Following the previous post about the March Symposium to be held at stage@leeds (details below) on 26 & 27 March, the organisors are pleased to confirm the attendance of several significant theatre professionals to give talks, including:
* Gregory Doran from the RSC,
* Tian Qinxin from the National Theatre of China,
* Davey Anderson from the National Theatre of Scotland,
* Guan Bo from the National Centre for Performing Arts, China
* Zhang Ping from the Henan Yuju Theatre.
On top of this, there will also be an exhibition of 10 different productions of ‘The Orphan of Zhao’. The productions cover different genres of Chinese spoken drama, four local operas, Western style opera, English and Korean. There will also be two workshops on the 27th led by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of China. Spaces for these are limited so book your place now!! (Details attached) ‘Stage@leeds’ is the performance building situated at the University of Leeds (Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT). There will be signposts on the day to guide you to the venue. Please note: It is advisable to book your tickets in advance. The event is bilingual (Chinese and English), subtitled or interpreted live by our MA Translation students.
For any further information please don’t hesitate to contact:
Milly Dent Symposium Management Intern firstname.lastname@example.org
Elliot Pannaman Symposium Management Intern email@example.com
An International Symposium: Performing China on the Global Stage, 26 and 27 March, 2013, University of Leeds
For anyone interested in Chinese theatre, including the controversial The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC, check out this two day symposium at the University of Leeds organised by Dr Li Ruru. It promises to be a stimulating and fun. The second half of my Orphan review is still pending…. Watch this space… Read the first part here.
Performing China on the Global Stage: People, Society and Culture
An International Symposium 26 & 27 March 2013
University of Leeds
‘Performing China on the Global Stage’, a practice –led research network with its hub in Leeds, announces a two-day international symposium on 26 and 27 March 2013.
The symposium will include both conventional research seminars and public events of workshops and interactive presentations. Scholars and practitioners attending the symposium are from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, North America, the UK and other European countries.
26 March 2013
Session 1 9.00-13.00 including refreshment break
Discussion among contributors of the proposed book (Chinese) led by Professor Hu Zhiyi (Zhejiang University): Chinese Image: An intercultural Study of ‘The Orphan of Zhao’.
Session 2(parallel to session three) 14.00-18.00 including refreshment break
Discussion among the contributors of the edited book (English) led by Dr. Li Ruru (University of Leeds): Spoken Drama Productions in the Millennium: Theatrical Encounter with Politics, Society and Culture.
Session 3 (parallel to session two) 14.00-16.00
Much Ado About Nothing – a workshop led by Zoë Waterman, Assistant Director from the Royal Shakespeare Company UK. (Maximum participants 30). An exciting opportunity to explore this Shakespearian comedy, using classical British rehearsal room techniques to get inside character, language and storyline.
Session 4 17.00-19.00
Energy: Essence of Chinese Theatre – a workshop led by Director Tian Qinxin from the National Theatre Company of China. (Maximum participants 20). Focusing on eyes and the physicality of human beings, the workshop explores the function of energy in creativity and in reactions between performers in the Chinese style.
27 March 2013
Session 1 (parallel to session two) 9.00-10.00
Closed meeting of contributors for edited book (Chinese) to agree on the extension of the detailed outlines into chapters, and time line.
Session 2 (parallel to session one) 9.00-10.00
Closed meeting of contributors for edited book (English) to agree on the extension of the detailed outlines into chapters, and time line.
10-10.30 refreshment break
Session 3 10.30-12:00
Open panel for network partners to discuss how to take forward the project currently called Performing China on the Global Stage, including the electronic stage production repository, PG network, future live performances.
Session 4 13.00-18.00 (open to general public including refreshments)
Staging China, an interactive presentation by theatre professionals and researchers.
Part one: The Orphan of Zhao: from 5BC China to 21st century Stratford-upon-Avon
Stage productions of The Orphan include a wide range of forms: Chinese spoken drama, Chinese regional opera, Chinese Western-style opera, and the current English production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. These works will offer evidence and study cases for the examination of intra/inter/cross-culturalism, challenging the existing models and methodologies.
Part two: Contemporary Western Representations of China
Productions by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, University of Leeds, Border Crossings, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, National Theatre of Scotland and of the play Chinglish will be presented and discussed.
An exhibition of images and video in the venue foyer will provide a virtual theatre experience via over a dozen stage productions.
Cultural & Creative Industries Exchange, University of Leeds
Booking Form: Workshops on 26 March (no fee)
Would like to attend
2-4pm Workshop 1 (RSC) 5-7pm Workshop 2 (NTCC)
Please wear comfortable clothing and soft-soled shoes for the workshops.
Places are limited and need to be booked in advance.
Book Form: Open Sessions 27 March
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 0113 343 8730
Would like to attend the Open Sessions from 10.30 at a cost of £12 (£6 Concessions) including lunch.
The Orphan of Zhao adapted from the Chinese by James Fenton and directed by Gregory Doran, The Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon, 3rd January 2013.
The Asian Performing Arts Forum opened their roundtable discussion on Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao with the following quotation from Rustom Bharucha:
“Unavoidably, the production raises the question of ethics, not just the ethics of representation, which concerns the decontextualisation of an epic from its history and culture, but the ethics of interacting with people … in the process of creating the work itself. … It is at the level of interactions that the human dimensions of interculturalism are, at once, most potent and problematic.” Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture ( 1993) p.84.
