Not a motiveless malignity: Iago, Othello and Desdemona at the RSC

Othello dir. Iqbal Khan, performed by the RSC at the RST, 26th August 2015, live cinema broadcast at the City Screen, York.

I was shocked by my own complacency toward race when I first saw this trailer for Iqbal Khan’s RSC production of Othello a couple of months ago. Othello is speaking to Desdemona, but as the camera swings from him to her and back again, something has shifted – the tone of voice, the words, the face. Was I really confused who was speaking for a moment? That was a directorial intention, I hope, because there is only room for one minority leading actor in Othello, right? Wrong.

Khan’s production, broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Thursday, ‘made history’ (in the UK and for the RSC at least) by casting Lucian Msamati as Iago opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Quarshie has long expressed ambivalence about the depiction of ‘the Moor’ not only on stage but by Shakespeare’s representation itself, famously questioning whether black actors should even play the role (although he never definitively concluded that they shouldn’t: see also Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 2004 Guardian piece, ‘My Problem With the Moor’). The subtle ways in which Khan’s casting recalibrated how we perceive Othello as the ‘race play’ has been explored by many reviewers, with Dr Peter Kirwan noting that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself’.  Both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black but because they both held rank. As Quarshie notes, in both early modern ‘Venice’ and supposedly ‘post-racial Britain’, the general is one of ‘the only black men […] who isn’t either a cleaner, a soldier or a servant’. Thus Iago’s sense of betrayal at being passed over for promotion for the less experienced, white Cassio makes total sense.  The contemporary, 21st century setting allowed for a reading in which this Venetian society, disturbingly familiar, appeared to think that it was ‘colourblind’ – the Duke’s own daughter would be allowed to marry a ‘Moor’ if he was like Othello, apparently. Yet a feckless young white man didn’t think twice about referring to a high-ranking military leader as ‘the thick lips’ to his black friend and everyone was a bystander to casual and institutionalised racism when it came down to it. Even the righteous Desdemona compromised herself from the outset. ‘”I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”? Really??’ repeated Quarshie/Othello incredulously, only half teasing her. Although the casting of Msamati problematised what is now seen as a simplistic interpretation – that the motivation for Iago’s malignity is racism – it is important to remember that as late as the 1980s critics were pointing out that overlooking racism as a motive and a context in the play was itself deeply problematic (see Roger Day ‘Reading Othello‘ in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon 1996). And Quarshie made his Othello either vocally challenge or reallocate lines that he argues that no black man, if there had been a black man in Shakespeare’s company, would ever had said. Thus Desdemona’s reputation was as ‘begrimed and black’ as Iago’s face, not his.

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Msamati, however, does not believe ‘that what drives Iago is anything racial at all‘. When he improvised on Roderigo’s imagery, moving rapidly from the derogatory ‘thick lips’ to the bestial Barbary horse and ‘old black ram/ […] tupping your white ewe’, he did not seem to be expressing self-loathing; rather, he grasped at an opportunity to exploit the animalistic stereotypes still prevalent in a society where white masculinity sees itself threatened by black male sexuality, and he did this simply in order to ensure that Brabantio would be enraged and disgusted enough to curtail the elopement of his daughter. Msamati sees Iago’s motivation as something ‘deeper, more dangerous, [and] emotional’: he behaves like a ‘jilted jealous boyfriend’ he says in the pre-streaming material. This gives an utterly convincing and confessional edge to Iago’s sudden claim to Othello that ‘I lay with Cassio lately’.

