Hamlet from China, Part 2: When Hamlet met Horatio


All photographs in this post (c) Saffron Walkling, 2010

Hamlet: That is the Question was put on by the Richard Schechner Center for Performance Studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), and directed by Benjamin Mosse and Richard Schechner (the studio theatre of the Teatrul National ‘Marin Sorescu’, Craiova, Romania: 28th April, 2010)

Continuing from my previous post, which looked at the larger re-imagining of the play by STA, this post will focus primarily on the characterisation of three protagonists, Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia, and give a brief description of the setting for their interactions.

This was a ‘spoken drama’ production, in Mandarin, with a contemporary, urban set.  Shaven-headed Claudius (Zheng Xing) may have entered in a military uniform, speaking like an official making a political speech, but it wasn’t long before he had stripped down to his unbuttoned red silk shirt, a tattooed and red-haired Gertrude hanging on his arm: a gangster king and his moll in a gangster court. The spotless white of the set, pristine apart from a few drops of blood dripping from the ceiling that had missed the bucket placed to catch them, gradually became scuffed and scarred by the action that unfolded.  Throughout the performance, various characters mopped away, in increasingly futile attempts to remove the dirt.  Fortinbras was cut out altogether in this version, but corruption was foregrounded.


Hamlet (Xue Guanglei)

Hamlet (Xue Guanglei) wasn’t Zhang’s Confucian hero (Shakespeare in China, 1996).  He was neither an intellectual nor an incorruptible outsider in this court, nor did he appear to have any ‘sense of political responsibility’ (213-4).  In fact, he reminded me of the arrogant but undeniably cool young man who used to doss around at the back of my class at Shandong University. The wealthy son of a successful businessman, he would mock the majority of the class for their studious ways.  ‘Why I to work harder?’ he protested.  ‘I will have good job in my father’s company in future.’ Xue’s Hamlet – tall, well-built, prone to violence, dressed in black jeans and an open-necked shirt, a blade tucked into his belt – seemed trapped in temperament,  as well as in body, in the limiting worldview of Claudius’ ‘Denmark’, despite the influence of his Horatio.  Physically, at least, he resembled his uncle more than his ghostly father, who was played by the same actor as the Player King.  Any sweetness in his nature was for Horatio’s eyes only.  The interpretation of this relationship was well-handled, despite being a little stereotypical: the macho Hamlet in black and the comparatively slight Horatio in white, and the suggestion that Hamlet’s misogyny, especially in relation to Ophelia, was linked to his sexuality.  Hamlet semi-secretly dating Horatio also changed this and other dynamics in the play.  Ophelia’s strident pursuit, despite (or because of) her increasing awareness that she was in competition with Horatio, put her on a direct collision course with the Prince of Denmark.  On a number of occasions he simply pushed her aside when she deliberately placed herself in his way, but in the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene he threw her to the floor in what looked like a violent, anti-female sexual attack (and Ophelia fought back, only giving up when he threatened rape).  At this point, Claudius was able to say without doubt, ‘His love tends not that way.’  He needed no other evidence for the root of Hamlet’s ‘madness’.   Finally, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother was noticeably non-Freudian. (The Freudian reading of Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship is a ‘cultural taboo’ too far, according to Taiwanese scholar Cheung Wai Fong in her work on recent Chinese film adaptations of Hamlet.) Thus, his anger appeared to be primarily on behalf of his dead father, perhaps bringing in a Confucian flavour after all, as filial piety is one of the most important codes in traditional Chinese society.  Also, despite Hamlet’s chastisement of his mother, before leaving Gertrude’s closet (literally her walk-in wardrobe) he knelt before her, a son once again showing submission to a parent.


Ophelia (Wang Sainan)

