Step by Step Richard III: from Jessner to Jonjo.

Notes from my presentation on the Study of Shakespeare, YSJU.

Pirchan’s set (c) VRL

Mise, from mettre, to put.  Mise-en-scène, to put into a ‘scene’, or a literal or metaphorical space.  We often equate it with another word, scenography, which refers to the set, costumes, props and even music in a production. How these elements can combine to convey a meaning as powerful as that found in language is evidenced by Emil Pirchan’s iconography for Leopold Jessner’s 1920 Richard III(see Hortmann, 1998, and Kennedy, 1993b).  Jessner and Pirchan were part of the German Expressionist movement, which rejected Realism and decorative art, as they felt these simply upheld the political, social and aesthetic status quo.  Working in the interwar period after the destruction of WWI, and witnessing the rise of facism in Europe,  they instead embraced Abstraction, for as another artist of the era stated:

“I really feel a pressure to create something that is as strong as possible. The war has really swept away everything from the past. Everything seems weak to me and I suddenly see things in their terrible power. I never liked the type of art that was simply appealing to the eye, and I have the fundamental feeling that we need still stronger forms, so strong, that they can withstand the force of the crazed masses.”
(Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, cited in The Art Story)

Or, as Paul Klee would sum up: ‘the more terrible this world, the more abstract our art’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993b: 83). See Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation for more on this.

Looking at the set for the second half of Jessner’s Richard III clearly illustrates this.  Steps dominated the stage.  My students were reminded of pyramids and tombs, monumental images connoting power and death. We then looked at Pirchan’s sketches:

Pirchan: set for the second half of ‘Richard III’

The relationship between the scenography and the bodies of the actors on the stage took on added significance when looked at through Pirchan’s coloured sketch, the only colour image that exists of this part of the production, I believe.

In an interpolated scene (prior to 4.2) Richard ascended the steps slowly for his coronation […] At the top ‘the red of the steps was linked to the red of the sky by the crimson of Richard’s gown,’ Paterson explains, ‘as though an electric charge of evil  had leapt the gap between heaven and earth’. A contemporary critic, Alfred Polger, said that ‘it is as though the sky itself provided a bloody reflection for Richard’s atrocities.’  Pirchan’s design for the scene, showing the violence of this strategy of colour, is the best evidence that the scenography carried much of the burden of the production. (Kennedy, 1993b: p 87)

The version described above became the cover image for the first edition of Kennedy’s Looking at Shakespeare (1993)

(c) Cambridge

Yet mise-en-scène extends beyond the visual surface of the play to embrace all aspects of how the play communicates meaning to its audience. Non-verbal communication includes intonation, timing, expression, gesture, spatial relationships between performers and spatial relationships between performers and the audience (see Leiblien in Kennedy, 1993a). My colleague, Julie Raby, had explored some of these ideas in a previous lecture in relation to the RSC’s recent summer production of Richard III, directed by Roxana Silbert. In this clip students had been particularly impressed with how the actor, Jonjo O’Neill, like a latter-day Vice, had seduced the viewer (and on the stage, the audience) into being complicit in his actions through his direct address.  One student noted the way he walked away, and then turned back on the phrase ‘But I‘.  As he confided in her his sense of being a rejected outsider because of his deformity, his seduction, it seemed, was complete.

Richard III, summer 2012 (c) RSC

If it’s not just the words but the relationship between the words and the body that speaks them, however, that makes the meaning, then O’Neill’s Northern Irish accent as Richard was significant because it made a statement about ownership of ‘the Bard’ both on the part of the actor, who is Northern Irish, and the RSC, who produced the play. As a visiting American student said to me last year, after he had been praised for his reading aloud, ‘But I don’t sound like Shakespeare – you sound like Shakespeare.’ What if David Tennant had played a Scottish Hamlet? A small choice has big cultural implications.  However, to people in the audience of my age, there may have been another layer of meaning perceived in O’Neill’s rendition, because to anyone who lived in the United Kingdom in the ’70s and ’80s, a Northern Irish accent was inextricably linked through the media to the Troubles. In fact, under Thatcher, the government literally tried to silence certain Republican and Loyalist figures by outlawing the broadcasting of their voices.  Journalists got around this in a surreal manner, so that I grew up with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein routinely dubbed by an actor speaking with a strong Belfast accent. Even if there had been no intended link in the minds of anyone involved in the production, the circumstances of history, and the Othering of certain a certain group through their voices, would still echo on the 21st century English stage.