The scene in which this dialogue takes place is central to Khan’s re-visioning of the play, and it was a scene that raised many questions. It is usually performed as a paint by numbers demonstration of how Iago ‘[…]put the Moor/Even into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure[…]/And practising upon his peace and quiet,/Even to madness’. But, as I have already said, this was a production that sought to disrupt complacencies. The ‘noble Moor’, after all, is as problematic a stereotype as ‘the old black ram’. Quarshie’s Othello was neither. Instead he was a complex man who thrived on power and control: verbal, emotional and physical. The production’s emphasis here is on the culture of militarism: Othello was a mercenary general, a man who fought wars as much for his own personal gain (money, status, reputation). The implication was, he could be relied on to get results for Venice regardless of any rules of engagement or human rights conventions. And so, previously, we have seen a nameless, faceless man dragged on stage, tortured with drills and waterboarded, clearly under the command of Othello. Then, in a shocking and graphic reversal of power roles, Iago was presented not as the auteur of the tragedy but as a victim of his own machinations, a man who had already lost control of the plot by act three. When Othello demanded to ‘Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it/That the probation bear no hinge nor loop/To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!’ Iago was strapped to the same chair as the general’s last victim. Again tortured with the contents of the tool box and nearly suffocated with a plastic bag in a scene worthy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, what else was he supposed to say?’ In this production, it was Msamati’s Iago who became human and vulnerable.

On one level, I found this scene extremely effective. Firstly, I like grotesque violence in my early modern stage plays – the tearing out of a heart or a tongue, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes on stage. Sanitizing man’s inhumanity to man is a dangerous thing. If it happens off-stage, out of sight, we don’t have to face the fact that we are complicit in it. It also made sense of Othello’s breakdown, in which the routine violence and abuse of his day job inevitably spills over into his personal life. Quarshie’s charismatic but deeply unpleasant Othello critiques the ‘nobility’ that is often unquestioningly bestowed on ‘our’ military personnel, as we turn a blind eye to, or even excuse, their sometimes illegal and murderous actions. What bothers me, however, was the peripheral nature of these allusions to the crimes committed by western forces at places such as Abu Ghraib. They weren’t centralised enough to make the production a political allegory, as in the work of Sulayman al-Bassam. I felt the production needed to have the courage of its convictions and much more overtly address the connections it appeared to suggest between militaristic masculinity/ entitlement/violence (domestic or otherwise), and western foreign policy in the wake of the First Gulf War. This was nearly political theatre, but not quite. We remained too wrapped up in what would happen to our star-crossed lovers (even if one was a violent narcissist) to remember to care what happened to the faceless man once he was hauled off stage. As Kirwan argues, there was a danger that the torture scenes became a device.

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Nonetheless, this was thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling theatre. The power play between the central characters and the larger society was nuanced and complex, as was the prejudice around both race and gender. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona was particularly strong, rejecting the often infantalised, over-feminised interpretations that still dominate productions, although her fabulous dresses (somewhere between Game of Thrones and Frozen)  didn’t quite ring true. Surely this was a woman who wore trousers? Her death also seemed slightly on the traditional, tame side in a production that was not traditional or tame. Yes, she fought back, but I anticipated more disturbing violence after Othello put out the light with his boot. A man killing his wife should not be prettified.

Having said that, although I’m sometimes slightly disappointed by the predictability of the RSC’s work, directors like Khan and Aberg are bringing an engaging and energizing perspective, and although I’ve criticized Greg Doran before about his ‘colourblind’ casting practices, productions commissioned by him like this are beginning to remedy the fact that the RSC itself often presented a world where minority actors were routinely servants, soldiers or five-line dukes. Listen to the Male, Pale and Stale RSC debate 2015 here.

See Andrew Dickson on Othello and race here.

RSC theatre trailer

Other reviews: Poppy Brady Voice reviewPaul Edmonson The Stage reviewHolly Williams Independent reviewFiona Mountford Evening Standard reviewMichael Covenay What’s On Stage review

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

Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT)

(c) Shakespeare's Globe

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

The project Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT)

has released its second batch of films, this time
on the topic of “Outdoor Playing”:
(1) A performed excerpt from Shakespeare’s play
Richard III Act I Scene 2, first performed c.1592 (8 minutes)
(2) An examination of the role of James Burbage in early
theatre (10 minutes)
(3) A research interview with theatre historian
Gabriel Egan on the subject of outdoor playing (30
(4) A research interview with theatre historian
Tiffany Stern on the subject of outdoor playing (24
(5) A research interview with theatre historian
Andrew Gurr on the subject of outdoor playing (44 minutes)
The links to the first batch of films is available via the projects website
All are offered under a Creative Commons Attribution
Share-Alike licence (CC-BY-SA). The same licence
covers all the material on the project website at

Globe to Globe on Globeplayer

UPDATE: The majority of the Globe to Globe productions from 2012 are now available on Globeplayer for a small cost to rent or buy. This post was written about The Space.
As the summer of more than usually international Shakespeare came to an end, I revisited some of the Globe to Globe productions which were temporarily available on the Arts Council’s website, The Space.* If anyone from Shakespeare’s Globe is reading this – how about releasing them all as a boxed set? I’d certainly buy them!
My personal highlights (in no particular order of preference) were:

(c) Yohangza/Globe to Globe

Yohangza’s A Midsummer Night’s DreamFrom South Korea, this is a global, intercultural company (their name means ‘voyager’), who have successfully proved that the language of theatre is more than linguistic and, without attempting to ‘universalise’ or ‘homogenise’, they have nevertheless shown how easy it is for a story well told to criss-cross cultural boundaries.  I was unable to get to London for the two days that it was playing at the Globe, but I saw it online. This production’s Seoul performance with English subtitles is available free via MIT Global Shakespeares website.

I was a Groundling for the first time when I went to see the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre Company’s Richard IIStanding right next to Sami Metwasi when he sat on the edge of the stage as Richard and lamented the death of kings in classical Arabic – well, it was simply one of the most compelling moments in theatre that I have experienced.  I’ve blogged about it here, and I am currently co-authoring a journal paper on it with Margaret Litvin and Raphael Cormack. UPDATE: This is now published as ‘Full of noises: when “World Shakespeare” met the “Arab Spring” and the draft is available to read for free here if you don’t have access to a university database.

(c) Globe to Globe

This was ‘balanced’ by the controversial invitation to Israel’s national theatre Habima, who against everyone’s expectations chose to put on The Merchant of Venice.  By all accounts, the political theatricals that took place around the production were as powerful as the performances on the stage, and raised challenging questions about whether or not artists and artistic ‘products’ should be boycotted.  Some Israeli commentators read it as a critique of internal Jewish racism, explaining that Shylock was represented as a Sephardic (Eastern/Mediterranean) Jew, while Portia and her coterie where Ashkenazi (European).

There were three powerful, cruelly absurd reconfigurings of Shakespeare’s ‘great’ tragedies.

The Belarus Free Theatre outdid any CGI technology by reproducing the storm with a simple blue tarpaulin and a bucket or two of water in  its scathing satire, King Lear.  The result: they left the audience stunned, and those of us at the front of the Groundlings, due to their extraordinary use of the elements, deafened and somewhat wet.  I’ve blogged on it. Kochanowski Theatre’s Polish Macbeth divided British audiences between those who were horrified and disgusted by the sexual violence in its postmodern deconstruction of corrupt contemporary politics, and those of us, myself included, who thought that to not represent the ugliness of this on the stage would be in itself self-censorship and a betrayal of the mise-en- scene.  Meno Fortas put on their famously ‘metaphorical’ Hamlet with aplomb.  Audiences were drawn both by its director’s stature in European theatre circles and also, as noted in my blog, by the fame of its rock star Hamlet.   Amongst all of this darkness, Marjanishvili Theatre from Georgia, put on a delightful and nuanced As You Like ItAs well as my blog post I have an autumn leaf as a reminder.

My interest is not only in Eastern European appropriation, however.  It was fascinating to see the deliberately apolitical Richard III by the National China of Theatre after spending so much time thinking about the more subversive work of Lin Zhaohua.  It wasn’t so much Shakespeare as a secret agent as ‘Let me entertain you’!  We were .

Two Gents (c) Globe to Globe

Others that I did not get a chance to see but wish I had included: Two Gents Shona language Two Gentleman of Verona (both hilariously funny and brilliantly dark, if it is anything like their English language version of the same which I saw on tour in Scarborough in 2009); Hong Kong’s Tang Shu Wing’s Theatre Studio Theatre’s Titus Andronicus;; and all the Indian subcontinent productions (Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest).  I managed to catch up on The Merchant of Venice and Oyun Atölyesi’s Antony and Cleopatra from Turkey through the Performance and Festival section on The Space website.  Unfortunately, many of the plays were taken off a day before its advertised end, so the time I had set aside for marathon Globe to Globe watching was in vain, and a shame for the students who had hoped to watch Hamlet the day before their lecture….