Wang Sainan, the eighteen-year-old undergraduate who played Ophelia, was a universal hit with the audience. Bringing in her dance training, hers was a very physical, but also a very controlled, Ophelia. ‘We’ve had quite a theme of strong Ophelias in these productions,’ Nicoleta commented afterwards.  I noticed that Laertes called Ophelia jie jie, which means elder sister.  This in itself fundamentally changed the dynamic between herself and her stage brother: as the only woman in the household (her mother being dead) and as the eldest child, she took on the role of 2nd parent, aligning herself with Polonius against Laertes.  This was most humorously expressed when poor Laertes, about to board his ship, was spun around between father and sister as they took turns to lecture him.  Unlike the Polski Theatre production the night before there was no hint of incest in the family dynamic (see above)As the actress was also very tall, Ophelia often seemed to dominate within the household physically as well as verbally.  Hamlet was the only male she couldn’t get the better of, and this power struggle between them – often physically expressed – became increasingly complex in the light of Horatio’s presence.  These scenes, and the scenes when she joined Horatio and Bernardo/Marcellus on the battlements to see the ghost, are what reminded Madalina Nicolaescu (University of Bucharest) of the heroine in a post-Liberation revolutionary ballet – something about the strong, angular tilt of Ophelia’s body, the strident, androgynous movements, like the statues outside Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I thought.  The programme notes refer to Ophelia as ‘a smart, ambitious woman,’ trying to ‘master’ (!) the ‘socio-sexual realities of the world she inhabits’, and in the way she did this she stood in strong contrast to the queen.  Whereas Gertrude, in her low-cut, slinky dresses, used her sexuality to maintain centrality, Ophelia dressed in the smart trouser suit of a business woman, her pre-madness hair scraped back into a power-ponytail.  She was more class ‘monitor’ than foot-bound, oppressed woman, and I am almost certain (if my Chinese is to be trusted) that it was Ophelia who insisted that her father report Hamlet’s madness to the king.   Thus her determination to pursue a loveless marriage for her family’s gain and to get herself in between Hamlet and Horatio took on the urgency of a bidding war.  Ophelia and Horatio were present for large sections of the play where they would usually be off-stage.  Most significantly, she joined her father in the closet scene, thus witnessing his murder first hand.  During her subsequent mad scene it was unclear whether the blood stains on her torn shirt came from her own or from her father’s body. Of course, this scene seemed positively restrained after the literal bloodbath of Polski Theatre’s interpretation the night before, but it was nonetheless very powerful and still had its sickening moments, such as when, with a completely glazed expression, Ophelia began to chew strips of bloodied fabric before handing it out, covered in saliva, instead of flowers.  


Horatio (Sun Qiang)

The presence of Horatio (Sun Qiang), as I have already mentioned, became the main obstacle between Hamlet and Ophelia.  Dressed in 1920s whites and creams, the slim, rather beautiful actor (a post-graduate student) immediately suggested Sebastian Flyte, although he turned out to be more Maurice.  Everything about him, his clothing, his bearing, his tone of voice, indicated that he belonged to another world from the court, and another world from his boyfriend, Hamlet.  It was inevitable that, so long as they remained in the corrupting influence of the court, Horatio’s influence could not triumph.  As I said earlier, the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio obviously changed the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, making the roots of Hamlet’s misogyny more complex, but it also altered Horatio’s relationship with Ophelia.   Horatio, like Ophelia, was on stage for large parts of this production, often just watching the action – he is, after all, the storyteller, ‘the Shakespeare’ (Sun Qiang).  But at key moments he also intervened in the action. For example, he pulled Ophelia off-stage, away from Hamlet, after she had just witnessed Hamlet’s murder of her father. This raised the question of: which person was he actually trying to help, Ophelia or Hamlet? It was clearly Ophelia who needed his aid, yet the suggestion was that Horatio was more interested in protecting Hamlet.  This in turn raised the larger question: who was having the greater influence on whom? Horatio on Hamlet? Or vice versa?  Here, off-stage dynamics also intervened in my reaction to on-stage events.  It appeared that Wang Sainan and Sun Qiang were close friends in reality, which made Horatio’s apparent leaving of his ethical senses all the more disquieting. 