Finally, with the National Theatre of China’s appropriation of this play during the Globe to Globe season, we’ve seen how  mise-en-scène extends to the language of the translation and the language of the theatre codes of whichever tradition a production is appropriated into.

It’s All Brecht to Me…

*(I am not sure if W refers to Helen Weigel or Carl Weber; B, I assume, is Brecht)

In Brecht’s ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus‘ (1953, trans Willett, 1974), W asks ‘Can we amend Shakespeare?’ (259).  On one level the questioner is asking if *s/he and his/her colleagues in the Berliner Ensemble are capable of amending a Shakespeare play – do they have the translation skills or the subject knowledge? On another level, the are asking if they, as contemporary artists, have the ‘right’ to alter the works of an author of such canonical status.  B replies, ‘ I think we can amend Shakespeare if we can amend him’ (259), by which he means, if we are capable at the skills level of amending Shakespeare then, yes, of course we have the artistic right to so.

Like their early modern counterparts, Brecht and his contemporaries had no qualms about appropriating the classics.  Leopold Jessner, the German Expressionist theatre and film director, went so far as to claim that ‘basically there are neither classic nor modern authors.  From the point of view of the theatre the poet belongs to no generation… Shakespeare, Schiller, Wedekind must be thought of as representatives of this generation as much as the younger writers’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993: 84). He believed that a director must ‘split apart’ the source text and refashion it in the spirit of the times (84).

The avant-garde in early and mid twentieth-century Europe deconstructed classic texts in part because they were iconoclasts, but primarily because classic materials reconfigured were in themselves powerful examples of defamiliarization, or Verfremdung.  Jessner’s, Schiller’s and Brecht’s productions challenged the ways in which audiences responded to once familiar, now defamiliarised material.  Brecht argued against creating a simplistic universalising empathy in audiences towards individualised characters and situations, because according to his Marxist-influenced thinking, empathy supports the status quo.  He summed up this difference between empathetic (dramatic) theatre and defamiliarised (epic) theatre in his 1935 essay ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’:

The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change  – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me because they are unnecessary – That’s great art; nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh. (Brecht in Willett, 1974: 71)


Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation: Eastern European Shakespeare

Dennis Kennedy (1993) Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

After the First World War, ‘[w]ithdrawn aestheticism was no longer an appropriate response to the art of the past; suddenly Shakespeare had a new meaning, which derived from the uses the present might have in him’ (82).

I like that word, verb and noun: use. My supervisor wrote a book called Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (William H. Sherman, 2008) about marginalia – the scribblings in books by their readers, which reveal to other readers how these books were ‘used’.

I like the idea that Shakespeare is ‘used’, both in the sense of being found to be of use, but also in the sense of being exploited, being soiled (as in a woman being ‘used goods’), being left carelessly outside in the metaphorical rain.

Kennedy cites Paul Klee, writing in 1915: ‘ the more terrible this world is (as it is today), the more abstract our art’ (83), and European Shakespeare of the mid-century reached heights of abstraction.  Germany, the birthplace of Expressionism, was fertile ground for directors to experiment, overtly bringing together politics and art.  Kennedy paraphrases the beliefs of the influential Jewish socialist theatre and cinema director Leopold Jessner, who worked with Brecht, that ‘the poet’s work is nothing but raw material for the director, who must split apart- today we might say deconstruct – the play and make a new ordering of its elements in staging’ (84).  He goes on to quote Jessner directly:

‘basically there are neither classic nor modern authors.  From the point of view of the theatre the poet belongs to no generation… Shakespeare, Schiller, Wedekind must be thought of as representatives of this generation as much as the younger writers’ (84).

These ideas recur again and again in the writings and performances of the avant-garde from early twentieth-century Europe to the late twentieth-century Far East. Likewise, Brecht favoured the abstract because pictorialism, he would argue, encouraged useless empathy rather than useful rage (see Mumford).

In productions such as Jessner’s 1920 Richard III, in which he worked with the designer Emil Prichan, Jessner used emblematic and deliberately obvious scenography: his enormous red staircase, now iconic, ‘disdained historical evocation in favour of symbol’ (Kennedy, 1993: 84).  They also relied on ‘strategy of colour’ and other scenographic devices, to carry the ‘burden of the production’ (85).

