destroyed.’’
Says Orchard, “We’re so spoiled by the freedoms that we have in our culture. But these are people who are getting up on a stage and saying words that can be misinterpreted, and their lives can be dramatically affected by that. There are all sorts of pernicious ways in which threats are exercised. So I want them to come and be applauded for their courage.’’