The quotation in context refers to Peter Brook’s Mahabharata but can, I think, be usefully applied to the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Interculturalism is a sticky issue, caught somewhere between liberal diversity politics and post-colonial reclamation of identities and narratives, as seen in the polarised responses to Brook’s and, more recently, Gregory Doran’s forays into appropriating non-western world literature for western consumption. Minority groups rightly feel aggrieved at under-representation or misrepresentation. The companies accused of insensitivity in casting when they have produced a previously unperformed ‘non-western’ play on a mainstream western stage may well feel that they are unfairly singled out: identifying themselves as liberal and open to diversity, they wonder how they have ended up labelled as the neo-imperialists?
I’m going to confess that I was entertained and frustrated by this production in equal measures, and I hope that I can write of it here with some generosity, despite my very serious reservations… Thus, for my response to The Orphan of Zhao I propose to take as my starting place the interactions that are the ‘human’ dimension of intercultural performance through all that was ‘most potent’ and ‘most problematic’ for me in Doran’s production at the Swan Theatre.
Part 1: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Potent
The Shakespeare connection for this play in the RSC’s A World Elsewhere season is the claim that it is the ‘Chinese Hamlet’. After all, anything ‘foreign’, it seems, must be made comprehensible through something we are familiar with already, even though that comparison may distort it completely. This is a paradox that Shakespeare plays with in Antony and Cleopatra. When Antony returns to Rome from the ‘exotic’ East, his drinking buddy and fellow triumvirate, Lepidus, asks him what a crocodile looks like. His answer, although true, is useless as a meaningful description: ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad/ as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is,/ and moves with its own organs’ (Act 2, Scene 7) However, although The Orphan of Zhao is not actually very like Shakespeare’s tragedy, other than its central protagonist needing to avenge his father’s murder by an uncle-figure, it does bare some parallels with the ‘original’ Hamlet story from Saxo Grammaticus’ Deeds of the Danes, in which a very young Viking prince, Amleth, must live in his fratricidal uncle’s household until he reaches manhood. At this point, as a dutiful orphaned son, Amleth kills him. Likewise, the Zhao Orphan, whose father is a court minister, and whose mother is the Emperor’s daughter, must also grow up to enact his revenge when his father and his clan are wiped out by a jealous rival minister, Tu’an Gu. In both the tale of Viking Blood Revenge and the musical drama of Chinese filial piety, the call to vengeance is never questioned. The tension lies in whether or not the boys will manage to survive into adulthood to fulfil their duty. Coincidentally, the first extant version of Orphan, by the Yuan dynasty’s Ji Junxiang (紀君祥), was written at about the same time as Deeds.
James Fenton’s adaptation succeeded in making a potentially confusing tale of corruption at court, babies switched at birth, the slaughter of infants, a mad woman locked away in a hidden palace, and divided filial loyalties, flow with a simple clarity. I didn’t notice that much poetry in the translation, but I never lost track of the plot or themes, and the songs were simple yet compelling. One of the central conceits is that the family doctor switches his own baby son to protect the prince. To prevent the Herod-like murder of all boy-children under the age of two, he must reveal the whereabouts of this supposed Orphan of Zhao. The doctor’s baby then has his little neck broken on stage in front of his father by the murderous Tu’an Gu, who believes it to be the orphan of Zhao. Tu’an Gu, as a reward for [the doctor’s] ‘good’ deed, decides to adopt his son, unaware that he is the orphan’ (Programme, 2012: 22).
The Swan Theatre is my favourite space at the RSC, because it is so small that the action is close and clear even when I am in the ‘cheap’ front-row second gallery seats (still very pricey at £22 for non-concessions). The Orphan of Zhao worked well in that relatively intimate thrust-stage environment, as the actors happily hammed up ‘speaking to the audience’ and ‘introducing their roles’, presumably in reference to various Chinese opera traditions.
Yet these were fine performances. This was the only production in the World Elsewhere trilogy to cast two ethnic minority actors in protagonist roles, the hero and the villain, proving that a major British classical theatre company risks no threat to their artistic reputation by foregrounding talent from a broader spectrum than is the norm. Joe Dixon, who I had previously seen at the RSC as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, was a deliciously roguish Tu’an Gu. As for Jake Fairbrother as the grown-up orphan, Cheng Bo, I couldn’t help but think that he had been cast in part, at least, because of his uncanny resemblance to a young Yul Brynner… Like my daughter, labelled ‘ethnically ambiguous’, the director clearly felt that Jake, too, had a face that could represent anywhere. Cheng Bo’s childlike energy and innocence was delightful and all too fragile in the face of his task when, suddenly discovering his true identity as he reached adulthood, he found himself bound to execute the man he had loved as a father. This was one of the productions strengths: it did not shy away from the ambivalences of the plot. Nia Gwynne was simply heartbreaking as the doctor’s wife, lamenting the sacrifice of her precious child because of some supposed ‘greater good’ before falling into despair and disappearing. This scene was made even more potent because, as the fate of the two babies was debated by the doctor and his wife, the baby dolls were ‘voiced’ by adult actors kneeling on either side of the stage. Chris Lew Kum Hoi, who would later return as the ghost of the doctor’s son was one of them, his cooing and gurgling in stark contrast to the adult body that would be denied him. Unfortunately, the implications of this scene were not fully realised as instead of having Fairbrother produce the sounds of his infant self, this was voiced by another actor.
Lots of old white men played old Chinese Mandarins, but with sagacity and grace. Susan Momoko Hingley, an Anglo-Japanese actor, did a sprightly turn as the soon-to-be decapitated maid, and Chris Lew Kum Hoi stunned us all as he returned as the ghost of the doctor’s son in the final five minutes. In a pair of scenes that echoed each other, the Orphan and the ghost confronted the men they saw as their fathers. Cheng Bo offered Tu’an Gu the same option of ‘suicide’ as Tu’an Gu had offered his real father. Unable to take his own life, Tu’an Gu begged his adopted son to kill him if he had ever loved him. Thus this ‘patricide’ became, not simply a moment of revenge, but also a brief moment of possible forgiveness. In contrast, the old doctor, confronted by the son he had sacrificed in a graveyard, found he must kill himself to appease the child he had abandoned.
