The worst (wo)man in the world: the Arms Dealer in Sulayman al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit

This piece was delivered as a conference paper at the University of Craiova, as part of the European Directors of Shakespeare Conference held in conjunction with the Romanian International Shakespeare Festival 2016, and convened by Dr Nicoleta Cinpoes of the University of Worcester.

Arms Dealer: Glimpsed in the corridors of power, blurred in the backdrop of official state photographs, faceless at parties, anonymous at airports, trained as a banker, conversant in Pashtun, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew, feeding off desire: I am an Arms Dealer (Litvin 216)

[cited from the manuscript of Sulayman al-Bassam’s original 2002 version of The Al-Hamlet Summit, excised from Arabic and ‘definitive English’ texts]

Like many people in the UK, I was gripped by the BBC’s lavish 2016 adaptation of John le Carre’s 1993 espionage novel, The Night Manager. Originally set in South America amongst the drug cartels, it had been updated to the twenty-first century, and had its

landscape-1451930457-9748884-low-res-the-night-manager
The Night Manager (c) BBC 

 “theatre of conflict” relocated to the Middle East (Foster). Its opening shot is of Jonathon Pine, its protagonist[1], striding purposefully through the crowds in Tahrir Square at the beginning of what was once naively dubbed the “Arab Spring”. He soon finds himself embroiled with “the worst man in the world”: Richard Roper, a suave, educated, British businessman, who has discovered that he can make much more money from selling napalm and warheads than he can from farm machinery, and is indifferent to the human cost, particularly if those humans are, in his eyes, “brown rats” (Episode 6). Furthermore, he is doing so with the complicity of the British and US governments because his deadly, illegal activities advance their behind-the-scenes influence in the region. Despite Roper’s surface charm, anyone who gets in his way will come to a sadistically grisly end. When its adaptor, David Farr, was asked why he made these very specific changes, he said,

There’s a clear political anger in the book that attracted me, and I thought that would be blunted if we kept it in 1993/94. I had a simple instinct that it needed to be brought into our world and our day. The issue seemed to be broadly the same: exploitation of other parts of the world for western gain. It was true when I started adapting in 2013; it’s tragically more true now. (Wollastan)

David Farr’s background is in classical theatre and he is an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so it is not surprising that he conceived The Night Manager as a modern day Faust story as well as a political thriller. He saw his central character as

Mephistopheles
The Night Manager (c) BB

caught between the Good Angel of a lone British intelligence handler who will upset the system and risk the life of herself and her unborn baby in order to see justice done, and the Mephistophelian character of Roper who can offer Pine a world of endless pleasure in return for his conscience. A couple of years earlier, in 2013, Farr directed a stylish and intelligent stage production of Hamlet for the RSC. In the case of Hamlet, however, he was not interested in political takes.

hamlet2013

Our age has a distaste for political heroes, even a distrust. Perhaps that is why Hamlet resonates for us. He is unsure if he wants to be a hero and unconvinced he has it in him. If our time is also out of joint, perhaps we would not want to be the ones ‘to set it right’ any more than he does. (Farr)

 This statement makes a number of assumptions: about “our age”, about who “we” are and, of course, about the nature of Hamlet, play and prince. Entrenched in an Anglo-American Romantic reading of the play, casting its hero as an individual paralysed by his own doubts, it ignores the potential for “clear political anger” in the tragedy and for that anger to be worked out through the politicized figure of Hamlet, and this has been the case for most mainstream productions in the UK. Not so a production by a sometime British director who has also worked closely with the RSC, however: the Anglo-Kuwaiti Sulayman’s al-Bassam’s self-consciously political The Al-Hamlet Summit (2002/04). Just over a decade ago, al-Bassam took Shakespeare’s play and transformed it into a parable that critiqued Western intervention in the Middle East and focussed on the rise of Islamism.

