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

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Pamela Lombari on playing Liddell’s Ricardo/Richard III in Argentina: El Aňo de Ricardo/The Year of Richard

November 29, 2014 at 11:54 am (Intercultural Performances, Trans/Gendered Shakespeare, Translation) (, , , , , )

Earlier this year, I blogged on an appropriation of Richard III by Spanish playwright and performer Angélica Liddell called El Aňo de Ricardo (The Year of Richard) which was performed at the Habemus Theatre in Pergamino, Argentina (July 2014). Here, I interview the production’s lead actor, Pamela Lombari, on her experiences with this play. Questions and answers translated by Adriana Lombari Bonefeld.

Interview with Pamela Lombari on El Aňo de Ricardo 

Can you tell us about your role in El Aňo de Ricardo? Who do you play?

Argentinian actor Pamela Lombari

Argentinian actor Pamela Lombari

In The Year of Ricardo by the Spanish author Ricardo Angelica Liddell, I played Ricardo. The author based her character on Shakespeare’s Richard III. The character is transferred into the contemporary world, presenting a sinister and dark view on the weakness of democracy, on religion, on politics, on genocide. It challenges these values from a stand of fragility but also from the stand of the play’s perverse proposition.

What drew you and the company to Liddell’s play?

Raul Notta, the director, was attracted to the proposition put forward by Angelica Liddell: her play is a provocative, and self-reflective critique of established social conventions.  The playwright  challenges and destabilizes these social conventions. As a perfomer, I felt drawn to the text as it conveys a seductive understanding of contemporary western society … I fell in love with the dramatic structure. As soon as I read it, I felt passionate about performing it. I did not want to miss the opportunity to play such a text.

How did you prepare for such a role? How did it differ from other roles you have played?

To enter into ‘Ricardo’ meant a lot of work and preparation. It entailed an organic commitment where intellect, emotion and body interplayed. In this and all my work I surrender. I trusted both the director’s and my own instincts. I listened to what he had to say but I also listened to my body. ‘Ricardo’ requires the body’s involvement and physical work, but also emotional preparation and energy. All this is necessary to get into and out of a variety of dramatic and diverse situations. I can say that Ricardo goes through my body so that I can express his voice not only with words but with all my body. It has been, indeed a huge challenge … after 25 years this is my first one person show. After Raul Notta chose me to perform this play,  we worked intensely for five months creating, researching – and enjoying!

What is the significance of gender in this interpretation?

With regard to gender, Liddell at no time indicates if she thought the text should be interpreted by a man or a woman … she just named the character Ricardo. [Liddell herself did originally play the role, however.] The director thought of me when he read the script. As a performer I did not think about the character as having one specific gender …I work ‘organically’ investing my resources in the character … I guess the character can be played by a man or a woman. I would like to think that both of my masculine and feminine identities were invested in the performance. Moreover, I think I made good use of my irrational aspects – what I can describe as the ‘animal inside me’. All aspects [of the self] are required when ‘entering’ such complex characters. As a performer, I draw on high levels of consciousness to get rid of my prejudices that may limit the creative process. The gender perspective is somehow less central in ‘The Year of Ricardo’.

How does Liddell’s Richard relate to Shakespeare’s Richard?

There is a relationship that lies in his schizophrenia, his ambition for autocratic power, his sinister irony, his wicked seduction used to achieve his lifelong aim to dominate others.

There are many striking images from the production and from the video that was part of the production. Can you elucidate some of these for us? For example, what did the burning books represent? And the broken dolls? And the string wrapped around the woman’s face? (Significantly, this was translated as: And the thread sewn around the face of the woman?)

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The burning of the books is closely linked to the original text of the play, it is a sign of the destruction of poetry, the death of poets and writers who challenge the power that Ricardo pursues. [Adriana Lombari Bonefeld glossed this further: ‘Liddell’s play references ‘Nazism and dictatorships current and past. Knowledge has to be burnt and destroyed as it poses a threat to power,’ she explained.  So, did she think that the play related to the Argentinean situation, past or present? ‘It relates to all dictatorships, and in Latin America unfortunately there is a sad and long history of that!’]

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The broken dolls represent life’s devastation. Not only is life devastated in the imagination of Ricardo, but in Angélica Liddell’s view and – I have to confess – in mine too. The broken dolls led to the idea of fragmented bodies, sick bodies, corrupted bodies. The unfinished desires fill the flesh of venom. (“He who desires but does not act, breeds pestilence” Milton).

(c) Grupo Fratacho

(c) Grupo Fratacho

The thread that binds is a prison, the barbed wire hair, it is like a concentration camp. Ricardo is a prisoner of himself, of his own folly; psychopathy and his thinking do not set him free. His heinous acts are not cathartic: they only imprison him to his obsessions, which spin all the time about the same (the genesis of his insanity).

To what extent does this production take on new meaning when transplanted to Argentina?

The dimension is very moving for the universality of the themes that the author raises, it can be performed in Argentina just as it can in Japan.

How would you sum this production up for audiences who have not had a chance to see it?

The Year of Ricardo is a proposal for reflection and questioning about moral aspects such as good and evil, about religion, racism, human foolishness, politics etc.