It was a beautiful production, too. Whenever somebody died, blood-red petals fell from the rafters. A latticed moongate and red silk lanterns evoked Old China throughout: the Swan Theatre had transformed overnight from pre-Revolutionary Russia (Boris Godunov) to a pretty good impression of The Lao She Teahouse in Beijing. In traditional Chinese theatre, scenery is minimal and non-representative. The RSC had done some research: a week in China for the director and designer, plus artistic advice and workshops on Chinese stage conventions ‘back home’ led by Leeds University academic and director, Dr. Li Ruru, author of Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare on the Chinese Stage and The Soul of Beijing Opera. Her introduction in the programme to the evolution of The Orphan of Zhao’s stage history, both in the East and in the West, is illuminating. Tian Yuan Tan of SOAS also adds credibility with his article on dysfunctional dynasties. Full colour spreads of Terracotta Warriors, Spirit Ways, Pagodas and Dragons all make clear that we should not expect a hybrid or an anglicised production: this is the RSC introducing the British public to Chinese Theatre. The delicate watercolour designs by Niki Turner shimmered into life in a production awash with coloured silks and shining spears. Authenticity seemed to be the order of the day, from the Emperor’s imperial yellow robes and pointy black beard, to a wise old Mandarin physically prostrating himself in front of the spoilt monarch (who had been practising his archery skills on his subjects for fun) as he desperately tried to make him see reason.
Ay, there’s the rub. With so much emphasis in getting the set, the costumes and even (some) of the movements to be ‘Chinese’, wasn’t there something missing? Ah yes…
Part 2: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Problematic Posting shortly
Related posts: Madam Miaow Makes Mincemeat of RSC over Non-Chinese-Casting
My current research is on Hamlet in late-communist and post-communist society, so it’s jolly good of my friend Aneta Mancewitz to co-ordinate a panel discussion especially for me! (So, okay, not really just for me…)
Wednesday 30th January 2013
Venue: New Studio, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
Click on the link above for more details.
It will be wonderful to meet up again with Dr. Nicoleta Cinpoes, who organised the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Craiova in 2009 where I first met many of these people. As people gave their papers in that industrial Romanian city, which also hosts a major international Shakespeare festival every two years (and we act like the World Shakespeare Festival was a new idea!), there were definite recurring themes - of which Hamlet and the legacy of 1989 in post-communist spaces was particularly potent.
This panel will explore Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian and Yugoslav Hamlets.
The importance of Eastern European reconfigurings of Hamlet was illustrated during the Globe to Globe Festival when Shakespeare’s most famous play was performed, not by the Brits, but by the Lithuanians (left). My blog review of Nekrosius’ Hamlet can be read here. My performance review of a Polish Hamlet directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz is forthcoming in the journal Shakespeare and is published online already. If you would like a free copy please contact me and I will send you the link. It originally started life as a couple of Shakespeare Travels blogposts, of course.
Other speakers will include the ever eloquent Prof. Dr. Boika Sokolova, Dr. Sonia Massai, and Aneta herself, among others.
Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum. But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it. So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube. Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:
The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.
I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.
I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis
Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.
Boris Godunov, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Adrian Mitchell and directed by Michael Boyd for the RSC, the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2nd January 2012
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A World Elsewhere season follows on from 2012′s World Shakespeare Festival and is the introduction to Gregory Doran’s Artistic Directorship. As such, the start of his reign as Shakespeare Tsar looked good: resisting Bardolotry by introducing great works of world drama (Chinese, Russian, German) to the Stratford stage. Although of course, for obvious marketing reasons (as is the case with all the RSC seasons) links with ‘the Bard’ are highlighted. In this case, ‘the Swan Theatre premieres a trilogy of newly-adapted international plays, in repertoire from November, exploring what was going on in the rest of the world during Shakespeare’s lifetime.‘ However, A World Elsewhere has not been without its controversy, especially around the ethnic composition of the season’s ensemble cast. Flagged up as ‘an ethnically diverse company’ (p.1) in the programme notes, the casting of white actors in most of the major roles across all three productions, and the British East Asians to minor roles, especially in the Chinese play, led to allegations of institutionalised racism. In fact, the reason the RSC gave for casting so few East Asian actors in this season was that they would have to act in non-Chinese plays. Which is strange, as the central figure of the Russian play was of Tatar or Mongol origin, a point the translation made much of, and its rebels came from across Central Asia, making the BEA actors closer in ethnicity to most of the characters than the white British…
Boris Godunov, the first in this trilogy of world classics that I saw, is a translation of Pushkin’s 1825 play about the rise and fall of one of Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, or secret police, who takes the regency during the short reign of Ivan’s ‘cretin’ son, and is rumoured to have murdered the rightful heir to the throne, the boy Prince Dmitry. Boris is challenged by a bored young monk, Grigory Otrepiev, who, on learning that he would be the same age as the dead prince had he lived and has the same colour eyes (brown!), decides to leave the cloisters and set himself up as pretender to the throne with the help of Russia’s old enemies, Lithuania and Poland. Pushkin, the programme tells us, deliberately chose ‘ a historical period that resembled that of Shakespeare’s History plays, a lead character that echoes the guilt-ridden Macbeth and a cunning Richard III, and a style and structure that juxtaposes comic scenes with the main action of the tragedy’ (p.9).