When a kiss isn’t just a kiss

I’m not sure if it was simply because he was uncertain of his English so early in the day, but at breakfast in the hotel where everyone was lodged, the actor Sun Qiang had seemed as modest and diffident as he was onstage.  So it was ironic that he proved to be part of the most controversial element of the production.  For when Hamlet met Horatio (Ophelia and Barnardo/Marcellus being conveniently absent), they embraced for just a fraction longer than a Western hetero-normative environment allows.  When this was followed by a completely unambiguous gay kiss, I swear there was an audible gasp from the audience… It was like being back in 1987, when Johnny kissed Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette. Another dynamic to this moment in the performance was added by the fact that three representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Bucharest were sitting next to us in the front row.  For some people, like retired teacher Joan Griffiths from the UK, the surprise was not in the kiss, but in the fact that it was performed by Chinese actors, going against her expectations of China’s social conservatism.  For others it was the kiss that was problematic.  Madalina, such a fan of the strong Ophelia, got quite angry about it as we discussed it a few days later, sitting drinking coffee together in Bucharest.  ‘What I don’t understand is why they had to actualise it,’ she protested, as if this small action had been as explicit as the moment in the Polski Theatre’s play-within-a-play when two men simulated having sex with the player queen from in front and from behind…  ‘It was only a kiss,’ I said.  ‘Yes, but why actualise it?’  I felt the opposite.  I’ve seen several productions where a relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is hinted at, more where Horatio is played to be in love with an oblivious Hamlet, but this was the first production where I had seen it enacted and sustained throughout a performance, and not only as a sexual relationship but as an emotional one, in fact, as the central love story.  Of course, this added a further dimension to Horatio being the only person Hamlet can trust and the only person there to support him.  Afterwards, Stanley Wells (editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) said that he, too, had thought the relationship very well done: ‘And it’s all there in the text, you know.’  Interestingly, the physical contact between Horatio and Hamlet throughout the play – holding hands, resting heads on each other’s shoulders, sitting in an embrace – would not necessarily be read as homoerotic in a Chinese context.  In 1993, when I was first teaching at Shandong University, it was banned for girls and boys to date as undergraduates, so you never saw mixed couples.  However, homosocial intimacy was common.  Even now, particularly in more rural areas, you can see young men caress with no sense of this being a potentially sexual action.  When we discussed this at the post-production discussion, two female crew members cuddled each other chastely, one sitting on the other’s lap.  This cast light on what would otherwise have been a strange comment (to northern European ears, at least, where men rarely touch unless playing sport or being drunk). Xue (Hamlet) said, ‘It is easier for us [to act a gay relationship] because in life we are fast friends, so we can figure out what kind of action to make.’  Sun (Horatio) was quick to add, however, ‘For me the most obstacle is the kiss.  In China, in our culture, although we are fast friends it is very hard to do.’  Sun concluded that, because he had to spend so much time acting, but not speaking, playing Horatio was ‘exhausting’ and that, because of the gay kiss, ‘For me it is the hardest part I ever play.’  This aspect of the performance clearly traumatised him off-stage, although it was not evident at all on-stage, and he related it again and again to being Chinese. That Horatio was so difficult for him to play was surprising, however.  Afterall,  he had acted in a student production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted the year before…

Hamlet from China, Part 1: Reality TV, Zombies and Daemons? Shanghai Theatre Academy (P. R. China)

All photographs in this post (c) Saffron Walkling, 2010

See Part 2: When Hamlet Met Horatio here.

Hamlet: That is the Question was put on by the Richard Schechner Center for Performance Studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), and directed by Benjamin Mosse and Richard Schechner (the studio theatre of the Teatrul National ‘Marin Sorescu’, Craiova, Romania: 28th April, 2010)

‘Ophelia’ (Wang Sainan), me (Saffron Walkling) and ‘Horatio’ (Sun Qiang)

This was the highlight of the festival for me, partly because it reminded me of living and teaching in China, and because I ate breakfast with ‘Horatio’ and ‘Ophelia’. Twice.  I became quite STA-struck.  Oh yes, and it was rather good…

This was an unusual production in that the cast combined professional actors (Claudius), drama teachers (Gertrude, Hamlet) and students (Horatio, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  The cast and production team were Mainland Chinese, and the directors were American. Therefore, one of the questions for me was: to what extent was this a ‘western’ production and to what extent was it ‘Chinese’?  In the interview we conducted the next day, it was interesting to note how the ‘great’ Richard Schechner, who directed the 2007 and 2009 productions, was referenced in every answer.  This was despite the fact that Benjamin Mosse was the main director of this 2010 revival, and by comparing the programme notes with the performance we saw, he had made some small but significant changes.  ‘Schechner obviously controlled the whole thing,’ one of my colleagues commented afterwards.  I’m not so sure, however.  I think there was a certain amount of ‘face-work’ taking place, and Confucian reverence for ‘the Master’.  The Player King (Ma Junfeng) spoke with considerable authority about the use of Beijing Opera during the play within the play, which had been localised into the Beijing Opera form.  As in Elizabethan England, the best theatre troupes and actors would be summoned to perform at court. Furthermore, in a private conversation, Laertes (Wang Meng), one of the original cast members, explained the genesis of the production: ‘When we began this project, Schechner let us to read the play and come to our own understanding; then he gave us his understanding.  Our understanding was here’ (he held one hand six inches to the left of his face) ‘and Schechner’s was here!’ (he held his other hand six inches to the right). ‘So, Schechner let us to do more reading to bring us in to here,’ (he slowly moved his hand to in front of his nose) ‘and we explained to Schechner until he came to here…’ (he slowly moved his right hand to join the left).  ‘After long time, we met in middle,’ he concluded, satisfied. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the rehearsal room.

