Gertrude in white

Feng Xiaogang also cleverly plays on the cultural double-voicedness of the colour white, if you’ll excuse the synaesthesia, in the opening image of his 2008 film The Banquet (Ye Yan).  It opens with a shot of a woman, dressed in a long, white silk robe, its train trailing behind her as she walks away from the camera into an ebony black set, which evokes a Chinese temple or palace.  Again, the colour connotations are switching meaning, depending on whose is the eye of the beholder.  Yet in this case, the colour-code switching is central, and carefully premeditated, as the film is aimed at a global audience.  My Western eye reads death in the set but marriage in the dress.  Furthermore, the woman appears to be walking down an aisle, and the camera is angled above her as it was above Princess Diana, or any other televised royal bride. Yet she is in fact in mourning, which is evidenced when she reaches her destination, the empty armour of her dead husband.  It is only when she robes herself in red that she becomes a Chinese bride, but also reveals herself as the scarlet woman.

Hamlet in White

I knew I had something to return to: the mini-Shakespeare, Peele and Performance Conference at the University of York on November 2nd, and visiting speaker Michael Dobson’s surprised exclamation: ‘Hamlet in white!?!’ He was referring to the moment on his trip to China a few years previously, when he had been shown some pictures of a Chinese Hamlet. Was he talking about my Chinese Hamlet, I wondered? After all, Hamlet (Pu Cunxin) wore black jeans/trousers and an off-white hessian top in Lin’s production. And of course, in a western production Hamlet should have been wearing black – or at least should have according to Shakespeare’s script, although not according to Gertrude. ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,’ she commands or begs in I.II. There are two reasons why I think Lin may have dispensed with this tradition. Firstly, it seemed to me when I watched Lin’s play that Pu’s contemporary western clothing was referencing Olivier’s loose white shirt in his film, which was widely shown in China at communal film-showings (Zhang). It was interesting to hear Judith Buchanan talk about the tradition of Hamletian clothing and editions being literally passed on from actor to actor in her talk at this conference. In this context, Hamlet is being aligned with a cinematic image that represents most of the target audiences initial contact with the play. However, even more significantly, this white shirt in Lin’s production makes sense of the meaning of Gertrude’s words in the local culture: i.e. ‘It is time to stop dressing in mourning for your father, son.’  For white is the colour of death in China, traditionally worn at funerals.

Dennis Kennedy explores this in his chapter on ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare (1993).  He argues that:

‘No visual element can have an absolute or fixed signification, since meaning depends upon shifting cultural perceptions’ (14). Thus, ‘A Hamlet set in contemporary Berlin is a different play than one set in medieval Elsinore or in Elizabethan London, yet all three have some legitimacy and even some Shakespeare authorization. To put it as simply as possible, how Hamlet is dressed reveals as much about the style and intention of  the performance as anything he says, and may well influence a spectator more  than Shakespeare’s poetry’ (15).

Towards a Research Question: Hamlet and Cultural Usurpation.

I am taking the advice of The Craft of Research team and, instead of reading in order to find a question, I am forcing myself to think of a question to guide my reading.  Because I am entering an area so far out of my previous knowledge, I suppose that this question will inevitably change.  To be honest, I am still not really sure what a research question is.  I keep thinking I have one (I have dozens of questions) but they appear to be, at best, textual questions, or at worse, just questions.  What was de Grazia’s research question? ‘Is there a Hamlet if you ignore Hamlet?’?

As I read about Hamlet outside of the Anglo-American tradition, it seems that the play is frequently interpreted as being less about the individual and more about the political context of its audience (Kennedy, 1993).  And Hamlet is once again being interpreted as a political play in Britain, too.  Olivier’s film was the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind, and this was echoed much less successfully by the doomed National Theatre production I saw when I was an undergraduate at UCL (perhaps around 1990). It was the one that Daniel Day Lewis withdrew from after beginning to see the ghost of his father on the stage.  (I’m not sure if that story is true, but it has entered Hamlet legend.)  I was terribly disappointed, firstly because Day Lewis, understandably if he was in the middle of a collapse from nervous exhaustion, was dreadful (he was still best known then for playing Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, a life-changing film for me as a teenager on my ‘80s small-town housing estate in the middle of white, right-wing military Salisbury Plain), but more so because the whole production was so traditional and therefore so predictable. In contrast, I remember being energised, entertained, stimulated and shocked by the Phoenix (?) production from around the same time.  It was directed by Derek Jacobi, I think, and Hamlet was played by Kenneth Branagh.  If I remember rightly, much of the production was quite jolly, with Hamlet and his sidekick Horatio goofing around and satirizing the court at Elsinore.  I even seem to remember that the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene was played as a flirtation between Hamlet and Ophelia, but I might have made this up and redirected this in my imagination!  Either way, the ending was truly chilling, when Fortinbras marched on in 1930s military style clothing and had Horatio escorted off-stage, followed immediately by the sound of rifles being fired, suggesting his summary execution not a gun-salute. It was this sense of Hamlet being about the fate of a whole society rather than that of one man and his immediate family, that came across so strongly to me in Lin’s appropriation. Even from that opening scene of the two gravediggers as urban Beijing workers up to their necks in a muddy ditch there was a no doubt that this was about the here and now, the here being China, the now being the moment of the transformational economic reforms that were about to make it the new Superpower.  For this was a sight familiar along every roadside in the rapidly developing Chinese capital, and any other city, the workmen laying pipes and cables instead of excavating graves, of course.  But for many, this image was not only representative of the birth of a new China, it was also foreshadowing a dying: after all, the construction of high-rises and department stores were burying forever the old hutong courtyard dwellings and the communities that lived in those crowded alleyways where they were located.  (Although one shouldn’t get too sentimental – many of my Chinese friends who get misty-eyed and nostalgic about their childhoods would be the first to admit that they would never leave their centrally-heated modern apartments, with running water and flushing toilets, to return to their foundationless hutongs and the shared public squat toilets at the end of the street.)

So how can I make a compelling research question based on these images and musings?

As I have said previously, what has struck me about Shakespeare/Hamlet in both Chinese and Arab cultures is how they have been linked to modernisation and nationalism, or at least, with the expression of a national identity.  China first started embracing Western ideas and culture after it unexpectedly lost the Sino-Japanese war in the late 19C (Dolby, 1976).  It associated Japan’s sudden rise and military strength with its willingness to embrace the West for its own purposes.  Chinese reformers urged the same, rejecting the centuries old policies of keeping itself culturally and linguistically separate (Bolton, 2000?).  Shakespeare helped shape a brand new genre of drama – huaju or speech drama – that strange foreign concept of having a bunch of actors stand about on stage talking.  This new style was obviously particularly appropriate to address contemporary political events, and Hamlet was particularly conducive to speaking of the Chinese situation – see LaoShe’s prose novel New Hamlet (Huang 2009) and the wartime performance in a Confucian Temple in Sichuan, put on in defiance of the Japanese (Li, 2003 and Huang, 2009). 

It could be that this story resonates so strongly with the Chinese because filial piety is central in Confucian culture (Judy Ick, BSA conference, 2009), but it could also be to do with its themes of usurpation and invasion. Just as these themes spoke to early 20C Chinese anxieties, it is interesting to see how later theatre and film practitioners have returned to this play in time of China’s rise and increasing dominance. To what extent are these outright appropriations, bearing in mind that Shakespeare is seen by Eastern cultures as representative of Western culture, perhaps a type of usurpation or even invasion (and there might be something interesting to say about the decline of Shakespeare studies and performance in the West – although I am not sure how true this is – and its rise in the East.  In thirty years time will the bulk of interest in Shakespeare have relocated to Taiwan, China etc?).  Is this why Chinese artists use the most canonical of Shakespeare’s plays, traditionally the ultimate expression of the Western concept of individualism, as a way to assert a sense of national identity that is fundamentally different?  This play is no longer yours, we have taken it over and made it ours?  These are now not your values, your visionings, your stories, but ours? Is this process completed when a Western audience sees themselves reflected back unrecognisable?

Are these research questions?!