The text is a cross-cultural piece of writing in which I have tried to capture a sense of geographical context and contemporary resonance. When first performed in English in 2002 by my London-based theatre company, Zaoum Theatre, it aimed to allow English-speaking audiences a richer understanding of the Arab world and its people, and how their fates are inextricably linked to that of the West’s. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Sulayman al-Bassam started out as a new young voice in British theatre at the turn of the Millenium, although he would later refashion himself:  “I grew up between the UK and Kuwait.  As you can tell, I was educated here [in Britain] and first worked here.  Then, after the events of 9/11, I felt I needed to return to the Arab world” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), and his The Al-Hamlet Summit was pivotal to this shift. After the success of the original English language production at the 2002 International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was invited by the 2004 Tokyo International Festival to put the play into Arabic, a project which resulted in a team translation[2], transforming not only the language but also key content, and resulting in the creation of his Kuwaiti theatre company, Sabab, with a pan-Arab cast[3].  The central ideas in this production remained the same but the shifts in the detail were deeply significant. Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is initially a “spoilt young man”, educated in the West, but returning to his state – a non-specified Middle Eastern state – for his father’s funeral and mother’s wedding.  The usual disgust at his mother’s sexuality and the trauma of his father’s murder, lead in this case, not to the existential angst of the scholar prince or the Freudian self-loathing/woman-loathing of most English language productions, but a “decent into Islamic extremism in order to try to correct the corruption he sees around him” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East). “I am dazed by the stench of the rot” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 6), he tells Leartes, who is about to be made a general in Claudius’ army and sent to the mountains,  before Hamlet himself becomes leader of the opposition forces. Graham Holderness argues that

Hamlet becomes wholly a man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence. (Holderness, Introduction)

In his chastisement of his mother, his language provocatively echoes a broadcast by Osama Bin Laden, very much alive at the time of the play’s performances, and who by this parallel arguably becomes a Hamlet figure as his words seamlessly interweave with the protagonist’s: “the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword… Do not pretend amazement! […] No more words, please, mother, words are dead, they died on our tongues” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 52).  Al-Bassam centralizes the live-ness of his work.

Visually, we are solidly located in a 21st century political universe, with the live-feeds and projection screen constantly reminding us of last night’s television address by George W. Bush, or last week’s summit in Bonn or Washington.  This arrangement allows Shakespeare’s words to take on an uncanny metaphorical resonance. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Yet it is not the contemporary dress nor staging that makes this production belong to this the al hamlet summit cover

21st century  political universe. After all, Farr’s production was also “modern dress”, his Danish court wearing the Sarah Lund jumpers that were all the rage at the time[3], yet that production remained traditionally “timeless”. Rather it was the interpolation of a single character that al-Bassam and critics identify as this anchoring feature in The Al-Hamlet Summit: “With the introduction of an Arms Dealer, desperately courted by each of the delegates, Shakespeare’s universe firmly enters the present day” (al-Bassam, Sabab).

So, who or what is this Arms Dealer, this Richard Roper in Elsinore, who transforms this production from being simply a modern dress appropriation with a nod to contemporary politics into an angry polemic on Western complicity and exploitation? In the original UK production, the Arms Dealer was played by a woman, Marlene Kaminsky.  She flirted with Claudius, and ingratiated herself with offers of female companionship to Gertrude, that woman trying to make it in a man’s world. “I wanted to tell you: I adore your shoes!” Kaminsky purred, knowing that nobody else would have noted them (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF). She even set herself up as a mentor to Ophelia, offering her careers advice before giving her a suicide belt. She befriended Hamlet in his rage and grief and

arms dealer

Marlene Kaminsky as the Arms Dealer in Zaoum’s 2002 English language production

dealt with the enemy, Fortinbras, too. In short, the Arms Dealer “will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents” (Holderness, Introduction). Perhaps it is more appropriate to say “especially if s/he is arming opponents”, because it is through playing the different factions against each other, be it within a family, a state or a region, that the Arms Dealer steers the action. Ophelia sums it up in the play’s first, English language incarnation:

Ophelia: Why do we entertain you here?”

Arms Dealer: I help to guarantee security.

Ophelia: What stability?

Arms Dealer: The one that allows you to carry on. Will you be going to university?

Ophelia: I don’t think we need you anymore. I want you to leave.