The director Michael Boyd goes on to suggest that this is because, like Shakespeare, Pushkin was attempting to avoid the censorship of an authoritarian state by cloaking his satire in borrowed, ancient robes. He was not exactly successful, and the play was barely performed during his lifetime ‘because it was deemed unseemly for men of the church to be depicted in the theatre’ (Julie Curtis, p.12). The programme neatly makes a contemporary parallel of apparent respect for the church being used to silence political dissent under a despotic rular by illustrating this with pictures of Pussy Riot, the punk-girl band convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after singing an obscenely lyric-ed, anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral (pp.12-13). And, for those who hadn’t bought a programme, the small music ensemble opened the play with a traditional Russian folk-tune sabotaged by a grunge bassline…
So did this production translate to the RSC stage? Yes and no. The mise-en-scène was clever. Non-realist, Absurdist even, the battle scenes were enacted by thrashing coats to the ground, and a cavalry charge by actors mounting the backs of their fellows. The loveplot centred on a midnight meeting in a garden: four actors swung forward from the balcony and poured water from white enamel ewers into basins balanced on heads of another four actors below. ‘The fountain!’ Grigory announced, helpfully. In order to underscore the political dimension of the production, the actors stepped in and out of costumes hanging from hooks at the back of the stage, making this not a timeless production but one that spoke simultaneously to different times. From Renaissance furs, through early nineteenth century tails and Regency dresses, they ended up in 21C suits and ties, illustrating Boris Godunov’s continuing relevance – although I have to admit, the softly spoken, slightly cuddly Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris was rather more of a Gordon Brown than a Vladimir Putin. Now trying to be a good and fair leader, fate and the haunting of his past sin conspired against him. Reduced to a shivering wreck by the memory of the murdered prince, he stumbled into the audience and buried his head on the nearest shoulder. The woman patted his arm reassuringly, clearly unrepulsed by this man who had had a child murdered in cold blood… (For the record, the historic Boris probably did no such thing.)
Gudonov’s children, Ksenya (Joan Iyiola) and Fyodor (Christian Leith) were interesting touches, further humanising the central character. Ksenya, in perpetual mourning for her betrothed, a foreign prince she had never met, held his empty picture frame throughout, at one point dancing with his imagined image (Sui Hun Li). Little Fyodor seemed to reappear to his father as the apparition of the cut-throated Prince Dmitry until he and the audience realised that the child had been playing with red paint and a paintbrush. Yet this was billed as a comedy about tyranny, so the boy’s stunt brought a laugh. The fickle crowd added to the satire, and Susan Momoko Hingley, as the woman bashing her baby, first for crying in times of joy then again for not crying when the crown mourned, was very funny indeed.
The late Adrian Mitchell’s script was brilliant, crackling with acerbic wit and, at times, hilarious doggerel, such as when the two drunken monks coerced the young runaway Pretender, Grigory, to speak in very bad rhyming couplets, much against his better judgement. However, the dialogue was rarely delivered with the energy of the text – a directorial decision perhaps rather than a lack of nuance on the part of the cast, particularly as the same actors bristled with energy the next night in Doran’s The Orphan of Zhao. Michael Boyd’s Boris Godunov was a concept driven production, entirely in keeping with Eastern European theatre traditions he trained in yet, unlike many Eastern European productions of the classics, not quite able to match its visual ideas with its verbal delivery. This was because, although adapted into contemporary and often colloquial English by Mitchell, the lines were mostly delivered in the careful, measured tones of traditional Shakespeare-speak: a little too slow to get the laughs, a little too enunciated to bring out any emotional nuance. Grigory, by contrast, shouted a lot. Again, this declamatory delivery of ALL his lines seemed to be on purpose, perhaps with Boyd intending to set him apart as the charismatic and passionate young rebel. In reality, the overall effect was that the dialogue was either sluggish or shouty, with the exception of Lucy Briggs-Owen as the slightly bonkers, power-heady Polish princess love-interest, Joan Iyiola as the mournful Ksenya Godunov and James Tucker as the deliciously slippery Prince Shuiskin. Likewise, although the Swan’s thrust stage allows for a real sense connection between audience and actor, and although the production utilised the space fully, with characters appearing amongst the audience, the more agile of the cast climbing up ladders into the galleries, the lack of direct eye-contact throughout meant that the fourth-wall was replaced with what I term the ‘goldfish bowl’. It was only in the final moments that the audience was called on to respond as if we were the Moscovite crowd, complicit in the endless cycle of tyranny, and by that time it was too late – instead of rapturously applauding the reign of Grigory, we simply politely applauded the end of the show. So despite its fine visuals, the pacing and its lack of connection to the audience, allowed its energy to seep away, so that ultimately it was never entirely engaging as comedy, tragedy or satire.
As an afterthought, I wonder whether, if Boyd had gone for Boris Godunov as a satire on the last British election, it may have hit home more effectively?!
Notes from my presentation on the Study of Shakespeare, YSJU.
Mise, from mettre, to put. Mise-en-scène, to put into a ‘scene’, or a literal or metaphorical space. We often equate it with another word, scenography, which refers to the set, costumes, props and even music in a production. How these elements can combine to convey a meaning as powerful as that found in language is evidenced by Emil Pirchan’s iconography for Leopold Jessner’s 1920 Richard III(see Hortmann, 1998, and Kennedy, 1993b). Jessner and Pirchan were part of the German Expressionist movement, which rejected Realism and decorative art, as they felt these simply upheld the political, social and aesthetic status quo. Working in the interwar period after the destruction of WWI, and witnessing the rise of facism in Europe, they instead embraced Abstraction, for as another artist of the era stated:
“I really feel a pressure to create something that is as strong as possible. The war has really swept away everything from the past. Everything seems weak to me and I suddenly see things in their terrible power. I never liked the type of art that was simply appealing to the eye, and I have the fundamental feeling that we need still stronger forms, so strong, that they can withstand the force of the crazed masses.”
(Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, cited in The Art Story)
Or, as Paul Klee would sum up: ‘the more terrible this world, the more abstract our art’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993b: 83). See Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation for more on this.
Looking at the set for the second half of Jessner’s Richard III clearly illustrates this. Steps dominated the stage. My students were reminded of pyramids and tombs, monumental images connoting power and death. We then looked at Pirchan’s sketches:
The relationship between the scenography and the bodies of the actors on the stage took on added significance when looked at through Pirchan’s coloured sketch, the only colour image that exists of this part of the production, I believe.
In an interpolated scene (prior to 4.2) Richard ascended the steps slowly for his coronation […] At the top ‘the red of the steps was linked to the red of the sky by the crimson of Richard’s gown,’ Paterson explains, ‘as though an electric charge of evil had leapt the gap between heaven and earth’. A contemporary critic, Alfred Polger, said that ‘it is as though the sky itself provided a bloody reflection for Richard’s atrocities.’ Pirchan’s design for the scene, showing the violence of this strategy of colour, is the best evidence that the scenography carried much of the burden of the production. (Kennedy, 1993b: p 87)
The version described above became the cover image for the first edition of Kennedy’s Looking at Shakespeare (1993)
Yet mise-en-scène extends beyond the visual surface of the play to embrace all aspects of how the play communicates meaning to its audience. Non-verbal communication includes intonation, timing, expression, gesture, spatial relationships between performers and spatial relationships between performers and the audience (see Leiblien in Kennedy, 1993a). My colleague, Julie Raby, had explored some of these ideas in a previous lecture in relation to the RSC’s recent summer production of Richard III, directed by Roxana Silbert. In this clip students had been particularly impressed with how the actor, Jonjo O’Neill, like a latter-day Vice, had seduced the viewer (and on the stage, the audience) into being complicit in his actions through his direct address. One student noted the way he walked away, and then turned back on the phrase ‘But I‘. As he confided in her his sense of being a rejected outsider because of his deformity, his seduction, it seemed, was complete.
If it’s not just the words but the relationship between the words and the body that speaks them, however, that makes the meaning, then O’Neill’s Northern Irish accent as Richard was significant because it made a statement about ownership of ‘the Bard’ both on the part of the actor, who is Northern Irish, and the RSC, who produced the play. As a visiting American student said to me last year, after he had been praised for his reading aloud, ‘But I don’t sound like Shakespeare - you sound like Shakespeare.’ What if David Tennant had played a Scottish Hamlet? A small choice has big cultural implications. However, to people in the audience of my age, there may have been another layer of meaning perceived in O’Neill’s rendition, because to anyone who lived in the United Kingdom in the ’70s and ’80s, a Northern Irish accent was inextricably linked through the media to the Troubles. In fact, under Thatcher, the government literally tried to silence certain Republican and Loyalist figures by outlawing the broadcasting of their voices. Journalists got around this in a surreal manner, so that I grew up with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein routinely dubbed by an actor speaking with a strong Belfast accent. Even if there had been no intended link in the minds of anyone involved in the production, the circumstances of history, and the Othering of certain a certain group through their voices, would still echo on the 21st century English stage.
Yohangza’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From South Korea, this is a global, intercultural company (their name means ‘voyager’), who have successfully proved that the language of theatre is more than linguistic and, without attempting to ‘universalise’ or ‘homogenise’, they have nevertheless shown how easy it is for a story well told to criss-cross cultural boundaries. I was unable to get to London for the two days that it was playing at the Globe, but I saw it online.
I was a Groundling for the first time when I went to see the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre Company’s Richard II. Standing right next to Sami Metwasi when he sat on the edge of the stage as Richard and lamented the death of kings in classical Arabic – well, it was simply one of the most compelling moments in theatre that I have experienced. I’ve blogged about it here, and I am currently co-authoring a journal paper on it.
This was ‘balanced’ by the controversial invitation to Israel’s national theatre Habima, who against everyone’s expectations chose to put on The Merchant of Venice. By all accounts, the political theatricals that took place around the production were as powerful as the performances on the stage, and raised challenging questions about whether or not artists and artistic ‘products’ should be boycotted. Some Israeli commentators read it as a critique of internal Jewish racism, explaining that Shylock was represented as a Sephardic (Eastern/Mediterranean) Jew, while Portia and her coterie where Ashkenazi (European).
There were three powerful, cruelly absurd reconfigurings of Shakespeare’s ‘great’ tragedies.
The Belarus Free Theatre outdid any CGI technology by reproducing the storm with a simple blue tarpaulin and a bucket or two of water in its scathing satire, King Lear. The result: they left the audience stunned, and those of us at the front of the Groundlings, due to their extraordinary use of the elements, deafened and somewhat wet. I’ve blogged on it. Kochanowski Theatre’s Polish Macbeth divided British audiences between those who were horrified and disgusted by the sexual violence in its postmodern deconstruction of corrupt contemporary politics, and those of us, myself included, who thought that to not represent the ugliness of this on the stage would be in itself self-censorship and a betrayal of the mise-en- scene. Meno Fortas put on their famously ‘metaphorical’ Hamlet with aplomb. Audiences were drawn both by its director’s stature in European theatre circles and also, as noted in my blog, by the fame of its rock star Hamlet. Amongst all of this darkness, Marjanishvili Theatre from Georgia, put on a delightful and nuanced As You Like It. As well as my blog post I have an autumn leaf as a reminder.