I’d be interested to hear you thoughts on any of these productions and also your views on the politics and economics of these types of festival.  I loved every minute of Globe to Globe, but it does raise important questions about cultural ownership, how festivals package and represent companies as ‘the Other’, and how theatre can reach new audiences.

*All of the 37 plays in 37 languages were hosted in full with the exception of the Afghan Roy-E-Sabs’ exuberantly defiant Comedy of Errors, presumably because it has been unsafe for the actors, particularly the women, to have too high a media profile.  An Afghan actress was murdered this summer just for being an actress.  Shakespeare’s Globe have also not included any pictures of the women in their production photographs, apart from the US exile – the one who left Afghanistan after her husband was killed because he ‘let’ her work in television drama.

Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

This free afternoon public symposium at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, sounds a treat and is exactly my area of research… However, the new semester will have just started, and I’m teaching the day before.  Forget the fact that a round trip ticket from York, UK, would cancel out the freeness of the event! Which is a shame – I quite fancy the King in the morning and the Bard in the afternoon!

(c) Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

But the Global Hamlets Symposium , for anyone who is in the area, is not to be missed.  Two of the speakers, Alex (Alexa) Huang and Margaret Litvin, have been at the forefront of promoting awareness of Chinese and Arab Shakespeares respectively in Western scholarship.  Huang‘s Chinese Shakespeares is a fascinating, eclectic study of how Shakespeare was appropriated by Chinese activists, novelists, playwrights and filmakers over the course of the 20C.  It inspired me to pick up  a Peking Foreign Languages Press paperback that had been sitting on my bookshelf since the early 1990s, when I first went out to teach in Mainland China: Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son: a Sojourn in London.  The ex-pat son is an ineffectual  Hamlet figure, a metaphor for the dilemma of modern China between the world wars.  My favourite bit of the book, however, is when the traditionalist Old Man Ma, at a loss for something to do on a wet afternoon, decides to go to the theatre, as he would have done in China.  He then changes his mind because he remembers that in England theatre is just a group of people walking about on a stage and mumbling… Litvin‘s Hamlet’s Arab Journey charts how an idealist young ‘Arab hero Hamlet’ ends up an ineffectual Islamist Hamlet in her detailed and illuminating case-study of Hamlet on the Egyptian stage. Both books are terrific reads, even if you’re not an intercultural performance scholar! I don’t know the work of the third speaker, David  Schalkwyk, but I believe he will be speaking on South African appropriation.

There will also be an array of Hamletian song, spoof and martial arts in performance and on film…

If anyone has any feedback on it, feel free to use my comment boxes!

Hamlet in Krakow

(This short post will be updated at a later date)

My friend Sonia Front, of the University of Silesia, and I will visit Krakow today, to go to the Teatre Stary, where Andrej Wajde put on a production of Hamlet in 1989.  Aneta Glowacka tells me that this is an important production in thinking about Klata’s H.  I’ve just been looking on-line and found this interview with Wajde, which among other things, explains why European theatre seems so comfortable with reassigning gender roles :

Wadje’s official website translates into English

Otherwise, it’s Google Translate to get the gist… Online Polish resources include:,Wajda-postawi-40-Hamletow-na-jednej-scenie,szczegoly.html,,,,wajda_andrzej,haslo.html

We went to the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) but got there too late – it has an amazing looking interactive museum (which houses Wajde’s Old Hamlet’s helmut).  The theatre appeared to be putting on works by Klata (I believe he is to be the new artistic director) and later this week, by another director, Heiner Muller’s Titus Andronicus.