Arms Dealer: That’s not possible. (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF)

Nobody ever invited her; she just appeared after the funeral and moved herself in, knowing everybody’s weak points, failings or indiscretions. (There is a short montage of clips available here via the BU Global Shakespeares Seminar blogspot.)

In the later Arabic production, the Arms Dealer “morphed” into Neil Barratt’s linen suited English-speaking Englishman[4] . On the surface, this appears to be just another way to signify Otherness: where the Arms Dealer had been separated by her gender, now he is separated by language and race. Yet, as with  many of the other small changes between the two incarnations of this play, the gender change brings about significant new resonances too. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer used sexuality to ingratiate, Barratt’s to intimidate. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer is no less violent than her male counterpart, but the violence is  different. When challenged second and third time by Ophelia to “leave now”, she has no qualms about throwing Ophelia to the floor, twisting her arm behind her back and threatening to “spread” her “pretty face across the floor” (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF ). The same scene with Neil Barrett in role becomes sexually violent, however.

Arms Dealer: You’re so passionate! (He twists her arm and throws her  to the floor.) Oh, the sweet yelp of pain – angels of the night, hide your virgin faces; the devil has his cock up one of your flock! What do you want, Ophelia, tell me I’ll satisfy you, what is it you want? (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 34)

There is no subtlety in the analogy.  “The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer” asserts Holderness (Introduction x), in which case the West is a rapist.

male arms dealer

Mariam Ali as Ophelia and Nigel Barrett as the Arms Dealer in Sabab’s 2004 Arabic language version

Others believe they are happier bedfellows. “What do you know about phosphorous?” Hamlet asks in an unchanged scene in both versions. After the Arms Dealer has described the devastating effects of phosphorous on the bodies of a newborn baby and an old gravedigger, the prince does not hesitate: “Can you sell me some?” he says (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 21-22) Hamlet is exploited, Claudius is exploited, even Fortinbras is exploited, but these three, unlike Ophelia, raise little sympathy. Margaret Litvin notes that , represented by the Arms Dealer, “the villian […] is not Claudius’ regime but that of militarized global capitalism” (Litvin 2007), a capitalism that is thriving on willing sellers and buyers.

Identified as an interpolated character, an intruder from outside of Shakespeare’s imagined world, the Arms Dealer can, however, be seen as something more embedded in Hamlet’s Arab journey than at first meets the eye.  Sulayman al-Bassam concedes that “This is a new character, but s/he can be the Ghost or even Horatio.  He’s a combination of these floating figures that hang around Hamlet and have various agendas” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), agendas which combine to manipulate Hamlet into a man of action/destruction. For, of the major “minor” characters in the play, Horatio is conspicuously absent. Frequently played as a “loyal friend”  and “confidant”, nevertheless,  “the role has many inconsistencies”, from placing Horatio’s age to his national origins (Thompson 143). On stage so often he cannot be doubled, moving in and out of key scenes, his presence at Elsinore is never questioned. Horatio appears to support Hamlet, yet “the King seems to regard him as an ally” (Thompson 143). And like the Arms Dealer he is the only one who “remains in place at the end” (Holderness, Introduction 13). Thus, Al-Bassam’s replacement of Horatio with the Arms Dealer does not stray so very far from its source: s/he brings out all the ambivalences latent in Hamlet’s “friend”. Those ambivalences feed back into al-Bassam’s play. “S/he is explicitly described as unbounded, opportunistic, and voracious” (Litvin pp196-219), s/he blackmails, coerces and bribes. But s/he is always welcomed back, not because of those, but because s/he has on offer what people want.

And unlike The Night Manager, there is no cathartic ending, no retribution where retribution is due, good does not overcome evil despite the odds and the losses along the way. In the post-modern political theatre of The Al-Hamlet Summit, there is no promise of Spring. Instead, just the final stage direction,  the “Arms Dealer enters and walks towards Fortinbras incredibly slowly” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 56)

The Arabic production is available to view in full via the MIT Global Shakespeares website here.