What else do you think it is important for audiences to think about in relation to your production?

For us it is important that our proposition challenges the audience on the human level and, also, that they can enjoy a theatrical approach that integrates different stage languages.

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Shakespeare in Ukraine

July 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm (Conferences, Eastern European Shakespeare, Intercultural Performances, Translation) (, , , )

Daria Moskvitina & Bogdin Korneljuk

Daria Moskvitina & Bogdin Korneljuk

Thank you to Paul Edmonson and Blogging Shakespeare for the update and photo!  

We had great fun dancing and dining with Daria and Bogdan at the 10th Craiova Shakespeare Festival in Romania in May, but just in case anybody thinks that Shakespeare isn’t relevant today, here is their latest dispatch from a part of the world that ‘lives’ Shakespearean scenarios in a way that, thankfully, I do not :

 

‘The Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre express our great appreciation of the wholehearted support for our struggle for democracy expressed by the European scientific community. Shakespeare wrote that expectation usually hits “where hope is coldest; and despair most sits” (All’s Well That Ends Well, 2.1.144) and thanks to your inspiring aid we go on fighting, keeping our hope and creative spirit alive. We feel enormous gratitude to you for all the encouraging emails we have received – your warm words reassure us that even in the hardest times we must (like that line just before the end of King Lear) “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. And so, rehashing the words of Sebastian from Twelfth Night “We can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks” (3.3.14-15).

We also want to remind you that the members of our Centre are eagerly waiting for your applications for the Fourth international conference “Shakespearean code in the global cultural space: Between call and challenge” which will be held in Classic Private University, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on 25-27 September, 2014.You can contact us via uashakespeare@gmail.com for more information.

At the moment we are preparing the new issues of our journals “Renessansni studii” (“Renaissance Studies”) and “Shekspirivs’kyi dyskurs” (“Shakespeare discourse”). The journal “Renaissance Studies” deals with the broad range of problems of Renaissance literature, philosophy and culture. The journal “Shakespeare discourse” publishes scientific articles about Shakespeare’s biography and writing, it also casts light upon the issues of reception of the Bard’s legacy (translations, adaptations, parodies, intertextual references, stage versions) and of his influence upon other spheres of intellectual and cultural space (music, painting, education, advertising etc.). If you are interested in the cooperation with us, please, do not hesitate to address the Centre (our e-mail addresses areuashakespeare@gmail.com and renaissance@zhu.edu.ua.

The international conference is the part of the Ukrainian Shakespeare Project 2014 arranged by the Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre. It is the chain of events dedicated to the 450th anniversary of the Bard which will be held in different cities of Ukraine. Working on this project we tried to cover the broadest range of recipients of different ages (school teachers and pupils, students of universities and academies, all other people who are interested in Shakespeare and his writing). Together with the autumn scientific conference the Project includes:

All the year round: The mailout campaign “Shakescribe.ua” for everyone who subscribes to it on the registration page of the project (https://tinyletter.com/Shakescribe_ua). Each week the subscribers get informational e-mails with interesting facts about the wide range of Shakespearean topics (curiosities concerning the Bard’s biography, screen and stage versions of his plays, Shakespeare’s presence in modern art and mass-media). All the e-mail issues are supplied with rich illustration materials; each e-mail also contains web-links to pictures, videos, sites that can make the textual information more vivid.

Spring 2014: The contest among the school-teachers of world literature “Shakespeare Lesson 2014”. The participants send summaries of the world literature lessons which deal with one of Shakespeare’s works. The jury, which includes the members of our Centre and teaching staff from all over Ukraine, choose 5 best lesson-summaries. The teachers that are the authors of these summaries are invited to the best schools of Kyiv to give this lesson to the unfamiliar class of pupils. The best lessons will be filmed and recorded on DVDs which will be spread among the Ukrainian teachers of world literature.

Spring – autumn 2014: The contest of research papers dedicated to the Ukrainian reception of Shakespeare’s works “Shakespeare: the Ukrainian version”. Young scholars – students and post-graduates – can take part in the contest. The papers should deal with the intertextual traces of Shakespeare’s works in Ukrainian literature, with the problems of Ukrainian translations of the Bard’s legacy, theatrical versions of his plays, etc. This event is sponsored by the Ukrainian National Women’s league of America.

Summer 2014: The intellectual quest for students “Shakespeare forever!”. Student teams (each has up to 9 members) which represent different cities of Ukraine come to Lviv and compete for the title of “Shakespeare experts”. They fulfill various tasks – answer questions, make project-work, present the results of it. After the competition all the teams can attend some special events – Shakespeare theatrical master-classes, Shakespeare coffee-break and the round-table seminars with the leading Ukrainian scientists.

We would appreciate your help and your kind advice in implementing the Ukrainian Shakespeare Project 2014. For us it’s very important to know about your experience of arranging such events, you can also share with us information about the events that will be held in your country to commemorate the Shakespeare’s anniversary.

Do drop us a line to uashakespeare@gmail.com

Many thanks!

Bogdan Korneljuk and Daria Moskvitina’

– See more at: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/shakespeare-ukraine#sthash.34dJIqPO.dpuf

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Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

August 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Intercultural Performances, Lin's Hamuleite) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

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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.

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