My interest is not only in Eastern European appropriation, however. It was fascinating to see the deliberately apolitical Richard III by the National China of Theatre after spending so much time thinking about the more subversive work of Lin Zhaohua. It wasn’t so much Shakespeare as a secret agent as ‘Let me entertain you’! We were .
Others that I did not get a chance to see but wish I had included: Two Gents Shona language Two Gentleman of Verona (both hilariously funny and brilliantly dark, if it is anything like their English language version of the same which I saw on tour in Scarborough in 2009); Hong Kong’s Tang Shu Wing’s Theatre Studio Theatre’s Titus Andronicus;; and all the Indian subcontinent productions (Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest). I managed to catch up on The Merchant of Venice and Oyun Atölyesi’s Antony and Cleopatra from Turkey through the Performance and Festival section on The Space website. Unfortunately, many of the plays were taken off a day before its advertised end, so the time I had set aside for marathon Globe to Globe watching was in vain, and a shame for the students who had hoped to watch Hamlet the day before their lecture….
I’d be interested to hear you thoughts on any of these productions and also your views on the politics and economics of these types of festival. I loved every minute of Globe to Globe, but it does raise important questions about cultural ownership, how festivals package and represent companies as ‘the Other’, and how theatre can reach new audiences.
As an afterthought, I really should get a goody bag after all this promotion for the Arts Council and Globe to Globe, shouldn’t I?!
*All of the 37 plays in 37 languages were hosted in full with the exception of the Afghan Roy-E-Sabs’ exuberantly defiant Comedy of Errors, presumably because it has been unsafe for the actors, particularly the women, to have too high a media profile. An Afghan actress was murdered this summer just for being an actress. Shakespeare’s Globe have also not included any pictures of the women in their production photographs, apart from the US exile – the one who left Afghanistan after her husband was killed because he ‘let’ her work in television drama.
I have to admit to feeling just a little bit sorry for Greg Doran, appointed new artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and actual director of its upcoming World Elsewhere season. After all, who wants to be made into cat’s mincemeat by the magnificent Madam Miaow? Madam Miaow, aka steampunk poet and Chinese cultural activist Anna Chen, is leading the campaign to ‘out’ Doran and the RSC as culturally insensitive (at best) or institutionally racist (at worst) after they cast predominantly non-Chinese as leading roles in the classical Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, by Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). To add insult to injury, the poster only mentions the name of its adaptor, James Fenton. Furthermore, the three Chinese cast members play ‘two dogs and a maid’… Admittedly, the maid is a fairly main part and the dogs are talented puppeteers, but in all the RSC’s research did they not realise the cultural significance of equating Chinese with dogs? So ok, the infamous ‘No dogs or Chinese’ sign over the gates of Huangpu Park in foreign controlled 1920s Shanghai may be an urban myth: what the notice actually stated was ‘no dogs or bicyles’ – oh yes, and that the park was for ‘foreigners’ only. But surely, in a series that also contains a German and a Russian classic, Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the RSC could have stretched to a third of the cast being British East Asian, at least. Madam Miao’s campaign has not only hit The Guardian, it is rapidly going global, now taken up by the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition), who are calling for a US campaign to resist the RSC bringing ‘their practice of exclusion’ with them when they take two family productions, Matilda and the young people’s King Lear, to New York.
Now, I have to confess that on one level my interest in this story is personal. Not only did I live in China for five years, but my daughter, currently doing A-levels, is hoping to go to drama school. One day she suddenly said, unprompted by anything I had said, ‘What’s the point of me doing drama? Even if I get into drama school, I’ll only ever get a chance to play waitresses or a Thai prostitute! I mean, you never see East Asians on telly - I could never do Shakespeare or a costume drama!’ My daughter is half South East Asian (Lao, not Thai, but most people don’t know the difference). Alarmed by her defeatism, I passed on to her an advert for a youth drama summer school run by the BEA theatre troupe Yellow Earth. She successfully auditioned and spent 2 weeks last summer at the Yellow Academy. Out of the sixteen participants, she was the only one of non-Chinese descent. Initially, she was a little disappointed by this: clearly she was marginalised within the marginalised, but then a casting director came to talk to this eager group of young wannabes. This man was sympathetic to issues around casting faced by BEAs. Unless there is a real cultural shift, their only likelihood of getting work is still by playing waiters. Then he looked at my daughter: ‘You’re lucky though. You’re ethnically ambiguous. You could play any type of Asian. In fact, I could even cast you as Romanian!’ Mmm, so her future holds being represented as a Thai prostitute or a trafficked Eastern European… Of course, things are changing. A young actor at the China in Britain: Myths and Realities: Theatre/Performance and Music conference held at the University of Westminster earlier this year bitterly noted that BEAs could get major TV roles – in SciFi. Afterall, since Star Trek, there’s always been a geeky or a sexy (or a geeky, sexy) Chinese or Japanese in any self respecting team of alien fighters.
At China in Britain, BEA theatre stalwarts, the actor David Yip (best known for his role as The Chinese Detective in the ’80s), actor/writer Lucy Sheen, and David Lee-Jones, who was recently the first BEA to play a Shakespearean king in the UK, pointed out that it was not only the fault of casting directors if they failed to cast Chinese actors. They needed to have Chinese actors to cast. If Chinese parents don’t value their children participating in the arts, then where is this new generation of Chinese actors going to come from, Yip asked. Interestingly, both he and Lee-Jones are dual heritage and Sheen is adopted: as was the case with the majority of participants at the Yellow Academy. The change has to come from within the community, Yip argued, as it did in the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. (For US readers, ‘Asian’ in the UK tends to refer to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, East Asian to Chinese and Japanese)
However, if our national theatres, arts funding bodies, and government (through funding said theatres and bodies) don’t actively participate in ensuring that all sectors of British society are represented on our stages and our screens, aren’t they indeed perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups in the arts? Yellow Academy has had its British Arts Council funding reduced so that now it only covers the teaching. As there was no funding for travel and accommodation, it’s not surprising that nearly all the participants came from the South East.
