Foreign Shakespeares

January 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern European Shakespeare, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, Literature Review, Translation)

The starting place in terms of secondary reading on intercultural Shakespeare is Dennis Kennedy’s Foreign Shakespeare.  This 1993 edition was the first collection of essays by the main theorists and academics in the field.  Its focus is on translated Shakespeare, and has a strong emphasis on the socio-political mise-en-scene, particularly in the former Eastern European and Soviet communist bloc, and particularly in productions of Hamlet:

[…] if to the liberal west Hamlet is an expression of the individual spirit, to a censor in a more repressive land it is a threat. In Eastern Europe the play frequently received frank political readings at odds with the standard romantic interpretations [of Britain, America and pre-divided Germany etc] (Kennedy, 1993, 4).

Significantly, this collection, concentrating on post-War European productions, would have been put together shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and as such was a record of performances in an already past historical era at the moment of its publication.  Kennedy mentions East Asian Shakespeare only as a coda, with one chapter on Japan and a brief mention of China, yet recognises the potential and need for future research.  However, for me it is in many ways the essays on Shakespeare under occidental communism that have strongest relevance for Lin’s production despite the very different theatrical traditions of these diverse cultures.  According to Li Ruru in her book Shashabiya: Staging Shakespeare in China (see below), Chinese huaju or spoken theatre, and especially Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare, were heavily influenced by Soviet ‘experts’ working in China (2003, 42-3), and the experiences of artists constrained within a totalitarian communist regime must, I believe, have some point of similarity.  Thus, Guntner’s descriptions of Heiner Műller’s 1979 avant-garde performance Hamletmaschine  and his 1990 post-communist Hamlet/Maschine: Shakespeare/ Műller seem to be speaking of some of the same issues I felt were raised by Lin in his initial performances, such as the relocation of Elsinore to whatever environment was imprisoning that particular, localised audience.  Likewise, in the same essay, Frank Castorf’s 1989 Hamlet Material von Shakespeare is described, immediately bringing to my mind Lin Zhaohua’s production which was originally devised and performed in Beijing in the same year. In Castorf’s version ‘Plot, character, and text were broken apart and reassembled […] Gertrude spoke Claudius’ opening monologue’ (Guntner in Kennedy, 1993, 134); this is very similar to Lin Zhaohua’s dividing of Hamlet’s key speeches between the characters, so that Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet, for example, share out ‘To be or not to be.’ In his introduction to the essays, Kennedy also highlights the tendency towards Brechtian and Kottian readings and asserts that,

when the plays were used in post-war Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union [they were used] as dissident texts.  If new plays and films critical of a repressive regime are regularly censored, producers are sometimes tempted to make the classics into coded messages about the present: Shakespeare thus became a secret agent under deep cover (1993, 3-4).

Golub’s exploration of Lyubimov’s Hamlet at the Taganka Theatre in Moscow (1971) and again Kennedy’s insistence on the influence of Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Kott, translated into English, 1964) throughout European theatre, also resonates with some key points addressed by Li Ruru. Other useful articles in Kennedy’s edition are Lieblein’s case study of French translations, which suggest a methodology for exploring translation/re-scripting in relation to mise-en-scene, Hortmann’s essay on German scenographic metaphors and Pavis’ ‘how to do’ intercultural theatre criticism.

After Kennedy’s book, a small number of publications appear which concentrate on the Far East, either as a region (John Russell Brown’s 1999 New Sites for Shakespeare: Theatre, The Audience and Asia) or individual countries, such as Japan and China (Zhang Xiaoyang’s 1996 Shakespeare in China.) Simultaneously, an interest was growing in African, Sub-continental and, particularly in the last decade, Arabic responses to Shakespeare.  The flurry of publications on Chinese and Arab Shakespeares must be linked in part to the recent raised awareness of these two cultures in the Western consciousness: China because Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy has led to it being the newest Superpower – and of course, Olympic host – and Arab cultures because of 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ and academia’s reaction to these. This is perhaps an area for further exploration.  Li Ruru (2003) argues that the history of Shakespeare in China is the history of modern China.  Therefore, it is also possible to argue that the history of Shakespeare performances and Shakespearean scholarship in the late 20C/early 21C world is a reflection of ‘the very age and body of the time’ (Hamlet 3.2.20-24).  Obviously, all literary criticism reflects the concerns of the era in which it is written.  Shakespeare’s global status, however, makes him a focus for many competing global and political agendas, in a way that James Joyce is not.

Other texts that explore some of these agendas include Kingsley Bolton’s study of Chinese Englishes (2003) which looks at the politics behind the introduction of English to China; Sonia Massai’s edited collection of essays World-wide Shakespeares (2005) which includes a chapter by the ubiquitous Li Ruru on Chinese adaptations; Ton Hoenselaars’ edited collection Shakespeare and the Language of Translation (2004), which includes Alexander Shurbanov and Boika Sokolova’s ‘Translating Shakespeare under Communism’ and Shen Lin’s essay on the prolific Chinese translator Liang Shi Qiu.  To further contextualise these, it will be important for me to look at texts on Chinese history and experience, such as Jonathan Fenby Modern China: Fall and Rise of a Great Power (2008), Kristoff and WuDunn’s China Wakes (1994), Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991), etc. Willam Dolby’s A History of Chinese Drama (1976) will also be the first point of reference for Chinese drama in general.


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