Jessner’s technique was called Motivtheater. Everything that didn’t support the central intellectual motif of his productions were reduced to “incidentals” to be discarded  (88). He wasn’t interested in ‘character development, psychological ambiguity, and narrative complexity’ because they didn’t contribute to his vision of ‘the abstract scene of mythic events’ (88) in which ‘the sensitive individual [was] crushed by the mindless machine of authority’ (92). He eventually had to flee Germany, of course.

Shakespeare wasn’t only big in Germany, however, but throughout central Europe.  My friend, Paweł Jędrzejko, from the University of Silesia, likes to (ex)claim that ‘Hamlet, my darlings, is a Polish play.’ I’ve written on this connection between the ‘use’ of Shakespeare and the assertion of national identity before.  Kennedy notes that ‘at various times the Czarist censor banned [Shakespeare’s] plays in Warsaw because they contained too many incidents of rebellion’ (96). Many of the papers at the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Craiova last year focussed on how ‘the first extended translation projects in [Romanian, Ukrainian], Czech, Hungarian and Polish were connected with the rise of indigenous drama’ (97).

Most interestingly for me, thinking of huaju although Kennedy is writing of Europe, is his assertion that ‘The independence granted by the Treaty of Versailles was seized by theatre artists as an unprecedented opportunity to apply avant-garde methods to the new nationalist stages, and in the years between the wars Shakespeare would become and important force in this larger movement’ (97).

Shakespeare performance/performance archives: what we (think) we see

Dennis Kennedy (1993) ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

There are several ideas in the opening chapter of this book which I have already thought about and written about – most obviously, of course, that ‘Visual fashions and gestural codes change swiftly, and are connected to place as well as time’ (Kennedy, 1993: 4). My case studies look specifically at how productions ‘have been manufactured for a specific geographical and sociopolitical audience’ (4).  In terms of revivals, I may explore how and why they may have needed ‘visual refreshening’ and whether or not ‘eventually they will lose their significant connections to the culture or the moment they invoke’ (4).

However, obvious as it now seems, I hadn’t really considerred the ‘authenticity’ or not of the production stills I have looked at, nor of the set designs! To what extent do visual records of performance convey information about the ‘original’ performance?

Drawings and paintings made ‘after the fact’ are, like memoirs and eyewitness accounts, fascinating but not necessarily ‘reliable’: ‘The eye brings with it what it sees’ (Allardyce Nicoll in Kennedy, 19) – and apparently, the eye doesn’t see half of what is there, blind to ‘certain conventionalized aspects of scenography’ (19). Yet photographs must tell the truth – mustn’t they? Photographs are particularly problematic for early to mid-twentieth century performances.  Kennedy tells the story of 1930s society photographer, Angus McBean, just before the end of his career.  He had been asked to photograph Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which was the opening production of the National Theatre (21). Due to circumstances beyond his control, he used a small camera ‘to shoot during dress rehearsals – common practice in most theatres today, but disturbing to [McBean’s] normal sense of composition. “Alas never properly photographed,” he wrote on an envelope containing the pictures’ (23).

Many production photographs actually tell us more about the conventions of the day for photography or advertising than for performance.  The photographers [artists in their own right] would create their own compositions, with their own lighting and their own ideas of what was ‘photogenic’ in terms of blocking, gesture etc etc (16-24). This is also true of contemporary shots: ‘Most theatre pictures have been made not for archives but for publicity’ (20), and again, publicity shots do not necessarily require ‘veracity’ in terms of poses or blocking arrangements.

‘Any moment a photo can show, even if it is an accurate moment, is necessarily a deception, for it is an image of time stopped. Photos, Sontag claims, cannot explain anything by themselves. This is why they are “inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”‘ (24).

Thus pictures need other corroborating evidence available to theatre researchers (17): films/videotapes/DVDs, set and costume designs, ‘eyewitness accounts, memoirs, promptbooks, manifestos’, programmes, reviews.  Designs, for example, ‘can convey through graphic technique some elements of staging that are poorly captured on film, like full stage views, or effects of changing scenes, or the dimensionality of non-proscenium acting spaces.  They have particular stature as costume records, where they can suggest characterization, indicate colour and tailoring details, and even show fabric samples’ (17).  In fact, there seems to be only one problem with them: ‘they are often not followed in production’!!!!