Let’s get back to the RSC. Why is it a problem that the cast of The Orphan of Zhao is predominantly non-Chinese? The RSC have been making efforts to be less, how shall I put it, honky*. The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Iqbal Khan and starring Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee, is selling out in the West End. Deborah Shaw was behind the World Shakespeare Festival, and she and her husband’s Iraqi Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad literally shook the RSC audiences out of their comfort zone last spring. And Greg Doran’s civil partner, Anthony Sher, returned to his native South Africa, bringing back a multi-cultural production of The Tempest which was both a post-colonial critique and a cautious celebration of the new South Africa. However, the RSC’s following argument is deeply problematic:
We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare. Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality. (Follow this thread on their facebook page, too)
Firstly, the phrase ‘our own way’ is (unintentionally, I believe) culturally imperialist. What do they mean by ‘our’? And who is the oppositional ‘their’? BEAs? Secondly, a Chinese company presenting Shakespeare’s characters as Chinese is about appropriation, and, until very recently, about subaltern appropriation: Caliban getting the island. When Lin Zhaohua presented Hamlet as a contemporary urban Chinese youth back in late 1989, early 1990, he wasn’t aiming for ‘universality’, a concept which was exploded by cultural critics decades ago. Nor was he bowing at the feet of a great Briton. He was rejecting a Soviet model that presented Shakespeare as depoliticized foreign theatre, and instead usurping Shakespeare’s tragedy for his own dissenting purposes (see Li Ruru, Shashabiya). Thirdly, although Doran’s cast is multicultural(ish), it’s still not enough precisely because Chinese and East Asians are so invisible in the British media and arts in the first place.
I opened this piece by saying that I felt a little sorry for Greg Doran. He’s not a racist – but he is blinkered, and he does have a tendency to say some very odd things (much to Madam Miaow and her readers’ delight). A few years ago I challenged him about the lack of diversity in RSC casting during a Q&A at the British Shakespeare Association’s Global/Local Shakespeare conference, convened by Sonia Massai, who edited Worldwide Shakespeares. He acknowledged that the RSC needed to be more inclusive, and this season is part of that acknowledgement. He also said that he would never not cast anybody because of their race. All roles are open to all actors whatever their ethnicity, so long as ‘it won’t confuse the audience. I wouldn’t cast different races within one family, for example.’ Pardon?! I pointed out that many people in the audience, including myself, came from families comprised of different races! ‘Oh, um…’ he began.
But do you know what, deep down I’m glad that Doran got it wrong, and that Madam Miaow noticed. Why? Because by the time my daughter graduates from drama school, if indeed that is what she decides to do, she might get to play Shakespeare’s queens, or Helena, or even her namesake, Imogen.
And I will try to catch all three productions in a World Elsewhere.
*honky – a pejorative term used, historically, by non-whites to describe whites, predominantly white areas and predominantly white culture. (US) I use it ironically.
Short Presentation Outline: Richard III workshop, YSJU
Watch the National Theatre of China’s Globe to Globe Richard III at The Space
See a clever clip from Sabab’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy at Global Shakespeares
Watch the London Olympics Opening Ceremony on the BBC (available in the UK only, I believe)
Danny Boyle framed his Olympic Opening Ceremony with two bastions of British culture: Mr Bean and William Shakespeare. In fact, in some circles (China, Palestine) the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad, has been renamed Shakespeare’s Olympics… This year of sport has also been a year of the arts, in the shape of the London 2012 Festival, and at the heart of this has been ‘our’ National Bard. Not only did the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies use The Tempest to showcase our culture to the world, however; it also assumed that the world would respond to this because Shakespeare is somehow ‘universal’.
There is a very important conversation to be had here about colonial indoctrination, cultural ownership, and Shakespeare as a global brand: however, I cannot do this justice in 15 minutes, and for the time-being at least I want to celebrate the brilliant carnivalesque of this festival, which attempted to recreate – in reverse – the experience of the English Players who took Shakespeare into Europe in the 17th century and performed in English to audiences who, often-times, could not understand a word that was being said! Yet many of those cultures now claim Shakespeare as their own. Not so much a National Bard as a bard of many nations.
Globe to Globe was part of the larger WSF, and presented all 37 plays – in 37 languages. Artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, and Globe to Globe director, Tom Bird, set out their understanding of what this festival signified in the festival programme: ‘Shakespeare is the language that brings us together better than any other, and reminds us of our almost infinite difference, and of our strange and humbling commonality’ (Dromgoole and Bird, 2012). Shakespeare is a universal or shared language, they imply – yes, he reminds us of difference but mostly he emphasises our commonality. However, in an article in the same programme, the academic Dennis Kennedy challenges this idea of universality. Shakespeare has travelled so far, he argues, because of his ‘flexibility.’ We use a specific word to describe Shakespeare adaptation in this context: appropriation. Much as Shakespeare did with the European and Classical sources he appropriated for his own plays, theatre practitioners across the world have taken Shakespeare and used him for their own purposes. Part of this transformation often involves leaving the language behind, challenging the claim that Shakespeare is his language.
