Hamlet Without English

Hamlet without English

I attended the mini-symposium  held earlier this month at the University of York on Shakespeare, Peel and Performance (2nd Nov 2009): Judith Buchanan (York) introduced two silent film recordings of Hamlet, Alex May (York) discussed the performability of Peel’s ‘Edward I’ and Michael  Dobson (Birkbeck) looked at ex-pat Shakespeare in 19C Geneva and WW2 German prison camps.  Apparently, the young Denholm Elliott was the most sort after girl in town after he took to the stage as Rosalind, or was it Juliet?…  I will reflect on my notes from these sessions in another place, but for now I want to simply muse about a couple of connections I made during the conference to my initial response to Lin Zhaohua’s Hamuleite.

Connection 1:  Buchanan introduced her talk with a clip from director Hay Plumb’s 1913 Hamlet starring Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the title role.   This feature film, which as Buchanan pointed out, resisted any attempt at being ‘filmic’, chose instead to adhere closely to Forbes-Robinson’s recent stage production.  As a result, the audience was treated to the bizarre spectacle of Hamlet entering, sitting down and speaking uninterrupted for several minutes until Ophelia entered immediately after the first intertitle.  This intertitle was the first overt indication that the scene we had just witnessed was Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.  It had been spoken in full, the actor slightly turned away from the camera to emphasize his interiority, and delivering his lines in a measured, realist style.  Except, of course, that the film had no soundtrack… As I think Buchanan was suggesting, reverence for the text and stage performance so dominated this film that the scene was rendered nonsense.  Only an audience who knew the play could contextualize it and would have to supply the words for themselves.  Of course, because the film was Hamlet, and because we were in a university, English Lit setting, most of us could probably do this, getting the gist at least.  Perhaps in 1913 a few more of the general public could do this, too.  And this brings me back to Lin’s Hamuleite.  As I sat in the Tokyo Globe with my Japanese friend Eiko watching the Beijing People’s Art Theatre perform the First of Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies in Mandarin Chinese, I understood exactly what was going on.  This was despite the fact that the only words I managed to pick out were fuqin (father), shushu (uncle), wang (emperor or king) and che (to eat)!  Pu Cunxin, who played Hamuleite/Hamlet, helped out a bit now and then, by wiggling his fingers in a wormy way when he showed the Claudius figure ‘how a king may go a/progress through the guts of a beggar’ for instance (4.3 in Shakespeare’s version).  Admittedly, I couldn’t remember the gravediggers being in it quite so much, and I was sure they hadn’t appeared at the beginning, but it was still recognisably Hamlet.  It was only years later when I read Li Ruru’s chapter on this production in Shashabiya: Staging Hamlet in China (2003) that I realised how much I had not got. I had not realised that Hamlet and Claudius frequently swapped roles, because they changed neither tone of voice nor costumes/prop indicators.  As for ‘To be or not to be’ being shared by Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius in order to highlight the director Lin’s ‘essential idea that “everyone is Hamlet”’ (Li, 2003, 90), well, that completely passed me by.  ‘Are you sure you weren’t confused?’ my friend Eiko, a fluent Mandarin speaker, had asked as we left the theatre.

This raises several questions for me.  First and foremost is whether or not I can justify writing on a performance when I have so little a grasp of the language it is being performed in that I am not able to pick up on the central interpretation of the production unaided!  Yet the particular performance I went to see was being performed for an international audience on a foreign stage.  Many people in the theatre either did not understand the language (although as it was Japan, it was possible to get earphones with a simulcast interpretation), or they did not know the play beyond reputation. Did I get any less from it than a native Chinese speaker, or did I just get something different?  If a non-English speaking Chinese tourist pops into the Globe for a matinee performance of an English Hamlet, are they having any less of an ‘authentic’ experience than I would be having if I were there?

It also raises questions about the canonicity of Hamlet.  Why is it the role an actor wants to be remembered for, even if the medium for archiving that role can only give an incomplete, amputated remembrance?  Why is Hamlet so often the first play translated – into Chinese, into Arabic etc – although it is not always the play that is most performed?  

Also, to what extent is Lin’s Hamuleite still Hamlet?  (Think here of Műller’s Hamletmaschine perhaps.  To what extent was Shakespeare’s Hamlet really Hamlet?)

It’s getting late and dark, so my other connection, equally vague and random, will have to wait until next time.

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