The reason we were so late, by the way, was because we went to Schindler’s Factory first. Now a museum about Schindler’s list, including exhibits about some of the survivors, about the ghetto and the concentration camp, and about the Jewish and the Polish Resistance, it also recorded how important a role theatre played during this period. The Stary Teatr was appropriated by the Germans as part of their propoganda machine, but underground theatres also flourished. A young man called Karol had acting aspirations but later went to seminary instead.  He became Pope John Paul II. Young Jews such as Joseph Bau, whose concentration camp wedding features in Spielberg’s film, survived in part because of their creative talents.

Krakow is only an hour away from where I’m staying in Katowice, so I will pop back early next week – when the museum is open.

Love-hate Shakespeare: Felicity Kendal’s Shakespeare Quest, BBC 2

(c) BBC

Just in case we’re in danger of getting a little too Bardolatrous during this World Shakespeare Festival it’s good to remember that Shakespeare hasn’t always been the voice of freedom and self-definition.  In fact, at times he has been the blunt tool of colonialism and silencing.  Felicity Kendal, 70s star of The Good Life, spent most of her childhood and teenage years as part of her parents’ multicultural troupe of actors performing Shakespeare throughout India, in school halls or Maharaja’s palaces, and calling themselves Shakespeareana. Her father believed he was a secular ‘missionary’.  This was fictionalised in the wonderful film Shakespeare Wallah in which many of the characters played themselves.  In the film, the young Felicity left for England after having her heart broken by a handsome young Indian.  In real life, the ending was much happier.  She found fame from her film role and her elder sister married the film star and producer Sashi Kapoor.  That reality was probably too radical for mass distribution in the early 1960s.  In her recent BBC Two documentary, Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest (broadcast on BBC Two, 9:00PM Wed, 16 May 2012) she returns to her first home to celebrate Shakespeare in India (and does just that) but also to ask some difficult questions and hear some hard answers.  Here’s a couple of snippets:

Kendal: ‘My father believed that Shakespeare and India were a natural fit, but for some Indian artists the relationship is a bit more complicated.’

She meets Arjun Raina, a Kathakali Master who appropriates Shakespeare for his own purposes.  As she explains, ‘Traditionally, Kathakali tells stories from Indian mythology; Arjun’s work plunders Shakespeare instead.’ In a brief analysis of his reworking of Othello, she concludes ‘Shakespeare’s tragedy is about a black hero living in a white man’s world. Arjun sees parallels between Othello’s story and the identity crisis faced by many Indians as they square up to the colonial past.’

Raina as Othello (c) The Tribune, India

The two actors perform ‘To be or not to be’ in Kathakali gestures, laughing easily with each other, then Raina suddenly demands of her: ‘What did British colonisation do? It absolutely cut a whole people from the roots of their culture.  And it did it in very, very cunning, very brilliant ways. And one of the offerings of that was the great work of Shakespeare. So if you think people love Shakespeare and I love Shakespeare, that’s only partially the truth. The truth is you hate it also.’

Kendal goes on to introduce an extract from his Othello: ‘To dramatize that love-hate relationship Arjun tears up the script. In the original play Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, because he thinks she’s had an affair.  This time round, husband and wife survive. It’s the treacherous Iago who ends up dead.’

‘It’s like hijacking an aeroplane!’ Raina says, only semi-mischievously. ‘It always get you attention. So the reason why I have done Shakespeare is… I’m not so interested in Shakespeare and your world, but I was very passionately interested about making my world and my beauty and my art be present in my world.’

To put this conversation into context, we need to go back to a conversation she has earlier in the documentary with Dr Poonam Trivadi, who edited India’s Shakespeare, about the history of Shakespeare in Indian classrooms.

‘There was in fact a very heated debate about the kind of education the  East India Company would promote between what were called the Orientalists and the Anglicists,’ says Trivadi. ‘The Orientalists said education should be conducted in the mother tongues, and importance should be given to the Indian classical languages and literature. The Anglicists said all education should be in English so that it promotes an understanding of Western literature and Western cultures.  Macaulay, who was the chief architect of this view, believed as he said in his very infamous remark, that a single shelf of European literature is worth all the literatures of the Indian languages put together.’