Kennedy notes that, in scholarship on Western theatre at least, the literary is privileged over the visual not only because writers (reviewers, historians) find interest primarily in words, but also because ‘there is perhaps a deeper anxiety in some minds about the visual, based on a fear that it can overcome the rational aspects of language and character with an appeal too direct and powerful to deny’ (5).  He dates this back to Aristotle:

‘The Greeks called the theatre a “seeing place”, but from Aristotle on there has been a critical suspicion about the visual qualities of performance […]The “spectacle” or visual aspect of production, Aristotle held, can have “strong emotional effect but is the least artitic element but is the least artistic element, the least connected with poetic art.”‘ (5)

Kennedy also cites Peter Hall: ‘The English suspect the visual delights of the theatre […] The puritan distrust of emblems, of representation by symbol and artifice, is a recurrent national neurosis’ (6).

However, for me, as an intercultural spectator looking at intercultural Shakespeare, what I see is (nearly) everything.

Contemporizing Shakespeare: 20th Century Trends

Dennis Kennedy (1993) Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

I have to confess that Dennis Kennedy, along with Li Ruru, is one of my favourite writers in this area, primarily because he writes beautifully.  His ‘thick description’ brings time and place and production into three dimensions, so much so that sometimes I feel as if I could have been there.

Kennedy’s book opens with a description of Michael Bogdanov’s 1978  RSC The Taming of the Shrew, in which a drunken, misogynistic Sly/Petruchio/Jonathan Pryce, in an historicist attack on ‘period’ interpretations and much to the alarm of the unsuspecting audience, tears down Chris Dyer’s uncharacteristically authentic painted backdrop of Renaissance Padua . ‘This production used scenography not only to establish environment and atmosphere but also to create a complicated theatrical signifier of its thematic approach’ (Kennedy, 1993: 3).  Kennedy argues that by forcing the audience to reject any ideas that this was a play about 15th Century Italy, they had to confront its ‘challenges for late twentieth-century society’ and ‘the more subtle sexism of the modern world’ (3):

‘This strategy required the audience to deconstruct the visual texts in their minds, for in order to understand the meaning of the production it was necessary to understand the oppositional meaning of the two sets.  The scenography, therefore, was a visualisation of Brecht’s “Not…but” process: not then but now, not illusion but truth, not painted perspective but hard iron railings, not Serlio but Dyer. And, a traditionalist might add, not Shakespeare but Bogdanov’ (3). 

Brecht’s ‘not…but’ means that the actor, or in this case the scenographer , expresses what is not happening/being said/being shown through what is happening/being said/being shown.  This means that the audience is always aware of an alternative: if an actor says ‘You’ll pay for that’ he is not saying ‘I forgive you’ (Brecht ed Willet, 1974: 137).

Kennedy is not a traditionalist, and this book often explores  how innovative twentieth-century directors, producers and designers made  the ‘connections between scenography and general performance style’ produce meaning for contemporary audiences (5), many of which were in the non-Anglophone world.  These connections were often highly politicised, particularly in the inter-war period or post-war Eastern Europe:

‘Unprecedented  slaughter, the dislocation of the old order, and the breakdown of traditional moral values, which brought political turmoil and revolution to much of middle and Eastern Europe, also brought extreme artistic experimentation and a  reevaluation of the classics. Withdrawn aestheticism was no longer an appropriate response to the art of the past; suddenly Shakespeare had new a meaning, which derived from the uses the present might find in him.’ (82)

From ‘unregenerately male’ German Expressionism during the rise of Fascism, in which ‘the anguished cry of the oppressed hero demanded a scenography of distortion, a subjective extension of his terrifying inner state’ (83), to the ‘proletarian utility’ (93) of Socialist Constructivism, which revised its scenography to reflect ‘its revised view of humanity’ as  ‘the machine assumed the status of great social force, the model of not only the new person, but of the new order itself’, Kennedy reflects on how the ‘original audience [may have] read and understood the visual signifiers’ in performance (5). This suggests, of course, that those visual signifiers alter meaning, or even cease to have meaning, when removed in time or place or both from these original circumstances.

Kennedy also emphasises the need not to ‘separate the consideration of Shakespeare’s plays from the general movements of theatre history’ (7) nor to detach it ‘from any aesthetic investigation of what the stage does and why’ (8).  This may seem unnecessary advice to today’s readers who are used to Arden 3’s performance analyses (with photos!), and to university students who are encouraged to think of ‘texts’ as performance:  ‘playgoing’ as a ‘non-literary manifestation of the text’ (9).  However, when I did my undergraduate degree at UCL in the late 80s/early 90s our approach to drama was almost entirely close textual analysis.