Laertes (Wang Meng)

In some ways I felt it was the one production we saw which truly took all of its largely Romanian and/or English speaking audience into the imaginative space that is opened up when the spectators do not share the language or culture of the performers.   There were Romanian and English surtitles projected onto the wall, but due to a technical glitch, these were out of sync with the actors’ Mandarin Chinese.  The result was a happy one, nonetheless, as the audience was forced to pull itself away from the dominance of the written word and actually focus on the performance, although I feel that we missed a lot of the jokes, and some key interpretive moments.  With my limited Mandarin, I picked up that, as Polonius’ pontificated about different genres of drama, he had localised them into different regional opera forms.  Obviously, as we were attending the Worldwide Hamlet conference, the majority of the audience had a fairly good knowledge of the play.  Furthermore, key lines in the play (‘To be or not to be’, ‘Oh that such a noble mind’ etc) were delivered in English, allowing us to locate ourselves within the story.  What was fascinating was how varied the different understandings of this production were, particularly around Horatio/Hamlet/Ophelia, and how strongly these responses were influenced by people’s preconceptions of or experiences of China.  An older Romanian scholar saw secret police in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and in the red money envelopes slipped to them by Claudius, Mao’s Little Red Book. A young Polish scholar read the patriarchal oppression of Eastern women in the fate of Ophelia, whereas another older Romanian scholar saw her as a Red Guard! And as for the kiss between Hamlet and Horatio (addressed in my next post) Joan, a retired British teacher who had been born in China, exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe this is Chinese.  In fact, some of the cast must be Chinese American.  I can’t believe that Mainland Chinese would act this!’ I think this comment reflected her expectations of social conservatism in Chinese culture rather than her own conservatism.

Speaking of expectations, many in the audience had expected the play to be localised into a Chinese opera, much as Ryutopia’s Hamlet, two nights previously, had used Noh and other traditional Japanese forms to retell Shakespeare’s play.  ‘I wouldn’t have understood why it wasn’t Peking (Beijing) Opera if it hadn’t been for your paper,’ one delegate said to me later (my paper had been on Lin Zhaohua’s avant-garde, spoken drama Hamuleite).   The director of this STA production, Benjamin Mosse, explained during the interval why they too had opted for contemporary dress spoken drama:  ‘We didn’t want to exoticise the production’, he said, raising some interesting issues that we didn’t have time to address, but that  I will hopefully have the opportunity to discuss further in the future.  Personally, I found the STA adaptation’s engagement with contemporary Chinese forms and popular culture more fascinating. This is partly because I am working on the development of huaju (spoken drama) at the moment, and because I am interested in the crossover between theatre and media such as film and TV. And although Ma Junfeng (Head Player) later insisted ‘Beijing Opera influence every Chinese people life more or less’, my students insist that it’s only old people and laowai (foreigners) who ever seem to go to see it…

A central feature of this production was the use of cameras, filming the action and projecting it onto the wall at the back of the stage.  But, unlike Polski Theatre’s Metro CCTV cameras or David Tennant’s discovery of one of Claudius’ hidden cameras in the recent RSC Hamlet, the suggestion was not of surveillance but celebrity/reality TV. The red-waist-coated TV crew continually followed the protagonists around the stage, capturing their most intimate or painful moments in order to blaze them on the screens for public consumption.  This turned the tables on the king and Polonius during the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene: no longer hidden behind an arras, their reactions to the scene were revealed to all as if they were contestants on Big Brother.  Polonius looked on hurt, bemused, and completely powerless while Hamlet, his daughter’s childhood friend and potential fiancé, physically and verbally abused her.  At the words ‘I loved you not!’, perhaps already subconsciously aware that Hamlet’s desires lay in another direction, Claudius’ face registered chilling confirmation of the danger he faced from his nephew/son. Zheng Xing (Claudius), a theatre and film actor, commented that the use of the cameras also added to the process of estrangement: ‘It was theatre but not theatre, film but not film, life but not life.’ And perhaps reality, but not reality?

Gertrude (Liu Wangling)

The dais, on which Claudius and the Queen were enthroned, later opened up to reveal itself to be a crate of earth: Ophelia’s grave.  After the fiasco of her burial, the dais was not closed, leaving the grave open throughout the final scenes. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the production was suddenly noticing that Claudius, realising that Gertrude had already drunk from the poisoned cup before he could stop her, had silently stepped into the open grave.  From there, he stoically awaited his execution.  At the very end of the production, all the characters – Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – stood motionless in the grave, fixed stares on their faces: as if facing a firing squad, perhaps, or else rising en-masse from the dead. Only Horatio, in darkness, stood outside, from where he instructed the guards to shoot, simultaneously suggesting mass execution or his own self-destruction.  Earlier, after Ophelia’s death, there had been a strange moment of frenzied dancing by all these corpses and soon-to-be corpses, to rock music, with mops…  Several delegates, who clearly knew much more about the work of Richard Schechner than I did, assured me that this was typical of his work and was something to do with Shamanic ritual.  I had lived in China, what did I know about Chinese shamanism?  Nothing, I answered.  I had thought it was reference to zombie movies…