Endnotes

[1] Played by Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston (Prince Hal/Henry V and Coriolanus)

[2] Al-Bassam worked with a team of translators. Fluent in spoken Arabic, he writes in English (REF)

[3] See the ‘Scandi Noir’ detective drama The Killing

[4] Barrat played Claudius in the 2002 Zaoum production.

Bibliography

al-Bassam, S., 2002. The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF (no longer available). [Online]
Available at: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit
[Accessed 5 May 2012].

Al-Bassam, S., 2005. Shaikh Al-Zubair, an alibi for dissent. The Guardian, 24 July.

Al-Bassam, S., 2006. The Al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East Study Day: The Middle East. London: s.n.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East: the Middle East. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. The Arab Trilogy Lecture. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

al-Bassam, S., 2014. The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney: Bloomsbury.

al-Bassam, S., n.d. Sabab. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit/
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Farr, D., 2016. Metro. [Online]
Available at: http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/21/rscs-david-farr-people-have-a-distaste-for-political-heroes-thats-why-hamlet-resonates-3552205/#ixzz45YYtoJMt
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Foster, P., 2016. The Telegraph. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/bbc/12165661/John-Le-Carre-admits-that-The-Night-Manager-needed-updating-for-modern-audiences.html
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Gardner, L., 2004. ‘Theatre: The Al-Hamlet Summit’. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/mar/13/theatre2
[Accessed 29 December 2014].

Holderness, G., 2006. Introduction. In: The al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘Silence Bleeds’: Hamlet Across Borders. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘SILENCE BLEEDS’: HAMLET ACROSS BORDERS The Shakespearean adaptations of Sulayman Al-Bassam. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2014. Introduction. In: The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury.

Kennedy, D., ed., 1993. Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance. Cambridge, New York, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Litvin, M., 2007. When the villain steals the show: the character of Claudius in post-1975 Arab(ic) Hamlet adaptations. Journal of Arabic Literature, 27 October.XXXVIII(2).

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Müller, H., 2001. The Hamletmachine, s.l.: s.n.

Schechner, R., 2006. Performance Studies: An introduction. 2nd edition ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, P. J., 2004. ‘Under Western Eyes’: Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism. Shakespeare Bulletin, Winter, 22(4), pp. 65-77.

Thompson, A., 2006. Introduction and Notes. In: A. Thompson, ed. London: Arden Shakespeare Thompson.

Wollastan, S., 2016. David Farr interviewed by Sam Wollastan. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/21/night-manager-david-farr-q-and-a
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

 

 

 

 

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First Weekend of the First York International Shakespeare Festival: A Musical Interlude

And so the inaugural York International Shakespeare Festival has begun. This first weekend had somewhat of a musical flavour, as I took in a Kabuki Ophelia, a not so silent ‘silent’ Hamlet, a baroque mock opera and a discordant Feste in a garden shed.

Two Shakespeare Heroines performed by Aki Isoda at the de Grey Rooms, Friday 8th May, 2015

To describe Aki Isoda’s performances as a ‘cultural curiosity’ is deeply problematic, but this seems the best way to sum up this extraordinary evening. Mrs Isoda, now 85 years old, has been performing Lady Macbeth and Ophelia for about 50 years, and her performances seem frozen in time, museum pieces capturing the gestures and sounds of a theatre of the past. Indeed, both parts of her production, Lady Macbeth ‘performed in the Western style’ and Ophelia ‘performed in the Japanese style’, brought to life for the researcher the grainy early twentieth century images of Shingeki New Theatre and traditional Kabuki.

From the reviews, it seems that Isoda’s Lady Macbeth was the hardest for European audiences to appreciate, leaving Lily Papworth ‘a little disappointed’. Lady Macbeth, in red wig and ‘whiteface’, her eyes enlarged with bright blue eye-shadow to mimic Western features, evoked the typical representation of Europeans on East Asian stages until as late as the 1970s.  This first originated in Japanese Shingeki, or New Theatre, which adopted the plays and the realism of Western drama as part of the educational and cultural reforms of its modernisation movement in the period leading up to the First World War*. Isoda’s stylized realism, with its rigid gestures and melodramatic frozen postures, reminded my friend Elizabeth Sandie of silent film, and me of the traces of traditional theatre forms, and it is likely that these were both factors in the development of this aesthetic.  Indeed, in 1904 and 07 there were the first Shingeki Shakespeare productions, featuring for the first time since the age of Shakespeare, actresses in the women’s roles.