So what is the significance of this shift? Kennedy again makes a comparison with Brecht, this time his ‘practice of appropriation (Aneignung) of the classics for his own purposes, turning Shakespeare and other earlier dramatists into conveyors of new meanings for the present’ (9). Of course, Brecht’s practice is about overt appropriation, politicised re- writing, deliberate exploitation. However, Kennedy argues that all Shakespeare performances exploit and appropriate to a certain extent, whether this is because it’s been translated into colloquial German, or selected from a modernised edition, or cut by directors. He makes the somewhat debateable claim that ‘How and why this occurs is of small literary consequence’, however is less controversial when he states that these theatrical choices are of ‘great cultural resonace, offering insights about the theatre as a social institution and about the place of classic plays in the world of the present.’  (10)


Madhavi Menon, ed (2011) Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare Durham and London: Duke University Press

See what they did with the title there? Clever, eh? I expect that they added the subtitle just in case the main title was too obscure for anyone to work out by themselves, or perhaps in anticipation of letters of complaint from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, mistaking it as a Typo.

You see, I’ve recently joined my first post-graduate reading group, actually set up by somebody in the Centre for Modern Studies, but focussing on how Queer theory is applied to Shakespeare, or perhaps even how Shakespeare contributed to Queer theory.  I’ve primarily joined in order to force myself to read, but also to try to re-establish some sort of link with the academic side of the university, which has slipped somewhat since the birth of our son, although funnily enough I still manage to meet up for cups of tea with my fellow PhD candidates.  However, as a part-time student, I’m only just finishing my first year, whereas the others I started out with have now all upgraded and are heading towards pre-completion madness.  As for the Early Modern reading groups, they tend to be on libraries (as opposed to in them) so this group is perhaps closest to my field. 

If I’m honest, I feel a little out of my depth.  I’ve side-stepped literary and cultural theory as much as possible and whenever we do collide it always ends in tears.  A couple of fellow Shakesqueer attenders tried to explain Lacan’s concepts of desire to me, only to have me tremble and shake and refuse to accept that a child sexually desiring a parent should ever be a valid metaphor (p 65).

The essays are often funny and clever, however, and I will add the occassional post about them here.

Today, I just want to mention a couple of points made by Menon in her introduction, ‘Queer Shakes’.

1) Her desire is to resist the urge to simply ‘apply’ Queer theory to specific texts, producing Queer readings, and instead encourages her readers to think about where Queer theory comes from. Can a pre-nineteenth century writer, and a globally canonised one at that, be considerred as queer, she asks?  Most Queer theorists, she claims, would say no, particularly as they are instititionally resistant to even looking into a writer who represents the literary establishment so completely.  She suggests, however,  that Queer theory needs to be shaken up (get the pun?) and face the fact that without Shakespeare and his ilk the ideas behind Queer theory may never have developed in the first place (she deliberately mentions the Queer canonisation of Whitman, Woolf and Jarman, Shakespeareans all). At least, I think that is what she is arguing – it gets a little opaque here.  After all, ‘to extend queerness to [Shakespeare] is to play fast and loose with academic credibility’ (p 5).

I got a bit lost in this argument as I hadn’t realised that conservative, monolithic readings of Shakespeare were still current in academic circles.  I must have had a very liberal English teacher in 1983 because I left school thinking that Shakespeare’s plays were largely anti-establishment, sexually ambiguous and ambivalent, and I couldn’t help wondering how they had managed to take centre stage in our curriculum.  Perhaps that was because, by 1983 Julius Caesar and Henry V had been replaced by The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest

2) Her introduction extends Queer beyond the sense of homosexual/homosocial to the question of language and metre.  In a very interesting section on the ‘trochee’ – a stressed/unstressed pairing of syllables rather than the usual English iamb – she explores how Shakespeare ‘appears to reserve his trochees for weird characters and fairies ‘ (p 14). She has earlier argued that a trochee ‘trails off’, ‘goes nowhere’, inverts the ‘teleological imperative of progress that has shaped so much heterosexuality’ (p 14)*. Certainly, Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are deeply disruptive.

* Does this argument work for the opening of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14: ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you/As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend…’?

Ideology shaped holes.


Romanian Flag, 1989.

Healy, Thomas. “Past and Present Shakespeares: Shakespearian Appropriations in Europe.” Shakespeare and National Culture. Ed. John J Joughin. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 206 – 232.