I found the mop motif slightly bizarre, but it gradually  captured my imagination.  These were typical Chinese cloth mops, with long wooden handles, just like the one I had in the corner of my bathroom in Jinan, that were used to different effect throughout the performance.  Their main symbolism was that ‘nothing could clean away the dirt in society’ (Yang Jungxia, stage manager).  Sometimes they were simply mops.  Sometimes they were quite comic, as in the beginning of the fencing scene when they became Hamlet’s and Laertes’ foils and the audience was encouraged to cheer for whoever they wanted to win.  But in other places they became threatening, rods for a beating that could do real damage.  When Ophelia entered mad, she used one first as a phallus, then as a weapon.  When she threw the mop away from her, crying he is ‘dead and gone’, it became an object of great pathos, too.

Doubling was also extremely effective.  As the actor playing the ghost also played the Player King, it raised questions about who was directing whom.  Hamlet repeated the lines of both the ghost and the Player King: ‘To me, the ghost and the Player King are the same’ (Xue Guanglei, Hamlet).  Thus, his dead father is closely manipulating Hamlet as he lays the ‘Mousetrap’.  When the dead Polonius re-entered as the priest about to inter Ophelia, it shocked the audience (compare Polonius reappearing as the gravedigger in Brook, Bouffes du Nord, 2000), but  it also emphasised the inseparability of Polonius and Ophelia in this production (see next post). Most interesting, however, was Claudius’ actual double, Little Claudius, played by the childlike Yin Lanjing, also doubling as Osric.  Little Claudius, according to ‘Big’ Claudius (Zheng Xing) is his soul and also ‘a kind of pet’.  In her catlike movements, she could ‘say something Claudius cannot express [in public]. For  example, Hamlet is a kind of threat; I can express this in my form’ (Yin).  She reminded me of a familiar or even a daemon (of the kind recently reimagined by Philip Pulman in his Dark Materials trilogy). Her presence had the added effect of centralising Claudius, whose state of mind became as important – if not more so – than Hamlet’s.  Zheng related this double back to the concepts of ‘environmental theatre’ that lay behind this production.  But as Benjamin Mosse announced, in his introduction to the performance, that he would not ‘discuss the ideas of meta, environmental and community theatre that we’re evoking’, I’ll just have to go off and read some Performance Theory…

Shanghai Theatre Academy cast and crew 2010

The above reflection is based on my notes taken during the performance, the programme notes and an interview with cast members and production team the morning after the performance, which was conducted by Nicoleta Cinpoeş (Worldwide Hamlet Conference organiser, University of Worcester), myself (University of York), Aneta Mancewitz (Kazimierz Wielki University) and April Chaplin (OCR).

Ophelia does a Hamlet: Polski Theatre (Poland)

A more formal review by me of this production is published in the journal Shakespeare, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2012 available by clicking here

Hamlet, performed by Polski Theatre (Wroclaw), directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz (Teatrul National ‘Marin Sorescu’, Craiova, Romania: 27th April, 2010)

This production was the most controversial of the four I saw at the Hamlet themed International Shakespeare Festival in Craiova, Romania, with many at the conference reacting against it violently.  Personally, I found it disturbing and thought-provoking.  Like the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s adaptation, it was a very young production (the oldest cast member looked as if he was in his thirties); unlike the Shanghai adaptation, it didn’t struggle with transgressing the boundaries of traditional culture. In fact, it embraced transgression, as suggested by its neo-noir comics mise-en-scene.  Many saw this transgression as ‘gratuitous’ and ‘crude’.  However, having just returned from two weeks in Poland, where I was on Erasmus Teaching Mobility at the University of Silesia, my impression was that this production was doing something more than simply trying to shock.  Of course, it was trying to shock, too: there was nudity, simulated sex (quite a lot of simulated sex), and bucket-loads of blood.  However, the director’s last Shakespeare had been Titus Andronicus and the parallels between Ophelia and Lavinia were strongly drawn.  Sex is power: power is sex seemed to be the motto of the court of Denmark, and Gertrude, with her conical breasts and phallic beehive was its dominatrix, the queen of sadomasochistic sexploitation. The children, Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes, were dull inconveniences in their parents’ lives.