There really is only one response to that, and Felicity Kendal makes it: ‘My Goodness! It’s the arrogance, isn’t it? It’s the arrogance!’

Macaulay’s ideas became law in 1835.

Shakespeare is loved in India, but as Kendal’s family found out in the first decades after Independence, it’s not surprising he’s hated too.

This clip shows a convicted murderer play King Lear as part of a prison project.  Both he and Shakespeare are redeemed.

Girl Interrupted: Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet

What an extraordinary film.  Asta Nielsen rocks…

22nd February, 2011, Berwick Saul Building: Judith Buchanan, of the University of York, gave a graduate seminar on this 1920 German silent film adaptation of Hamlet starring the Danish actress Asta Nielsen accompanied by Michael Riessler’s 2007 score.

Judith started by thinking about the ‘paradox’ of a silent Hamlet/Hamlet.  After all, the play is, fundamentally, made up of spoken language, and explores spoken language: ‘it is concerned with private thought and public utterance, with acts of listening,’ and in terms of [performance or reception?] with privileging ‘the verbal over the gestural’.

Yet the play is full of these tensions between oppositions around speaking (Buchanan)

*encripting/laying bare

*linguistic revelation/willed suppression of language

*sustained voice/delay before speaking

and this tension between ‘linguistic expression/suppression’ is summed up in the dumb-show, the ‘aperitif’ to  The Mousetrap. 

Asta Nielsen mimed Ibsen at drama school, indicating that the transition to film in the silent era found her ‘organically in her own medium’. However, in her film, this tension between linguistic expression/suppression gets extended to gender and sexuality.

There had been a long tradition of female Hamlets preceding Asta Nielsen’s, the most famous being Sarah Bernhardt’s some twenty years earlier.  These female Hamlets emphasised the ‘sensitivity’ and ‘thoughtfulness’ associated with the ‘feminine’, as opposed to masculine action (see also the Arden 3 introduction). However, as far as I understand, Sarah Bernhardt was playing the Prince of Denmark as a man.  In this film, however, Hamlet is a girl recast as a boy by her mother, who disguises her daughter from birth in order to maintain the royal line.  Thus, Hamlet is imprisoned in a false identity.  This transformation has multiple repercussions, resulting in ‘ a remarkable and beautiful film (ie absolutely not a recording of a stage performance), […] an eyebrow-raising/interestingly re-gendered interpretation of the play and a significant landmark in the history of Hamlet performances’ (Buchanan, email 19th Feb, 2011).

These re-genderings are truly mind and gender-bending.  They significantly change the dynamics between characters, of course.  Thus, Hamlet’s literal, physical ‘brush off of Ophelia’ and his/her ‘tenderness for Horatio’, I would argue, reinstate a heteronormative reading of the play at the same time that it flirts with same-sex love through Ophelia’s and Horatio’s adoration of the ‘prince’.  Judith sees this transvesti performance itself in a context of  ‘a willed suppression of androgyny’ in a world where the ‘boyish flappers’ illustrated how the ‘social construction of gender was on the move’.

Judith also indicated how the use of Expressionist film sets, alongside Nielsen’s Hamlet’s minimalist black tunic, underscored the adaptations central themes and the relationship between the central character and the mise-en-scene.  For example, windows [and shadows cast by windows] ‘demarcated spaces’ as ‘circumscribed spaces’, underscoring Hamlet’s ‘fettered life’ and his/her emotional and political separation from the court.  Again, the casting of Hamlet as a woman ‘exaggerates the Hamletian situation’ .  We focussed on the image of Hamlet and Gertrude in the closet.  Gertrude and all the other characters are stage medieval in brocade tunics or conical hats.  Hamlet in her black clothing against the ornate backdrop of arras and chair appears to be ‘rubbed out’.

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet on Youtube:

Judith has spoken on silent Hamlets before (see my post for Hamlet without English from November 20, 2009), focussing on Forbes-Robertson and Ruggeri’s films.