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Isoda’s performance was largely a solo affair, in a tradition inherited from noh, as she enacted key scenes from Macbeth to an invisible, silent husband: reading his letter, scolding him for not leaving the daggers to incriminate the king’s guards after his regicide, reassuring his guests that he was simply having a funny turn as he saw visions of these daggers and his murdered friends. She also progressed through a series of spectacular costumes, one minute in the bright red gown of a Queen of Hearts, then in the ghostly white of her night gown as she tried to wash away the damned spot. I have tried to find archive footage of this performance in its early days, for I imagine that her speech, now quavering, once contained great power. Or perhaps the quavering was also because she was engaging in onnarashii (女らしい), the traditional behaviours and speech that is gendered as ‘feminine’ or ‘gentle’ in Japanese culture. I am not a Japanese speaker, so that is only conjecture.

I said that this was largely a solo performance, but there were also three young actors performing as the weird sisters, in a not entirely successful incorporation of a contemporary Western aesthetic. The juxtaposition jarred, but perhaps this was intentional, underscoring the difference of the two approaches.

Her second performance, after the interval, was better appreciated by the audience. This is perhaps

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

because, as noted by academics such as Alexa Huang at the BSA conference on Local/Global Shakespeares in 2009, the ‘cherry blossom exoticism’ is somehow more accessible to Westerners. The irony is that because it is more strange it is less strange, comfortably meeting our expectations of cultural Otherness. As Lily Papworth put it, ‘I realised that this was what I had been hoping for. Performed in typical Kabuki fashion, Isoda’s Ophelia was beautiful’.  And she is right, it was oddly beautiful. We have a cult of youth and realism, so it was very strange to see an octogenarian Ophelia with trembling hands sketch out the fan dances of her youth. Perhaps this was what it was like for the audiences who watched the great Victorians perform their Hamlets and Ophelias into old age. Elaborate scene changes, by the ‘invisible’, black clad kuroko stage hands and accompanied byJapanese shamisen music, became part of the performance as the Kabuki actress changed her kimonos and headpieces offstage. By half closing my eyes, I could semi-transform her into a young girl again.

But dare I say it? In concept and delivery, I couldn’t help thinking of Miss Havisham. ‘So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!’ (Great Expectations)

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

*This in turn influenced the drama of the Chinese Reform Movement,  huaju, or spoken theatre, as Chinese students returned from studying abroad in Japan and Europe.

Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance screened with live musical accompaniment by Robin Harris and Laura Anstee at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, Saturday 9th May, 2015

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

I have written before on this wonderfully weird 1921 German Expressionist film version of Hamlet, in which Prince Hamlet is really a princess, a travesti performance by the extraordinarily, androgynously beautiful Danish actress, Asta Nielson.  See Girl Interrupted. So in this review I will simply focus on the sound. Judith Buchanan, in her introduction, noted what a misnomer ‘silent film’ is: it is anything but silent if screened in context, with a musical accompaniment. Robin Harris and Laura Anstee provided a stunning score, played live by them, that gave emotional depth and texture to a medium which is, in many ways, as removed from modern understanding as Kabuki is removed from Western realism. Nielsen’s nuanced performance ranged from skittish flirtation with an unsuspecting Horatio, ‘voiced’ through a recorder, to manly swashbuckling, the rhythm percussively beaten out. For her clowning scenes at the expense of the hapless Polonius, we slipped into a jazzy little number that reminded me of the escapades of Harold Lloyd (I watched these regularly on Saturday morning children’s telly in the 70s). The exaggerated gestures and expressions of silent cinema can seem like caricatures in less stunning limbs and faces than Nielsen’s, but Anstee’s cello further anchored our identification with Hamlet’s trauma in its haunting alto. The music at this screening also hinted at other elements in Nielsen’s biography, perhaps :-

(c) Silents Now

(c) Silents Now

Harris and Anstee met whilst working on another silent film, Hungry Hearts, about the Jewish immigrant experience in America.   They were both part of the She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble. There were echoes of traditional Jewish music in their Hamlet score. Ophelia was played by a Sarah Jacobsson. Nielsen herself sent money to assist Jewish refugees in World War II.

Shedspere performed by my daughter’s friend’s mother’s friend’s son of the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in a garden shed, King’s Manor lawn, Saturday 9th May, 2015

In this little piece, small audiences of three or four were invited into garden sheds by members of the youth theatre, who then delivered monologues based on a Shakespearean character. I joined a teenaged Feste, who exuded middle aged world weariness in his faded jester’s velvet as he swigged vodka, bemoaned his displacement by Malvolio in Olivia’s house of mourning and discovered he now could neither play his lute (well, banjo) nor sing his songs.  It was really rather good.

Pyramus and Thisbe performed by Opera Restor’d at the National Centre for Early Music, Sunday 10th May, 2015

And to end it all was the bonkers baroque mock opera of Pyramus and Thisbe, featuring all the characters of the mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but instead of the Athenian court, the ‘English’ opera troupe had to prove to the foppish Mr Semibreve and his friends that they could perform as well as any Italian. The full opera (an hour long) was prefaced by a recital of instrumentals and songs from various 18th Century musical adaptations of The Tempest, faithfully reconstructed by Opera Restor’d. I’ve never seen any of these 18th Century afterlives of Shakespeare that I’ve read about and they were hilarious and moving by turns.  I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves (they are from a previous production, but the costumes, if not the performers, are the same).

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

Hamlet the ‘Dyke’ (?) and other gender bends at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Hamlet, directed by Sarah Frankcom, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, Saturday 20th April, 2014 (matinee)

(c) Royal Exchange, Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet (c) Royal Exchange, Manchester

In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius chastises Hamlet for his unmanly grief at the death of his father:  “Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,/A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,/To reason most absurd…” The manly Laertes  weeps for a moment when he hears of the watery death of his sister, then “When these are gone/ the woman will be out”(4.7.187). Reason is male, emotion is female in this binary, patriarchal world, with its vestiges of blood revenge and its masculine intellectualism. Sceptic 101, commenting on Michael Billington’s Guardian review of Frankhom’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet, Polonious (Polonia), Rosencrantz and the gravediggers are all played by women, would doubtless agree: “Just don’t see the point of women playing male roles unless it’s panto of course. Nothing is gained and the play is just messed about with. I won’t bother with this one. I’ll check back later for the feminist howls of outrage but really, this is silly tokenism.” S/he is wrong about the tokenism. The RSC have noted that ‘The role[of Hamlet] was regarded in the late 18th and 19th centuries as embodying many feminine characteristics and was frequently played by women, culminating in Sarah Bernhardt in 1899-1901.’ And Asta Nielsen’s bobbed haired 1920s silent Hamlet combined German interwar Expressionist angst with flapper sensuality in her princess disguised as a prince.

Asta Nielsen. Picture from MIT education

Asta Nielsen. Picture from MIT education

Frankhom’s production challenges traditional casting on many levels: a black Laertes enters next to a white Ophelia with no need to create complicated back-stories,  a mature black and female player king (Claire Benedict) caresses ‘his’ wife, played by a white teenaged boy from the youth theatre, but the boy isn’t a cross-dressed “boy player”, he’s just a boy, and this isn’t a transgressive affair, they are both just actors playing a role they have the skills to play. As part of Frankcom’s work to enlarge women’s role in classical theatre, five of the other traditionally male roles are played by women. I don’t think this production is simply increasing the ratio of male/female actors in principal roles, however. To me, it seems to be exploring a whole range of approaches to cross-gender casting. Gillian Bevan’s brilliant Polonia, in her heels and power suits, regenders the old courtier into an ambitious woman first minister. The antagonism between her and Gertrude edges towards rivalry; her dressing down of her love-struck daughter (and her silly romantic fantasies) is no longer about patriarchal control of Ophelia’s womb but a from-the-heart warning about the threat of a ruined reputation and career faced by any woman who gets found out. Jodie McNee’s Rosencranz, complaining that “My Lord, you once did love me” probably left the stage to update her relationship status to “it’s complicated”… At the centre of all these is Maxine Peake’s luminous Hamlet. This has had generally rave reviews, with critics noting the androgyny, liking her cropped hair and pale face to David Bowie in his Let’s Dance phase, and repeatedly underscoring that she isn’t “underscoring maleness” but is feminising Hamlet. Neither Susannah Clapp, in her Front Row review (BBC Radio 4, 17 Sept 2014) nor Michael Billington saw this as a falling off of masculinity. The production is taking the character beyond those simplistic gender binaries that Claudius and Laertes, then critics such a Goethe, held so much store by. “[Hamlet] is, […] as Goethe was first to say, part woman.  But Goethe was wrong, as Freud was wrong, to assume that woman means weakness.  To equate women with weak and tainted bodies, words, and feelings while men possess noble reason and ambitious purpose is to participate in Denmark’s disease dividing mind from body, act from feeling, man from woman”  (Leverenz, 1978, in Coyle, 1992, p133) Peake’s Hamlet, as noted by academics Peter Kirwan and Julie Raby at today’s performance, seemed extraordinarily young, almost on the cusp of pubescence, and at times her voice, its shortened Lancashire vowels sitting so much more comfortably with Shakespeare’s verse than our post 19th century received pronunciation, almost seemed to break.

In rehearsal (c) Royal Exchange

In rehearsal (c) Royal Exchange

But surely, surely, surely, everything in Peake’s performance and presentation points not to a negation of gender and sexual orientation, but a concentration of it? “To be or not to be? If a woman plays Hamlet, should she pretend to be a man or make the role female? Is she then in a lesbian relationship with Ophelia?” quips Dominic Maxwell in the Times. I’m not sure how much of a relationship there was between Hamlet and Ophelia despite the kissing on the lips, but there was certainly a large contingent of lesbians in the audience, some of whom, like me, could hardly be distinguished from our heterosexual neighbours, but the majority of whom looked, well, rather similar to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet. The lace-ups, the the sports bra that showed through the back of her dress shirt, the loose slacks that had a touch of the Night Watch costume department about them, the cropped locks and the touch of lipstick all suggest a Diva fashion shoot to me.  And a conscious courting of the pink pound. Cavendish’s review, also available in full here, is the only review so far in one of the big papers that has begun to address this. “Her Hamlet, [Peake] says, is ‘born a woman and has decided to take on the mantle of a man’. As we talk in her lunch break from rehearsals, she refers to her character interchangeably as ‘he’ or ‘she’. She looks dashing and androgynous, her hair dyed blonde, cropped and quiffed into mid-period Bowie. ‘We’ve reimagined Wittenberg, where Hamlet studied,’ she says, ‘as Eighties Berlin or New York Greenwich Village.'” There is nothing more explicit about why she has taken on a mantle of a man. The Royal Exchange has some interesting materials on its website, however. This is a “Hamlet for now, a Hamlet for Manchester” it says. Its Key Stage 4 and 5 resources for schools linked to this production include a Trans Awareness activity. The critics may be  out on whether Peake’s Hamlet is male or female, straight or gay, cis or trans. Either way, this Hamlet is decidedly queer, and it seems queer that nobody has  really written about it. (Since posting this, Mark Lawson HAS written about what he sees as ‘the perils of cross-gender casting’ in The Guardian – although I’m not convinced by his ‘perils’ in an otherwise interesting article!) Production photos available here. flyer Leverenz, David (1978) ‘The Woman in Hamlet: An interpersonal View’ in Martin Coyle, ed., (1992) New Casebooks: Hamlet Basingstoke and London: Macmillan

Press Release – The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski): 19 September 2014

Gdansk logo

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

Theatre Website and Festival Website (click on Union Jack icon for English translations)

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

On the 19th September 2014 the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place. It is one of the most unusual venues in the world and the only modern theatre building with an opening roof that allows the staging of plays in daylight, in the tradition of the Renaissance. 

