Playing around with Shakespeare is always a dangerous game. Playing around with Shakespeare in a way which involves the words “contemporary” and “dance” is an even riskier game – one which is played a little too often. But to give completely deserved credit to Al Zaytouna, this is probably one of the first times that someone has attempted to perform Shakespeare in the medium of Palestinian dabke dance.
Unto The Breach fuses elements from Shakespeare’s Henry V with dabke to tell the modern story of the Chairman, a charismatic and Arafat-like figure who leads an uprising among Palestinians. As a whole, it feels like a series of experiments in storytelling.
Some fall flat – the chorus’s narration in adapted Shakespearian language manages to feel contrived in many places though the actress playing the chorus generally manages to pull it off. Others are extremely successful, such as when a long speech drawn straight from the play bursts straight into a chant of “revolution!” in Arabic, adding an immediacy to the words. The lack of any outright dialogue aside from these speeches generally works well. The moments of tension between the Chairman and his Israeli counterpart are palpable and occasionally verge on being sexual; the play of power and defiance between the two characters is brilliantly evoked without any dialogue being necessary. One scene consists simply of the two staring each other down, while the lyrics of the powerfully angry background music do the talking.
Yes, it’s risky and in places it’s awkward. But what carries the performance is that Al Zaytouna are brilliant dancers. Whether bringing out a traditional dabke for a wedding celebration or twisting and spinning in choreographed battlefield scenes, the dancers achieve something both visually stunning and emotionally powerful. They are doing modern and interesting things with the dabke, and this show should mark them out again as a group well worth watching.