Thomas Healy’s article, “Past and Present Shakespeares”, explores the issues around contemporary localizations of Shakespeare’s culturally and historically specific texts, and the concept of a “universal” Shakespeare in relation to expressions of national identity.  He opens and closes with re-visionings of Shakespeare in post-Communist Eastern Europe: a Bulgarian Romeo and Juliet and a Croatian Titus Andronicus. The former, a near silent, experimental production, is celebrated as a critique of any attempt at nationalist hegemonic appropriations. Having been absorbed initially as a symbol of European resistance to Ottoman culture, Romeo and Juliet had a highly politicized reading in this Bulgarian context, and under its later Soviet influences.  Although Shakespeare was then “celebrated in the Soviet world as a heroic representative of the progressive historical will,” (Healy in Joughin, 1997: 208), it nonetheless continued to be read as a symbolic representation of “the struggle for national self-determination against a controlling power.” (207)   Quoting Bulgarian critic Boika Sokolova, both she and Healy liken the silence in the production to the symbolism of protestors in neighbouring Romania cutting a hole in their national flag during the 1989/1990 protests against the regime, the hole literally removing the symbol of the Communist Party:

“This largely silent production exemplified a past no longer complete, a future still undecided, and, most prominently, a present where known theories and structures for understanding known happenings were displaced, yet where nothing had confidently replaced them.” (208)

Healy explores the second production through an article by Croatian critic Janja Ciglar-Zanic, “Recruiting the Bard: onstage and offstage glimpses of recent Shakespeare productions in Croatia” and both production and article cause him considerably more unease as they transform the text, and understanding of the significance of texts by Shakespeare, “to address a contemporary Croatian political and social climate.” ( 223)  Healy is “disturb[ed]” that here, “this essay illustrates the dangers of the protean, placeless Shakespeare”, the very same protean, placeless Shakespeare that is fashionable in the world of Shakespeare conferences and festivals at the moment.  His concern is that Shakespeare “ is open to co-option to every history” (my emphasis,  223).  Ciglar-Zanic reportedly asserts that Central Europe is really Western Europe in “spiritual” terms; in other words, it is in opposition to the East, both Russian and Near Asian, including Serbia:

“what actually underlies Ciglar-Zanic’s argument, however, is a desire to have a Croatian use of Shakespeare seen as evidence of this country’s proper participation in ‘a common European cultural unity’, allowing this nation’s perspectives to be legitimised is being authentically European.” (224).

He goes on to argue that:

“Shakespeare is recruited by a specific national platform because it is hoped this gives European, or even universal, cultural approval to its politics: civilisation is on our side.” (224).

What is different in this Croatian example is that the “climate”, in which the former Yugoslavia descends into religious, cultural and ethnic “cleansing”, is much less palatable to Healy, and to most readers, than Romania’s rejection of Ceausescu’s vision, or Bulgaria’s identification with an ideology shaped hole at the centre of the psyche of former Eastern Europe (although I remember feeling sick at the execution of the Ceaucescus a week after their capture).

Other than its specific local details, what interests me here is, to what extent do we, as critics, stand back from the politics of our material?  How differently do we respond when Shakespeare is appropriated by the ‘wrong side’? Dobson addressed this in a lecture at the University of York when he explored British POW Shakespeare productions in German prison camps in WWII.  What about the ethics and politics of prisoners who put on The Merchant of Venice, with costumes and sets provided by their captors? Can we, with hindsight, view them as anything other than collaborators? (York, November 2009)

Returning to the Croatian appropriation, I wonder if Healy is arguing against the validity of any form of making Shakespeare our contemporary, because of the dangerous political uses to which his works can be put?    This isn’t expressed in the main text, but is there in the subtext.  He compares Ciglar-Zanic’s argument to the content of an article by Milan Kundera: ‘A Kidnapped West or culture bows out.”  According to Healy, Kundera identifies a spiritual geography thus: ‘the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West, opposing the Orthodox Slavs.” (Healy in Joughgin, 1997: 225)

“on the Eastern border of the West –  more than anywhere else –  Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilisation, an other civilisation.” (Kundera in Healy 225)

What bothers me about Healy’s argument isn’t that he disagrees with Ciglar-Zanic’s and Kundera’s standpoint, but that he rejects it out of hand as a “fatuous […] line of argument…” (Healy 225). Without compromising our own values, do we not need to try to understand the contexts of such attempts to redefine national identity, even whilst rejecting, in the case of Croatia, the emerging politics? I suppose that for me, it’s not the rightness or wrongness of appropriations that interest me in the context of my PhD.  I don’t feel great anger that “the Bard” is usurped.  This is because on the one hand that is allowing my liberal thinking to co-opt him to my own liberal agenda (which I confess I do as a teacher).  Communist societies in transition were alien and admittedly fascinating societies to me as a lefty teenager growing up during the Cold War.  So, on the other hand, looking at the politics of these alien societies through the lens of plays that are familiar to me from my own culture, gives me a way into trying to begin to understand the contexts of those very other experiences.