This is an exceptional event as the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre is the only dedicated theatre building that has been constructed in Poland for almost forty years. Therefore the Grand Opening ceremony will gather many notable persons from the world of culture and business, as well as government and local authorities.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The idea of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan-style Gdańsk playhouse, where English travelling actors performed in the seventeenth century, was born under the patronage of HRH Charles, Prince of Wales. Other notable supporters of the project include renowned Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, celebrated British theatre director Sir Peter Hall and many leading British and Polish actors, among them Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Allan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Krystyna Janda, Jerzy Stuhr, and many others.

Because the building cannot accommodate all the guests we would like to invite, the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place in two stages: a closed ceremony will take place inside the theatre with VIPs, sponsors, foreign guests and journalists. All other festivities will take place outside the building for other guests wishing to take part in the celebrations. 

The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will start in the evening, at 8.30 pm. It will begin with a celebratory performance outside the Theatre that will last approximately 30 minutes. It will

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

include a Spanish fencing show and a performance of aerial acrobatics. The performance will close with a march of all the spectators, led by the fencers and actors, through the Theatre’s Main Hall, where they will be welcomed by Shakespearean characters. 

The design of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre by renowned Italian architect Renato Rizzi has been recognised as one of most interesting architectural projects of the twenty–first century. The outside brick construction, reminiscent of Gdansk’s Gothic churches, contains a wooden, early modern playhouse interior, and is thus an architectural dialogue with the building’s past. Rizzi’s design uses the seventeenth century Fencing School in Gdansk – said to be the first public theatre in Poland – as its inspiration. At the same time the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre provides a real glimpse into the future of theatre

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

design with its unique architectural and technologically advanced elements – created with daring and ambition – such as the opening roof which provides daylight during performances and a retractable modular stage design providing both an Italian box stage and Elizabethan thrust stage. 

The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will become a vibrant centre for culture and the arts. Its forthcoming programme of events will include: a series of week-long events celebrating European culture (starting with the British Week from 20 until 26 September), a series of month-long events devoted to Polish theatre, an extensive educational series for primary and secondary schools, and finally the annual International Shakespeare Festival, currently in its eighteenth year, which will take place from 27 September until 5 October 2014. 

The distinctive combination of historical tradition and modernity makes the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre not only a unique tourist attraction but also a new international cultural platform dedicated to theatre innovation and artistic creativity.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska

London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London

aleksandra.sakowska@kcl.ac.uk

07774553044

 

or

Magdalena Hajdysz

Press Office, Poland

rzecznik@teatrszekspirowski.pl

tel.: +48 691 08 22 77

A World Elsewhere: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC Review Part 1

Jake Fairbrother as Cheng Bo and Philip Whitchurch as Wei Jiang in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade. (c)

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo) and Philip Whitchurch (Wei Jiang)  The Orphan of Zhao RSC. Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

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 WorldPerformance 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 

Jake Fairbrother rehearses as the Orphan of Zhao. (c) Kwame Lestrade

Jake Fairbrother rehearses as the Orphan of Zhao. (c) Kwame Lestrade

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.

Nia Gwynne as Dr Cheng Ying's Wife and Graham Turner as Doctor Cheng Ying in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Nia Gwynne (Dr Cheng Ying’s Wife) and Graham Turner (Doctor Cheng Ying) The Orphan of Zhao RSC Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

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.

Graham Turner as Dr Cheng Ying and Chris Lew Kum Hoi as the Ghost of the Son in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Graham Turner (Dr Cheng Ying) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi (the Ghost of the Son)  The Orphan of Zhao RSC. Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

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

The Yellowface Debate Continues: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable

Eastern European Hamlets Panel Discussion

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…)

Eastern European Hamlets

Wednesday 30th January 2013

Venue:  New Studio, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Time:  17.30-19.30

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.

(C) Meno Fortas

(C) Meno Fortas

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.

The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

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:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment 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.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.