Globe to Globe: Shakespeare’s coming home!

It’s coming home, it’s coming home, Football’s Shakespeare’s coming home!

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

As part of the activities around the Cultural Olympiad in the run-up to the London Olympics, the RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe are hosting the World Shakespeare Festival.  It’s one of those rare occasions when both companies acknowledge that Shakespeare exists significantly beyond these shores, with the RSC inviting or commissioning productions from major companies across the globe to perform in Stratford, and with the Globe putting on the highly ambitious Globe to Globe festival in which, during the course of about eight weeks, they will host 37 plays in 37 languages from Juba Arabic to Mandarin AND Cantonese Chinese to British Sign Language.  The tagline of the Globe’s festival is ‘Shakespeare’s Coming Home’, in a nod to Britpop culture and Skinner and Baddiel/Three Lions’s Euro ’96 football anthem – which basically concludes that everywhere else is now better at football than ‘us’.  This is very, very funny, of course, but I imagine that the irony will be completely lost on anyone from anywhere else and it will be (mis?)read as an Anglocentric claim to the ownership of Shakespeare!

I’m taking my 16 year-old daughter, who is studying the star-crossed lovers for GCSE, to see Romeo and Juliet in Bagdad. This usually elicits the concerned response from people of ‘Isn’t that a bit dangerous?’ Because I am the sort of person who would take her to see Romeo and Juliet in Bagdad, of course, in the middle of the school term.  I clarify that it’s the name of this particular appropriation, and that it is on at the very safe Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, in Arabic with English surtitles.  Then I have to explain what an appropriation is in this context to non-academic friends.  Interestingly, it’s the academic friends who tend to ask, ‘So is it still Shakespeare?’


Korean ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (c) Yohangza Theatre Co

It’s only in recent years that Anglo-American scholarship has caught onto several hundred years of Shakespeare’s reconfiguration ‘outside’ of the UK/US tradition and it has been at times a painful realisation of ‘our’ continuing imperialising frame of mind in relation to who is the proprietor of culture. Just look at those terms – ‘outside’ and ‘our’  make presumptions about the centre and the periphery or ‘them’ and ‘us’ that if we fully unpack are deeply problematic. Dennis Kennedy’s Foreign Shakespeare, coming just three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, grew from his interest in the interplay between European scenography and ideology. Collecting together a range of essays which explored primarily Western and Eastern European appropriations, it noted that this was only part of the story, pointing further East for future scholarship. Many collections have since put forward post-colonial perspectives. Then, as the People’s Republic of China has come increasingly into focus for the Western world, so has what it’s done with Shakespeare, explored through the deeply personal work of Li Ruru in Shashabiya: Staging Shakespeare in China and a more masculine tome in the style of the western academy in Alex C Y Huang’s Chinese Shakespeares.  Huang’s book also deals with Chinese Shakespeares beyond the Mainland. As the Western focus shifts again in universities and festivals, Margaret Litvin’s Hamlet’s Arab Journey is more than timely (See also her blog Shakespeare in the Arab World)  The work of Li, Huang and Litvin all combine scholarly innovation and integrity with lively storytelling, which is primarily why their monographs have attracted the attention of scholars and practitioners.  Their sites of interest also correspond with the zeitgeist, however.  Nicoleta Cinpoes’s excellent Hamlet in Romania is not anywhere near as well-known, arriving 20 years too late, perhaps. However, the city of Craiova in Western Romania doesn’t need to host the Olympics to puts on an international Shakespeare Festival.  It does this every two years, bringing major productions from as far afield as Japan, the US, Germany and China to its city’s theatre.

I’m very excited that I’m going to a number of the Globe to Globe productions: Richard II from Palestine, a Polish Macbeth and the Lituanian Hamlet, the National Theatre of China’s Richard III, and an underground Bellarussian King Lear.  I’m gutted that I can’t make the Israeli Merchant of Venice or the Korean Dream, but my train tickets from York to London are costing me more than the performances, my civil partner is mumbling that she may as well have married a man, and my kids are beginning to forget who I am…

I’ve already attended three Globe Study Days, It is the East, which explored the ‘use’of Shakespeare in the societies of three very different, but significant, concepts of the East to a Western mind.  The Globe is and always has been more politicized than the RSC at some levels and what is implicit in this particular series is that Shakespeare – the national Bard, the only author who has to be taught as part of the national curriculum, the icon of Western culture – belongs to the West’s cultural and ideological Other.

These will be explored further in my next post.

Towards a Research Question: Hamlet and Cultural Usurpation.

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

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

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

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

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

Are these research questions?!

Introduction: One Thousand Hamlets

When I met with my Chinese tutor on Tuesday to brush up on my Mandarin, she looked at me and said, ‘We know Hamlet in China.  When I was a little girl we learnt at school a famous saying: yi qian ge ren yan li you yi qian ge Hamuleite; there are one thousand Hamlets in one thousand people’s eyes. We learnt this to tell us there are different points of view.’  She didn’t learn anything more about Shakespeare or Hamlet at the time, it appears, but it is this way that Shakespeare, and particularly that most canonical play of his, not only travels but goes native that lies at the heart of my research.  What I want to say about this, I am not yet quite sure!  (‘This is all very interesting,’ my supervisor says, ‘but what is your research question?’) But if I can begin to unpick three or four of these thousands of Hamlets, maybe I will find some answers to ‘why Hamlet?’  There are issues of cultural imperialism that perhaps lie behind the fact that this tragedy is often the first to be translated into a new culture, either because it has been imposed by a Western colonial education system, or because it has been taken up by the indigenous scholars and artists of a country as part of their mission to ‘modernise’.  This was true of both Mainland China and Egypt in the early 20th Century and late 19th Century respectively. However, in both Chinese and Arabic culture Hamlet has been appropriated to speak about what it is to be Chinese or Arab at the turn of the Millennium.   Lian Zhaohua’s 1989/90 avant-garde stage version broke all the conventions of Chinese Shakespeare.  Gone were the blonde wigs and prosthetic noses (Li, 2003), the traditional ‘white-face’ acting that emphasised the Other, the foreigner, in huaju spoken theatre.  Instead, Lin made his Hamlet and Gertrude et alia to be Beijingers in contemporary dress.  It was no longer a play about the Danish court or Shakespeare’s England, but (perhaps) about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and the uncertainty that follows the death of an ideology.  And apparently, in the English-Arabic Al-Hamlet Summit, Ophelia becomes a suicide bomber…  These new revisionings seem to me to be doing just the same as Shakespeare when he first began to play around with his source, whether it was an Ur-Hamlet or Belleforest’s Renaissance take on Saxo’s Viking deeds. There are one thousand Hamlets in one thousand people’s minds.