Perhaps not Ophelia. The dark underside of this celebration of lasciviousness became apparent as Laertes left for France.  Polonius, who for a moment I thought was a priest because he wore a white collar under a black shirt, tore the siblings apart. He held Ophelia centre stage, fondling his daughter’s stomach, and then later, accidentally on purpose, his hand brushed her breast.  At this point I wanted to be sick.  Laertes left, powerless to help his sister.  Later, when Ophelia was loosed on Hamlet by her father and the king, she begged Gertrude to help her, but Gertrude, like the Queen of the Goths, walked away and left her to her fate.  Ophelia, instead of reading a prayer book was commanded by her father to strip for the bemused Hamlet.  Then, naked except for her knickers, she suddenly ran off stage, Hamlet running after her calling the actress’ name: Anna.  The actress (scripted of course) refused to play the role, to participate in this exploitation, not only of Ophelia’s body, but also of her own body for entertainment.  She eventually returned to finish the scene, wearing Hamlet’s jacket.  I found it incredible that some in the audience later described this production as all very clever but having no feeling.  When Ophelia lay on the floor and screamed with rage and pain, I knew exactly where she was coming from.  When she stood up again, she had decided to act.

Ophelia (c) Teatr Polski Wroclaw

Ophelia decentralised Hamlet to the extent that she spoke his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, and then feigned his madness.  In the most argued about scene in the play, Ophelia entered Claudius and Gertrude’s bathroom ‘mad’.  Blood gushed from between her legs and she repeatedly stabbed herself, whilst playfully skidding around in the gore.  But when Claudius and Gertrude eventually left in disgust, she snapped out of it and revealed that her dagger was from a joke shop, and that the blood was fake.  She shared the joke with Horatio, while they both smoked cigarettes and chatted.  One of the delegates complained that at this point the production had descended into parody, but I think it was simply illustrating that Ophelia, like Hamlet, could also put on an ‘antic disposition’. And even if it was parody, it didn’t last long.  As Ophelia sat on the edge of the bath, Horatio came up from behind and drowned her.  She hadn’t won after all.  Unfortunately, the surtitles were only in Romanian so I had to rely on other people’s understanding.  ‘Horatio was a double agent, working for Claudius’ said one.  ‘Horatio couldn’t stand to see Ophelia like that any longer, so killed her,’ said another. Either way, this Electra was silenced. (See my blog on Hamletmachine, Ophelia and Electra here.)

Ophelia’s funeral (c) Teatr Polski Wrocław

Gertrude was the most interesting interpretation I have seen for a long time.  Apparently in control, again referencing the Queen of the Goths in Titus Andronicus, her sexual appetite turned out to be no more than the result of her own grooming by a society that saw women as objects.  She reminded me of Gilda in Woman on the Edge of Time by the end. It wasn’t only women who were exploited in this production, however.  Like the Shanghai Theatre Academy, Rosencrantz was also singled out for special abuse by Hamlet.  In the Chinese production, this abuse was possibly linked to the fact that she was played by a woman, and could be interpreted as part of a larger misogynistic attack.  In Polski Theatre’s imagining, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are part of the SM underworld.  Rosencrantz, the weakest character, has already fallen victim to Guildenstern and the Players.  His brutalisation by the previously meek Hamlet was (intentionally) sickening, and immediately preceded his violent attack on his mother, Gertrude, in which he attempted to sodomise her.

Player Queen and Gertrude (c) Teatr Polski Wroclaw

There was neither an opening scene nor a final act in this production.  Instead, the main characters sat on chairs in a row in front of the curtain, while a voiceover told the events.  I couldn’t help wondering if this had been so in earlier stagings of this performance, or whether, only two weeks after the Polish aircrash that had claimed the lives of Poland’s political and military leaders and leading figures in its arts, culture and society, the sight of a stage strewn with the bodies of an entire court would have seemed an act of tastelessness too far.

Interviews and clips in Polish available from (any translations would be gratefully received and acknowledged):

Revenge tragedy, Zen-style: Ryutopia Hamlet (Japan)

Hamlet directed by Kurita Yoshihiro and performed by Ryutopia-Noh Theatre (Teatrul de Operă şi Operetă ‘Elena Teodorini’, 25th April, 2010)

Unfortunately, the live performance of this production was replaced by a film screening because the company, scheduled to tour several European cities, had fallen victim to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland the week before, and their flight to Europe had been cancelled…

This performance was simultaneously, for a Western audience, the most visually ‘alien’ and the most interpretively ‘traditional’ appropriation of Hamlet that I saw at the festival.  Perhaps this was why it was the best received production, with universal praise from the audience, and universal disappointment that we hadn’t been able to see it in the flesh.  It was a highly accomplished production, localised into traditional Japanese forms.  (To what extent a ‘localised’ adaptation becomes ‘Orientalised’ or ‘exoticised’ in an international setting is a question I’d like to consider further, although not in this blog post.)  The Japanese aesthetic is pleasing to Westerners (think of its influence on interior design): in it, in a very generalising sense, we read simplicity, cleanness, sophistication. One of the most striking things for me about this production was that it made an ugly play into something beautiful.