First of all, let’s look at the National Theatre of China’s production which wowed audiences at the Globe last April (see my long review here). This was another extremely rainy month, as some of you will remember, nearly as rainy as now, and as flooded. I mention this because the company had found itself without costumes and props. Having sent them ahead by sea 7 weeks earlier, the English weather prevented the container ship from entering Felixstowe harbour, so the actors had to make do with borrowed robes – and a couple of costumes hastily run up, such as this yellow coat. Not quite the Imperial silk that had been planned, but its colour still indicated to anyone who knows anything about Chinese history that whoever wore it was the Emperor.
Yet critics unanimously agreed that the performance was so strong and so innovative that the lack of costumes made little difference. For this Sinocized appropriation relocated late medieval England to ancient China. Nimbly side-stepping some Western commentators’ hopes that the production would critique the power politics of modern China, it instead entranced British audiences with its clever interweaving of Shakespeare’s story with traditional Chinese theatre. Although largely ‘spoken theatre’, it incorporated Beijing Opera traits: during Richard’s brilliant seduction of Lady Ann (when she spat in his face he rubbed it in as if it was aftershave), she sang a stylized aria in the high-pitched voice of female roles. Later, the same actress doubled as the young Prince Edward. Now she danced with a riding crop, indicating that the prince was riding on horseback. This non-naturalistic technique of Beijing Opera influenced the theory and practice of a certain German dramaturg at the beginning of the 20C – Bertolt Brecht’s defamiliarization/alienation effect, which you’ll recognise in much experimental theatre. Two other characters were borrowed from Chinese Opera. The murderers were chou, or clown figures, engaging in Chinese style cross talk and acrobatics as they debated whether or not to murder Clarence. This worked well with Shakespeare’s text as there is a grotesque comedy in this scene on the English stage, too. However, they added a twist to the usually sinister Tyrell when they reappeared in this role, one sitting on the other’s shoulders. Again grotesquely comic, this time in tension with a traditional Western interpretation of the character, they acted in conscienceless unity.
In Li Ruru’s review on the Shakespeare’s Globe Blog she explores how this production, combining both spoken and sung theatre traditions is not only intercultural, however – it is also intracultural. She also discusses their interpretive choice to present Richard without any physical deformity.
Director Wang Xiaoying spoke of his influences and aims in an interview he gave in China: ”I saw the original Richard III play last year in Beijing starring [Hollywood actor] Kevin Spacey, which was fabulous and remained true to Shakespeare’s original work. However, the WSF is a platform for different countries to showcase their own culture. I believe that other countries will also fuse unique cultural elements into Shakespeare’s plays”( cited in Wang Shutong, Global Times, 2012).
The production had been specially created for Globe to Globe to “bring Chinese culture out to meet with the world’s different races, different languages, and different cultural backgrounds, to interact and communicate with one another under the banner of Shakespeare.” (Wang Xiaoying cited in Lee Chee Keng, Shakespeare’s Gobe Blog, 2012).
I would like you to stop and think about this idea of being ‘under the banner of Shakespeare’. What do you think he means?
The second production was introduced by Anglo-Kuwaiti director, Sulayman Al-Bassam, as part of the ‘It is the East’ study sessions. Al-Bassam was brought up in the UK (his mother is English, his father Kuwaiti) but since the 1st Gulf War he has increasingly felt he should fashion himself as an Arab voice. Originally adapting Shakespeare’s plays into an Arab setting, but still in English, his RSC commissioned Richard III: An Arab Tragedy was performed in Arabic.
As Kennedy noted of Shakespeare under communism, he can often be an agent under deep cover…. (Foreign Shakespeare, 1993) Because Shakespeare’s texts are classic and foreign they can be a way to sneak messages to audiences without the censors realising. Al-Bassam discussed how in the Arab world there is both political and cultural censorship at times. Shakespeare is about Britain and the British, right? Or at least, about Westerners? There can’t be any harm in that?
Al-Bassam’s Richard III, performed by his company Sabab, was overtly political and Richard looked very like a Saddam figure. In fact, he loves to announce, he once had Syria’s Bashar al Assad in the audience. When al Assad heard the name of an imprisoned Syrian dissident mentioned by one of the actors, he had a Claudius moment, almost calling for ‘Lights!’ before he and his entourage stormed out. ‘Hence the utility of our friend, William Shakespeare, you know? It’s William Shakespeare who’s saying this, not us.’ (Al-Bassam in interview with Brown, for PBS, 2009)
This adaptation was much, much darker than the comically entertaining Chinese appropriation – and when the Western funded ‘Tudors’ took over at the end there was no sense of order being restored. This production has been written about by Graham Holderness here and blogged on by Margaret Litvin on her fabulously wide-ranging and up-to-date Shakespeare in the Arab World (put Richard III into her blog’s ’search’ box and it will take you through to several posts).
At the It is the East Study Day at the Globe, Al-Bassam also talked in great detail about how, if these reconfigurings were going to work in the new context, the equivalences had to be very carefully thought through. How can you present Clarence drowned in a butt of malmsey wine if you are presenting him as a devout Muslim? In a chilling clip, he showed us exactly how. As the muezzin called worshippers to prayer, Clarence entered carrying a suitcase. He paused, knelt down and opened the suitcase, which was full of water. Then he began his ritual ablutions, cleansing himself for prayer. The murderer had no shifting consciences as he held his victim’s head under the shallow water. As one of our students noted, this parallels the religious significance of wine in western culture: as the blood of Christ, wine creates communion with God through atonement.
So don’t believe it when people say Shakespeare is irrelevant in today’s world… Or that he’s the Bard of Britain…
This is just a taster of some of the productions that are out there, and some of the discussion points around intercultural Shakespeare. My article on WSF Arab Shakespeare is available on the Year of Shakespeare blog, as well as being archived here under Globe to Globe. Please add comments to this blog post if you have any.