As usual, I have skipped down a side alley in my thinking.  However, how will I deal with the politics of a nation that is alien to me and presented in terms of an other civilisation by Western media and analysis?

‘H’ Turning Japanese

From Pavis (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader London and New York: Routledge.

Christel Weiler ‘Japanese traces in Robert Wilson’s Productions’ (pp. 105-13) and Robert Wilson interviewed by Der Spiegel, ‘Hear, See, Act’ (pp. 99-104):

(I haven’t worked out whether Christel is male or female, so instead of using s/he throughout, I’ll plump for female.  Apologies for any unexpected gender realignment!)

Christel Weiler’s article exploring the Japanese traces in Wilson’s work also offers a couple of useful insights.  Although she points out that Wilson’s aesthetic is essentially personal rather than cultural (?), she explores through his example how a practitioner can be energised by intercultural exposure.  Weiler compares Wilson to Brecht: Brecht was already thinking about his theory of alienation, but his exposure to Chinese theatre helped it to be ‘formulated […] more clearly’ (p. 106).  Likewise, when Wilson discovered Noh theatre years into his career it confirmed his ‘aesthetic perception’ – ‘It respects the spectator, doesn’t afflict or attack him [sic] but leaves him space’ (citing Wilson p.107).  Weiler’s comments on Wilson/Noh sheds light on certain aspects of Ryutopia Noh’s Hamlet. The Wilson/Noh artist ‘does not force his emotions on the audience’ but ‘walks on stage fresh, as if he knew nothing’ (p. 107).  Noh actor Hideo Kanze comments, ‘It doesn’t do you any good to act on the basis of how you feel; you’ve got to work on the basis of how you look’ (p. 107).  This separation of feeling and appearing is apparently typical of ‘stylized’ kata movements in Kabuki. Citing Jacob Raz, ‘the emphasis on [kata] has developed into the interesting Kabuki convention of separating action from reaction.  If the hero hits his enemies, their reaction occurs – temporally and spatially – separately, thus breaking action and reaction into small fragments of time and space […] Every move is important.  There is no such thing as a meaningless gesture’ (p. 110).  Raz goes on to discuss the slow tempo of Kabuki, which doesn’t bear any resemblance to my memory of going to see Kabuki in Tokyo, however.  I remember a fast-paced comic plot that, to my alien eyes, seemed to sit comfortably somewhere between Pantomime and Gilbert and Sullivan…

But back to Wilson turning Japanese!  Weiler concludes, however, that the appropriation of Japanese theatre elements in Wilson’s work aren’t necessarily about Japan/ese, but are rather ‘symbols of the “foreign” in general’ (p.112). They represent ‘alienation’ and ‘incommensurability’, and in this, Weiler argues (or, at least, I think Weiler argues), the audience finds the attraction, ‘the beauty in the “foreign” which fascinates us’ (p. 113).  This, I suppose, links to what Alex Huang notes as the Westerners fascination with the visual ‘exoticism’  of Asian theatres.

Robert Wilson, in his Der Spiegel interview, sheds further light on why Japanese theatre in particular helped him develop his vision. ‘ Theatre should not interpret, but should provide us with the possibility of contemplating a piece of work and reflecting on it.  If you behave as if you’ve grasped everything, then the work is finished […] I always tell my actors, “It’s not our job to provide answers, but to raise questions.  We must ask the questions so that the text opens itself to us, and by doing that we enter into dialogue with the audience”‘ (p. 101).  Interestingly for me, his example is, of course, Hamlet.

‘The text is just the surface, in some ways the skin and there is flesh underneath it and underneath that the bones. One single word, let’s say “Hamlet”, or even in one single letter of that, “H” can contain everything a man has ever felt, experienced or suffered.  It’s very complex‘ (p.103, my emphasis).  I’ve singled out this sentence because of its possible relevance to the recent Gdansk production, H.