Ryutopia Noh Theatre re-imagined its Hamlet on a minimalist Noh stage, but like the Shanghai Theatre Academy, it combined different genres: western-influenced ‘spoken theatre’, Japanese Noh and Bunraku (Jōruri) puppet theatre.  These were used interpretively throughout, adding depths of meaning.  The most startling and effective innovation was to have Hamlet, played by the magnificent Kouchi Hirozaku, sit centre stage throughout, cross-legged in long robes, his head shaved like a Buddhist monk, speaking to the audience, but only moving occasionally to turn towards the action taking place behind him.  The effect of this was to make the play all about Hamlet, and as Michael Dobson (Birkbeck University) said the next day, how much closer can you get to the Romantic interpretation of the play than that?!  However, this literal centralisation of Hamlet also took us very far from these traditional interpretations.  April Chaplin noted how it went against every expectation of the ‘mad’ Hamlet running about the stage (think how energetically ‘Dr Who’/David Tennant put on an ‘antic disposition’ at the RSC last year) and yet still Kouchi, perhaps because of his very stillness, exuded insanity.  For me there were three possible interpretations.  Firstly, that everything was taking place in Hamlet’s head, his mad imaginings, or that he was somehow making everything happen, the mad puppet master, or else, he was remembering reality, driven mad by his powerlessness in the situation.  However,further light was thrown on this the next day, when I spoke to one of the Japanese delegates, Kaori Kobayashi (of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive, Nagoya City University).  ‘Yes, it could be all those things,’ she said diplomatically.  ‘The director [her friend] wants there to be multiple interpretations.  Another interpretation in Japanese culture is that Hamlet, at the moment of his death, remembers the story.’  I am certain that there must be something very Zen in all of this, something about the dualism of life and death, the need to leave behind the ego, but I am not knowledgeable enough about this form of Eastern philosophy to take this further at present.

Gertrude confronts Hamlet (c) Ryutopia Noh Theatre

As I mentioned earlier, the action took place around him as the spoken theatre actors – Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia – continued their performance as if Hamlet wasn’t there.  Claudius, in his very humanness, drew audience sympathy towards him, especially in contrast to Hamlet’s interiority.  Gertrude was regal, aloof, cold; Polonius, a wise courtier rather than a doddering old man. Laertes and Ophelia were young and carefree.   All the cast wore long robes, apparently relocating Denmark to mediaeval or early modern Japan, although Claudius, Laertes and Polonius had blonde hair, referencing the Danes. Claudius also wore a western crown, further destabilising a fixed sense of time or place.  This crossing over of the ‘foreign’ and the ‘familiar’ also raised questions of which was foreign and which was familiar in this setting?

In addition to the main characters, there were also three women in plum coloured kimonos, their faces painted like dolls.  These women were the Jōruri element, their movements imitating puppets, and at key moments they acted out either Hamlet’s thoughts or his actions, such as the final fencing scene.  They also became the Players performing ‘The Mousetrap’, the only time that the other characters became aware of their presence.  This play-within-a-play was dominant, becoming the central focus of the entire production. A musician with a Japanese lute also chanted the narrative at times during the production: this is also an aspect of Jōruri theatre.

A final word is needed about Ophelia.  She was light and girlish, neither oppressed  woman nor strident revolutionary.  However, when she re-entered ‘mad’ she, too, had become a puppet.

Worldwide Hamlet Conference: Performance and Translation

If I’m honest, two days of papers on Hamlet in Performance and Translation, although undoubtedly useful for my research, was promising to be a bit of a hard slog.  How much more could be said on Hamlet before we all lost the will to live? Still, as the speakers came from all over Eastern Europe (and a few from the Far East, too) I was hoping that there would be something that would inspire me.  I was already looking for possible comparisons between Hamlet in the former Eastern Bloc and post-1949 China: something about 1989 and the fall (or not) of Communism. As it turned out, the conference was brilliant and, augmented by the various Shakespeare Festival performances which we could all attend for free, it was incredibly apt for my PhD project.  And to think that, if Bill hadn’t been teaching somebody else’s Shakespeare on film class, and one of those students hadn’t mentioned a round-robin email they had received, and he hadn’t passed it on to me, then I’d still be sitting here having no idea what I had missed out on.  Nor would I have any idea about which direction my study could take me.  Now, I have too many directions.

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of all the talks but will pick out a few points that stood out to me because of their relevance to my ideas .  And, like a crab, I will go backwards, starting with the last group of papers…

Hamlet in Translation

Darya Lazarenko, Classic Private University, Zaporizhia, Ukraine: ‘Hamlet in Ukrainian Translations: A Mirror Up to a Nation’

Darya’s paper summed up in her opening sentence what had been expressed in nearly all the previous papers – and Dennis Kennedy’s Foreign Shakespeares – that an early modern jobbing playwright from the Midlands lies at the heart of much of Europe’s ‘nation forming’.  She explored how in the second half of the nineteenth century, Ukrainians, caught between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, used Shakespeare to defend their national identity.  The public use of Ukrainian had been banned by the Russians – it had been deemed merely a dialect of Russian, only suitable for domestic use.  Thus, the first Ukrainian translation of Shakespeare, ostensibly made to ‘popularise the great dramatist and psychologist’ and to ‘refine the Ukrainian language’, in actual fact was deeply nationalist.  It used many Ukrainian colloquialisms, and translated ‘to be or not to be’ as ‘to live or not to live’.  Furthermore, it introduced Ukrainian into the European continuum: if Shakespeare could be translated into Ukrainian, how could anyone try to say that Ukrainian wasn’t a language?  Shakespeare is still being used to comment on the here and now in Ukraine.  According to Darya, the latest translator of Hamlet has been accused of ‘anti-intellectualism’ because of his use of updated language, reflecting, like Lin and so many others, that Hamlet is just ‘a normal  individual in a nihilist society.’

George Volceanov, Spiru Haret University, Bucharest, Romania: ‘First-hand Impressions of translating Hamlet’.

George introduced his new, three-version Romanian translation of Hamlet, which was being launched the next day. ‘A mock-Arden,’ he joked.  He worked with a co-translator, a dramaturg from the national theatre, the softly spoken Violeta Popa.  He read out the publisher’s claim (‘fully translated, non-bowdlerised, non-conflated’) with a twinkle in his eye.  After all, purists may not be too happy with some of his updating: ‘loser’, ‘tsunami’, ‘brokers’.  However, this was part of a coherent strategy to modernise the translation, reflecting the modernisation of his country, he said. And its globalisation?  ‘After Christmas 2004 the whole world knows what this word tsunami means.  What other word do we have now that can conjure up the same sense of being obverwhelmed, or of total destruction?’  What also interested me were his comments on previous translators and how, because of the political realities of their day, they were forced into a position of self-censorship in order to be allowed to publish.  ‘Oh what a peasant rogue and slave am I’ inevitably had the word peasant crossed out: ‘We could not have Hamlet showing contempt for the lower classes!’ Any mention of groundlings was avoided, or paraphrased as ‘spectators from the ground floor’.  Before 1966, God was to be written with a small letter, he said.

Mădălina Nicoleascu, University of Bucharest, Romania: ‘Framing Hamlet in pre- and post-89 Translations in Romania’

Translation de-contextualises to re-contextualise, began Mădălina, referring to Walter Benjamin (and I made a mental note to myself to actually read his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, still on my to-do list).  She talked about hauntology(!): how new performances are ‘haunted by old traditions […] and old translations’.  What specifically interested me, however, was her reference to a 1985 Romanian actors’ version of Hamlet.  She referred to Romanian actor and communist era dissident Ion Camitru and (I think) his anger at the ‘communist trick over words’ but also the use of the ‘subversive word’.  The actors’ version was a ‘Patchword’, she said, using five different versions of the Hamlet text.  This meant that the authorities couldn’t easily trace all the different versions being used in different sections, so that the company could then insert their own words. They could ‘smuggle in lizards’ and the audience would be waiting for them.  Yet she noted how a 2009 version of Hamlet was ‘radically depoliticised’. [The Metropolis Theatre?] purged Hamlet of all the topical allusions so common in Eastern European productions – no references were there to surveillance or corruption.  Instead it returned to 19C translations of the play. Mădălina was talking of a nostalgia for a less complicated past, I think, although the ending of this anti-political play confused me.  Apparently, it had a new ending, without Fortinbras, or anyone else for that matter, remaining on the stage, because they were all dead and no-one was left to tell the story. That seems quite political to me…

Here is a link to an article by Ion Camitru, ‘I remember my Hamlet’: Ion_camitru

To be continued