Through the cobwebs to the castle: Throne of Blood, 1957

Toho Company Ltd. (東宝株式会社, Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha) © 1957

Yesterday, I finally made it to the CREMS movie night, as they were showing Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood – a film I have been meaning to watch for several years now… 

We were perhaps not its ideal audience (four women eating cake, taking a break from thesis writing) and, after ten minutes of warriors on horseback galloping around, first in the forest, then in the fog, Jade said: ‘I think this is a bit of a boy’s film…’ This was followed by Rebecca commenting that ‘It’s the poor horses I feel sorry for,’ and then Chloe concluding ‘Typical bloody men, they can’t ever stop to look at the directions!’ 

They were right about it being a bit of a boy’s film, however.  The interplay between Kurosawa’s  films and the American Western is legendary, his Seven Samurai being transformed into The Magnificent Seven.  And the introduction of galloping horses into Shakespeare films is also a pivotal moment in their development from being recorded ‘theatre’ to being a  ‘movie’ experience, according to Charles Ross (Purdue University, USA).  He explored this in his paper ‘The uses of horses in Shakespeare on film’, which he gave at the Nottingham-Ningbo University international conference Renderings: Shakespeare Across Continents in 2008.  

There is more than one way in which a film can be ‘distanced’ from elements of its audience: its genre, its cultural location, its moment of production. Throne of Blood can seem distant in many of these ways. Relocated to feudal Japan, Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) meet a spirit in Cobweb Forest who predicts that Washizu will gain Cobweb Castle, the seat of the Lordship, but that ultimately it is Miki’s son who will  inherit it. However, having minimal knowledge of Japanese culture and language, I raise more questions than I can answer.   What is the significance of the fog?  Is the spirit in the forest evil or neutral? What are the bonds of brotherhood between samurai Washizu and Miki?   And is there any connection between the off-screen obliteration of Cobweb Castle, leaving Miki’s son the inheritor of nothing, and Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II?  Much is also lost in translation, or at least transformed. The film’s Japanese title is 蜘蛛巣城 (Kumonosu-jō) which can be translated as Cobweb Castle, a name which has connotations of children’s fairy tales in English, rather than the violent Throne of Blood.  Finally, it is separated from us by time – the grainy black-and-white footage and the staginess of the acting making it seem, not so much dated as alien, a vestige of a bygone age. 

Toho Company Ltd. (東宝株式会社, Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha) © 1957

At the point that Asaji (the Lady Macbeth figure) appeared, however, our unappreciative little audience began to be drawn in.  I can’t remember whether we heard her or saw her first, but it is the sense of her voice, quiet, calm, cold, cutting into the conscience of Washizu that made her so chilling and so magnificant.  She knelt, robed in white, head inclined, almost motionless, and I wondered if there was any echo of this Lady Macbeth in Ryutopia Noh’s Hamlet (see post below).  Likewise, to what extent is Karusawa referencing traditional Japanese theatre in this film? Asaji’s movements, costuming and make-up reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Noh performances. Her slow, sliding walk was possibly Noh-influenced and when she ran into the courtyard to plant the bloodied spear in the hand of a drunken guard, the covered walkway echoed the wing of the traditional Noh stage. This influence became most pronounced during her mad scene.  

The madness 'mask', Toho Company Ltd. (東宝株式会社, Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha) © 1957

Her madness no longer reported action, Asaji is revealed sitting behind a screen, washing her hand repeatedly in an empty basin.  Her make-up has changed, the painted-on mouth now upturned into smile, but her face otherwise distorted in pain, a hideous juxtaposition.  Apparently, in Noh, the changes in facial expressions are indicated by the angle from which the mask is viewed:

Female Noh 'hawk mask' from three perspectives (Wikimedia Commons)

The dominance of Asaji can perhaps have a mysoginist reading, particularly in the light of the film’s opening narrative which suggests that behind every failed, over-reaching man is an evil witch of a wife…  However, she was probably the best Lady Macbeth I’ve seen.

Now, I’ve spent a whole paragraph discussing Lady Macbeth’s make-up and haven’t even mentioned Washizu/Macbeth’s famous death by arrows sequence.  But afterall, I am a girl. 

Trailer available on YouTube: