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

May 11, 2015 at 1:30 am (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, International Festivals, Shakespeare on film, Trans/Gendered Shakespeare) (, , , , )

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

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

January 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , , , , )

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

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

The Orphan of Zhao adapted from the Chinese by James Fenton and directed by Gregory Doran, The Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon, 3rd January 2013.

The Asian Performing Arts Forum opened their roundtable discussion on Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao with the following quotation from Rustom Bharucha:

“Unavoidably, the production raises the question of ethics, not just the ethics of representation, which concerns the decontextualisation of an epic from its history and culture, but the ethics of interacting with people … in the process of creating the work itself. … It is at the level of interactions that the human dimensions of interculturalism are, at once, most potent and problematic.”   Theatre and the WorldPerformance and the Politics of Culture ( 1993) p.84.

The quotation in context refers to Peter Brook’s Mahabharata but can, I think, be usefully applied to the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao.  Interculturalism is a sticky issue, caught somewhere between liberal diversity politics and post-colonial reclamation of identities and narratives, as seen in the polarised responses to Brook’s and, more recently, Gregory Doran’s forays into appropriating non-western world literature for western consumption. Minority groups rightly feel aggrieved at under-representation or misrepresentation.  The companies accused of insensitivity in casting when they have produced a previously unperformed ‘non-western’ play on a mainstream western stage may well feel that they are unfairly singled out: identifying themselves as liberal and open to diversity, they wonder how they have ended up labelled as the neo-imperialists?

I’m going to confess that I was entertained and frustrated by this production in equal measures, and I hope that I can write of it here with some generosity, despite my very serious reservations…  Thus, for my response to The Orphan of Zhao I propose to take as my starting place the interactions that are the ‘human’ dimension of intercultural performance through all that was ‘most potent’ and ‘most problematic’ for me in Doran’s production at the Swan Theatre.

Part 1: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Potent 

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

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

The Shakespeare connection for this play in the RSC’s A World Elsewhere season is the claim that it is the ‘Chinese Hamlet’.  After all, anything ‘foreign’, it seems, must be made comprehensible through something we are familiar with already, even though that comparison may distort it completely.  This is a paradox that Shakespeare plays with in Antony and Cleopatra.  When Antony returns to Rome from the ‘exotic’ East, his drinking buddy and fellow triumvirate, Lepidus, asks him what a crocodile looks like. His answer, although true, is useless as a meaningful description:  ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad/ as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is,/ and moves with its own organs’ (Act 2, Scene 7) However, although The Orphan of Zhao is not actually very like Shakespeare’s tragedy, other than its central protagonist needing to avenge his father’s murder by an uncle-figure, it does bare some parallels with the ‘original’ Hamlet story from Saxo Grammaticus’ Deeds of the Danes, in which a very young Viking prince, Amleth, must live in his fratricidal uncle’s household until he reaches manhood.  At this point, as a dutiful orphaned son, Amleth kills him. Likewise, the Zhao Orphan, whose father is a court minister, and whose mother is the Emperor’s daughter, must also grow up to enact his revenge when his father and his clan are wiped out by a jealous rival minister, Tu’an Gu.  In both the tale of Viking Blood Revenge and the musical drama of Chinese filial piety, the call to vengeance is never questioned.  The tension lies in whether or not the boys will manage to survive into adulthood to fulfil their duty. Coincidentally, the first extant version of Orphan, by the Yuan dynasty’s Ji Junxiang (紀君祥), was written at about the same time as Deeds.

James Fenton’s adaptation succeeded in making a potentially confusing tale of corruption at court, babies switched at birth, the slaughter of infants, a mad woman locked away in a hidden palace, and divided filial loyalties, flow with a simple clarity.  I didn’t notice that much poetry in the translation, but I never lost track of the plot or themes, and the songs were simple yet compelling.  One of the central conceits is that the family doctor switches his own baby son to protect the prince. To prevent the Herod-like murder of all boy-children under the age of two, he must reveal the whereabouts of this supposed Orphan of Zhao. The doctor’s baby then has his little neck broken on stage in front of his father by the murderous Tu’an Gu, who believes it to be the orphan of Zhao.  Tu’an Gu, as a reward for [the doctor’s] ‘good’ deed, decides to adopt his son, unaware that he is the orphan’ (Programme, 2012: 22).

The Swan Theatre is my favourite space at the RSC, because it is so small that the action is close and clear even when I am in the ‘cheap’ front-row second gallery seats (still very pricey at £22 for non-concessions). The Orphan of Zhao worked well in that relatively intimate thrust-stage environment, as the actors happily hammed up ‘speaking to the audience’ and ‘introducing their roles’, presumably in reference to various Chinese opera traditions.

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

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

Yet these were fine performances.  This was the only production in the World Elsewhere trilogy to cast two ethnic minority actors in protagonist roles, the hero and the villain, proving that a major British classical theatre company risks no threat to their artistic reputation by foregrounding talent from a broader spectrum than is the norm. Joe Dixon, who I had previously seen at the RSC as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, was a deliciously roguish Tu’an Gu.  As for Jake Fairbrother as the grown-up orphan, Cheng Bo, I couldn’t help but think that he had been cast in part, at least, because of his uncanny resemblance to a young Yul Brynner… Like my daughter, labelled ‘ethnically ambiguous’, the director clearly felt that Jake, too, had a face that could represent anywhere.  Cheng Bo’s childlike energy and innocence was delightful and all too fragile in the face of his task when, suddenly discovering his true identity as he reached adulthood, he found himself bound to execute the man he had loved as a father.  This was one of the productions strengths: it did not shy away from the ambivalences of the plot.  Nia Gwynne was simply heartbreaking as the doctor’s wife, lamenting the sacrifice of her precious child because of some supposed ‘greater good’ before falling into despair and disappearing.  This scene was made even more potent because, as the fate of the two babies was debated by the doctor and his wife, the baby dolls were ‘voiced’ by adult actors kneeling on either side of the stage.  Chris Lew Kum Hoi, who would later return as the ghost of the doctor’s son was one of them, his cooing and gurgling in stark contrast to the adult body that would be denied him.  Unfortunately, the implications of this scene were not fully realised as instead of having Fairbrother produce the sounds of his infant self, this was voiced by another actor.

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

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

Lots of old white men played old Chinese Mandarins, but with sagacity and grace.  Susan Momoko Hingley, an Anglo-Japanese actor, did a sprightly turn as the soon-to-be decapitated maid, and Chris Lew Kum Hoi stunned us all as he returned as the ghost of the doctor’s son in the final five minutes.  In a pair of scenes that echoed each other, the Orphan and the ghost confronted the men they saw as their fathers.  Cheng Bo offered Tu’an Gu the same option of ‘suicide’ as Tu’an Gu had offered his real father.  Unable to take his own life, Tu’an Gu begged his adopted son to kill him if he had ever loved him. Thus this ‘patricide’ became, not simply a moment of revenge, but also a brief moment of possible forgiveness.  In contrast, the old doctor, confronted by the son he had sacrificed in a graveyard, found he must kill himself to appease the child he had abandoned.

It was a beautiful production, too.  Whenever somebody died, blood-red petals fell from the rafters.  A latticed moongate and red silk lanterns evoked Old China throughout: the Swan Theatre had transformed overnight from pre-Revolutionary Russia (Boris Godunov) to a pretty good impression of The Lao She Teahouse in Beijing. In traditional Chinese theatre, scenery is minimal and non-representative. The RSC had done some research: a week in China for the director and designer, plus artistic advice and workshops on Chinese stage conventions ‘back home’ led by Leeds University academic and director, Dr. Li Ruru, author of Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare on the Chinese Stage and The Soul of Beijing Opera. Her introduction in the programme to the evolution of The Orphan of Zhao’s stage history, both in the East and in the West, is illuminating. Tian Yuan Tan of SOAS also adds credibility with his article on dysfunctional dynasties.  Full colour spreads of Terracotta Warriors, Spirit Ways, Pagodas and Dragons all make clear that we should not expect a hybrid or an anglicised production: this is the RSC introducing the British public to Chinese Theatre.  The delicate watercolour designs by Niki Turner shimmered into life in a production awash with coloured silks and shining spears.  Authenticity seemed to be the order of the day, from the Emperor’s imperial yellow robes and pointy black beard, to a wise old Mandarin physically prostrating himself in front of the spoilt monarch (who had been practising his archery skills on his subjects for fun) as he desperately tried to make him see reason.

Ay, there’s the rub. With so much emphasis in getting the set, the costumes and even (some) of the movements to be ‘Chinese’, wasn’t there something missing? Ah yes…

Part 2: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Problematic Posting shortly

Related posts: Madam Miaow Makes Mincemeat of RSC over Non-Chinese-Casting

The Yellowface Debate Continues: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable

Permalink 1 Comment

Globe to Globe Lithuanian ‘Hamlet’: The Prince of Rock and Ice

July 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Eastern European Shakespeare, Globe to Globe 2012, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , , )

Hamlet directed by Eimuntas Nekrosius and performed by Meno Fortas, Globe to Globe Festival, 2nd June 2012: Matinee 

Horatio and Hamlet (c) John Haynes

This was a cold, wet production, and not only because it was performed on an open stage in an English June…    A man came on in heavy, enormous furs, like a huge lumbering bear emerging from a wintry Northern forest. He threw back his head and revealed that he was actually two men.  Freezing drops of water dripped from a chandelier made of ice attached to a round, rusting saw blade, heavy with chains. Ice turned to water, and water filled goblets as big as fish bowls.  Ophelia played at fishes with her father and brother, her praying hands darting like minnows instead of remembering their orisons. In a dark production of blacks, greys, browns, blood reds and deep, deep purples, her emerald green dress stood out like pond weed in murky waters.  Ophelia, the green girl.

Ophelia was fun, playful, and a little bit goofy.  In fact, everyone was a little bit goofy, especially her father.  I think they might all have been mad. Had the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Ultra-cool Hamlet dominated the stage like an aging rock star.  But he was an aging rock-star, Lithuania’s answer to Bono!  When he was first asked to play Hamlet fifteen years ago he was a young rebel.  Now, perhaps, he’ll continue that tradition, with Kemble and Booth, of playing him past middle age into his twilight years…

(C) Meno Fortas

Claudius did not have a share in the glory, nor in the audience’s empathy, as he often does in Western productions now, and his new wife was a nobody, peripheral.  Gertrude never held the stage like Ophelia. I doubt if anyone ever intended her to.  When Ophelia drowned, however, she showed real agency, diving into the water and swimming to her death.

The ice, smashed, melted, and dripped, staining the Globe stage like blood. A giant bird – formed from two black screens that belonged in a black box, not an open air, reconstructed Renaissance theatre – flew across the stage on a man’s back like a prehistoric harbinger of death. The Old Ghost was Young Fortinbras.  The hand of anyone who touched him turned black. That ‘stain’ was passed from character to character during the play-within-the-play.  When Claudius asked Hamlet how they should understand ‘The Mousetrap’, Hamlet answered ‘Metaphorically!’

It was a strange, visual stream of consciousness: images and references that I could not understand, but that I did not need to.

The actors never once looked out at the audience, or if they did, they failed to see us.  It was not that they were acting to an invisible fourth wall; they were enclosed in a strange imaginary fishbowl world where they would live and die, perhaps senselessly.

Britain’s contribution to the Globe to Globe Festival was Henry V, which opened the Globe’s own summer season.  However, as there was a gap of nearly a week between this performance and the two-companies-daily pattern of the previous six weeks, and because, for me at least, there was a sense that Shakespeare in English did not really count, Nekrosius’ Hamlet felt like the last play in the Globe to Globe Festival. This monumental production from Lithuania managed to both give weight to the centrality of this play in the European canon, yet to also illustrate how Shakespeare as a cultural product emigrated across the channel many years ago and took on global citizenship.  Hamlet in particular seems to be most at home anywhere but here.  As repeatedly illustrated in Dennis Kennedy’s pioneering edited collection of essays, Foreign Shakespeare, which was first published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this play speaks to societies in transition and trauma in a language we in England can no longer fully understand. Hamlet was banned by Stalin, and Kozintzev’s 1964 film was a savage critique of his personality cult, as well as a brave testing of the post-Stalin thaw.

But all of that was a very long time ago.  Even the initial post-communist years of this production’s genesis belongs to many people’s childhood memories.  For example, I was sitting next to two young Lithuanian women in the Globe.  They had travelled from Manchester and Leeds, where they were living, just to see this production.

(c) John Haynes

‘We’ve never been to the Globe before, but we had to see this.  Hamlet performed in Lithuanian in Shakespeare’s theatre! And the director is very, very famous in our home country, you know.  We think that’s him, sitting over there.’  They point to a bearded man in late middle age sitting next to a tall blonde woman. ‘I expect that’s his wife,’ one of them said, the older one.  Then she paused. ‘But that’s not the only reason we came… The actor who plays Hamlet, Andrius Mamontovas, he is a huge rock-star in Lithuania.’

‘He was very big back in the early 90s,’ said the other. ‘My older sister was really into him.’

‘Not just the 90s,’ the other said. ‘He’s still famous now, and not only my age group like him.  He’s like Bono!  Well, he’s like Bono in Lithuania, anyway!  But we came here for the Shakespeare, too, and to visit the Globe. But why did you come? And what did you think?’

See my comment (no 3, below) to see how my thoughts were confirmed, developed – and in one case (Ophelia’s death) completely changed when I watched this again on The Space.

Permalink 4 Comments

%d bloggers like this: