The worst (wo)man in the world: the Arms Dealer in Sulayman al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit

This piece was delivered as a conference paper at the University of Craiova, as part of the European Directors of Shakespeare Conference held in conjunction with the Romanian International Shakespeare Festival 2016, and convened by Dr Nicoleta Cinpoes of the University of Worcester.

Arms Dealer: Glimpsed in the corridors of power, blurred in the backdrop of official state photographs, faceless at parties, anonymous at airports, trained as a banker, conversant in Pashtun, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew, feeding off desire: I am an Arms Dealer (Litvin 216)

[cited from the manuscript of Sulayman al-Bassam’s original 2002 version of The Al-Hamlet Summit, excised from Arabic and ‘definitive English’ texts]

Like many people in the UK, I was gripped by the BBC’s lavish 2016 adaptation of John le Carre’s 1993 espionage novel, The Night Manager. Originally set in South America amongst the drug cartels, it had been updated to the twenty-first century, and had its

landscape-1451930457-9748884-low-res-the-night-manager
The Night Manager (c) BBC 

 “theatre of conflict” relocated to the Middle East (Foster). Its opening shot is of Jonathon Pine, its protagonist[1], striding purposefully through the crowds in Tahrir Square at the beginning of what was once naively dubbed the “Arab Spring”. He soon finds himself embroiled with “the worst man in the world”: Richard Roper, a suave, educated, British businessman, who has discovered that he can make much more money from selling napalm and warheads than he can from farm machinery, and is indifferent to the human cost, particularly if those humans are, in his eyes, “brown rats” (Episode 6). Furthermore, he is doing so with the complicity of the British and US governments because his deadly, illegal activities advance their behind-the-scenes influence in the region. Despite Roper’s surface charm, anyone who gets in his way will come to a sadistically grisly end. When its adaptor, David Farr, was asked why he made these very specific changes, he said,

There’s a clear political anger in the book that attracted me, and I thought that would be blunted if we kept it in 1993/94. I had a simple instinct that it needed to be brought into our world and our day. The issue seemed to be broadly the same: exploitation of other parts of the world for western gain. It was true when I started adapting in 2013; it’s tragically more true now. (Wollastan)

David Farr’s background is in classical theatre and he is an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so it is not surprising that he conceived The Night Manager as a modern day Faust story as well as a political thriller. He saw his central character as

Mephistopheles
The Night Manager (c) BB

caught between the Good Angel of a lone British intelligence handler who will upset the system and risk the life of herself and her unborn baby in order to see justice done, and the Mephistophelian character of Roper who can offer Pine a world of endless pleasure in return for his conscience. A couple of years earlier, in 2013, Farr directed a stylish and intelligent stage production of Hamlet for the RSC. In the case of Hamlet, however, he was not interested in political takes.

hamlet2013

Our age has a distaste for political heroes, even a distrust. Perhaps that is why Hamlet resonates for us. He is unsure if he wants to be a hero and unconvinced he has it in him. If our time is also out of joint, perhaps we would not want to be the ones ‘to set it right’ any more than he does. (Farr)

 This statement makes a number of assumptions: about “our age”, about who “we” are and, of course, about the nature of Hamlet, play and prince. Entrenched in an Anglo-American Romantic reading of the play, casting its hero as an individual paralysed by his own doubts, it ignores the potential for “clear political anger” in the tragedy and for that anger to be worked out through the politicized figure of Hamlet, and this has been the case for most mainstream productions in the UK. Not so a production by a sometime British director who has also worked closely with the RSC, however: the Anglo-Kuwaiti Sulayman’s al-Bassam’s self-consciously political The Al-Hamlet Summit (2002/04). Just over a decade ago, al-Bassam took Shakespeare’s play and transformed it into a parable that critiqued Western intervention in the Middle East and focussed on the rise of Islamism.

The text is a cross-cultural piece of writing in which I have tried to capture a sense of geographical context and contemporary resonance. When first performed in English in 2002 by my London-based theatre company, Zaoum Theatre, it aimed to allow English-speaking audiences a richer understanding of the Arab world and its people, and how their fates are inextricably linked to that of the West’s. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Sulayman al-Bassam started out as a new young voice in British theatre at the turn of the Millenium, although he would later refashion himself:  “I grew up between the UK and Kuwait.  As you can tell, I was educated here [in Britain] and first worked here.  Then, after the events of 9/11, I felt I needed to return to the Arab world” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), and his The Al-Hamlet Summit was pivotal to this shift. After the success of the original English language production at the 2002 International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was invited by the 2004 Tokyo International Festival to put the play into Arabic, a project which resulted in a team translation[2], transforming not only the language but also key content, and resulting in the creation of his Kuwaiti theatre company, Sabab, with a pan-Arab cast[3].  The central ideas in this production remained the same but the shifts in the detail were deeply significant. Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is initially a “spoilt young man”, educated in the West, but returning to his state – a non-specified Middle Eastern state – for his father’s funeral and mother’s wedding.  The usual disgust at his mother’s sexuality and the trauma of his father’s murder, lead in this case, not to the existential angst of the scholar prince or the Freudian self-loathing/woman-loathing of most English language productions, but a “decent into Islamic extremism in order to try to correct the corruption he sees around him” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East). “I am dazed by the stench of the rot” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 6), he tells Leartes, who is about to be made a general in Claudius’ army and sent to the mountains,  before Hamlet himself becomes leader of the opposition forces. Graham Holderness argues that

Hamlet becomes wholly a man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence. (Holderness, Introduction)

In his chastisement of his mother, his language provocatively echoes a broadcast by Osama Bin Laden, very much alive at the time of the play’s performances, and who by this parallel arguably becomes a Hamlet figure as his words seamlessly interweave with the protagonist’s: “the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword… Do not pretend amazement! […] No more words, please, mother, words are dead, they died on our tongues” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 52).  Al-Bassam centralizes the live-ness of his work.

Visually, we are solidly located in a 21st century political universe, with the live-feeds and projection screen constantly reminding us of last night’s television address by George W. Bush, or last week’s summit in Bonn or Washington.  This arrangement allows Shakespeare’s words to take on an uncanny metaphorical resonance. (al-Bassam, Sabab)

Yet it is not the contemporary dress nor staging that makes this production belong to this the al hamlet summit cover

21st century  political universe. After all, Farr’s production was also “modern dress”, his Danish court wearing the Sarah Lund jumpers that were all the rage at the time[3], yet that production remained traditionally “timeless”. Rather it was the interpolation of a single character that al-Bassam and critics identify as this anchoring feature in The Al-Hamlet Summit: “With the introduction of an Arms Dealer, desperately courted by each of the delegates, Shakespeare’s universe firmly enters the present day” (al-Bassam, Sabab).

So, who or what is this Arms Dealer, this Richard Roper in Elsinore, who transforms this production from being simply a modern dress appropriation with a nod to contemporary politics into an angry polemic on Western complicity and exploitation? In the original UK production, the Arms Dealer was played by a woman, Marlene Kaminsky.  She flirted with Claudius, and ingratiated herself with offers of female companionship to Gertrude, that woman trying to make it in a man’s world. “I wanted to tell you: I adore your shoes!” Kaminsky purred, knowing that nobody else would have noted them (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF). She even set herself up as a mentor to Ophelia, offering her careers advice before giving her a suicide belt. She befriended Hamlet in his rage and grief and

arms dealer

Marlene Kaminsky as the Arms Dealer in Zaoum’s 2002 English language production

dealt with the enemy, Fortinbras, too. In short, the Arms Dealer “will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents” (Holderness, Introduction). Perhaps it is more appropriate to say “especially if s/he is arming opponents”, because it is through playing the different factions against each other, be it within a family, a state or a region, that the Arms Dealer steers the action. Ophelia sums it up in the play’s first, English language incarnation:

Ophelia: Why do we entertain you here?”

Arms Dealer: I help to guarantee security.

Ophelia: What stability?

Arms Dealer: The one that allows you to carry on. Will you be going to university?

Ophelia: I don’t think we need you anymore. I want you to leave.

Arms Dealer: That’s not possible. (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF)

Nobody ever invited her; she just appeared after the funeral and moved herself in, knowing everybody’s weak points, failings or indiscretions. (There is a short montage of clips available here via the BU Global Shakespeares Seminar blogspot.)

In the later Arabic production, the Arms Dealer “morphed” into Neil Barratt’s linen suited English-speaking Englishman[4] . On the surface, this appears to be just another way to signify Otherness: where the Arms Dealer had been separated by her gender, now he is separated by language and race. Yet, as with  many of the other small changes between the two incarnations of this play, the gender change brings about significant new resonances too. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer used sexuality to ingratiate, Barratt’s to intimidate. Kaminsky’s Arms Dealer is no less violent than her male counterpart, but the violence is  different. When challenged second and third time by Ophelia to “leave now”, she has no qualms about throwing Ophelia to the floor, twisting her arm behind her back and threatening to “spread” her “pretty face across the floor” (al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF ). The same scene with Neil Barrett in role becomes sexually violent, however.

Arms Dealer: You’re so passionate! (He twists her arm and throws her  to the floor.) Oh, the sweet yelp of pain – angels of the night, hide your virgin faces; the devil has his cock up one of your flock! What do you want, Ophelia, tell me I’ll satisfy you, what is it you want? (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 34)

There is no subtlety in the analogy.  “The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer” asserts Holderness (Introduction x), in which case the West is a rapist.

male arms dealer

Mariam Ali as Ophelia and Nigel Barrett as the Arms Dealer in Sabab’s 2004 Arabic language version

Others believe they are happier bedfellows. “What do you know about phosphorous?” Hamlet asks in an unchanged scene in both versions. After the Arms Dealer has described the devastating effects of phosphorous on the bodies of a newborn baby and an old gravedigger, the prince does not hesitate: “Can you sell me some?” he says (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 21-22) Hamlet is exploited, Claudius is exploited, even Fortinbras is exploited, but these three, unlike Ophelia, raise little sympathy. Margaret Litvin notes that , represented by the Arms Dealer, “the villian […] is not Claudius’ regime but that of militarized global capitalism” (Litvin 2007), a capitalism that is thriving on willing sellers and buyers.

Identified as an interpolated character, an intruder from outside of Shakespeare’s imagined world, the Arms Dealer can, however, be seen as something more embedded in Hamlet’s Arab journey than at first meets the eye.  Sulayman al-Bassam concedes that “This is a new character, but s/he can be the Ghost or even Horatio.  He’s a combination of these floating figures that hang around Hamlet and have various agendas” (al-Bassam, It is the East Study Day: The Middle East), agendas which combine to manipulate Hamlet into a man of action/destruction. For, of the major “minor” characters in the play, Horatio is conspicuously absent. Frequently played as a “loyal friend”  and “confidant”, nevertheless,  “the role has many inconsistencies”, from placing Horatio’s age to his national origins (Thompson 143). On stage so often he cannot be doubled, moving in and out of key scenes, his presence at Elsinore is never questioned. Horatio appears to support Hamlet, yet “the King seems to regard him as an ally” (Thompson 143). And like the Arms Dealer he is the only one who “remains in place at the end” (Holderness, Introduction 13). Thus, Al-Bassam’s replacement of Horatio with the Arms Dealer does not stray so very far from its source: s/he brings out all the ambivalences latent in Hamlet’s “friend”. Those ambivalences feed back into al-Bassam’s play. “S/he is explicitly described as unbounded, opportunistic, and voracious” (Litvin pp196-219), s/he blackmails, coerces and bribes. But s/he is always welcomed back, not because of those, but because s/he has on offer what people want.

And unlike The Night Manager, there is no cathartic ending, no retribution where retribution is due, good does not overcome evil despite the odds and the losses along the way. In the post-modern political theatre of The Al-Hamlet Summit, there is no promise of Spring. Instead, just the final stage direction,  the “Arms Dealer enters and walks towards Fortinbras incredibly slowly” (al-Bassam, The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy 56)

The Arabic production is available to view in full via the MIT Global Shakespeares website here.

Endnotes

[1] Played by Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston (Prince Hal/Henry V and Coriolanus)

[2] Al-Bassam worked with a team of translators. Fluent in spoken Arabic, he writes in English (REF)

[3] See the ‘Scandi Noir’ detective drama The Killing

[4] Barrat played Claudius in the 2002 Zaoum production.

Bibliography

al-Bassam, S., 2002. The Al-Hamlet Summit PDF (no longer available). [Online]
Available at: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit
[Accessed 5 May 2012].

Al-Bassam, S., 2005. Shaikh Al-Zubair, an alibi for dissent. The Guardian, 24 July.

Al-Bassam, S., 2006. The Al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East Study Day: The Middle East. London: s.n.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. It is the East: the Middle East. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

Al-Bassam, S., 2012. The Arab Trilogy Lecture. London: Shakespeare’s Globe.

al-Bassam, S., 2014. The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney: Bloomsbury.

al-Bassam, S., n.d. Sabab. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sabab.org/the-al-hamlet-summit/
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Farr, D., 2016. Metro. [Online]
Available at: http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/21/rscs-david-farr-people-have-a-distaste-for-political-heroes-thats-why-hamlet-resonates-3552205/#ixzz45YYtoJMt
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Foster, P., 2016. The Telegraph. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/bbc/12165661/John-Le-Carre-admits-that-The-Night-Manager-needed-updating-for-modern-audiences.html
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

Gardner, L., 2004. ‘Theatre: The Al-Hamlet Summit’. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/mar/13/theatre2
[Accessed 29 December 2014].

Holderness, G., 2006. Introduction. In: The al-Hamlet Summit. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘Silence Bleeds’: Hamlet Across Borders. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2008. ‘SILENCE BLEEDS’: HAMLET ACROSS BORDERS The Shakespearean adaptations of Sulayman Al-Bassam. European Journal of English Studies, April, 12(1), pp. 59-77.

Holderness, G., 2014. Introduction. In: The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy. London, New delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury.

Kennedy, D., ed., 1993. Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance. Cambridge, New York, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Litvin, M., 2007. When the villain steals the show: the character of Claudius in post-1975 Arab(ic) Hamlet adaptations. Journal of Arabic Literature, 27 October.XXXVIII(2).

Litvin, M., 2011. Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Müller, H., 2001. The Hamletmachine, s.l.: s.n.

Schechner, R., 2006. Performance Studies: An introduction. 2nd edition ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, P. J., 2004. ‘Under Western Eyes’: Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism. Shakespeare Bulletin, Winter, 22(4), pp. 65-77.

Thompson, A., 2006. Introduction and Notes. In: A. Thompson, ed. London: Arden Shakespeare Thompson.

Wollastan, S., 2016. David Farr interviewed by Sam Wollastan. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/21/night-manager-david-farr-q-and-a
[Accessed 14 April 2016].

 

 

 

 

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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

Shakespeare in Ukraine

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

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

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)

Boys will be Girls: Propeller’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’

The Winter’s Tale directed by Edward Hall and performed by  Propeller at the Sheffield Lyceum, 4th February 2012. 

My blogging time these days is largely taken up with adding transcripts and rough drafts to my private PhD blog in preparation for meeting with my Thesis Advisory Panel at the end of the summer term.  Thus, current posts here are likely to be both brief and belated. However, I really would be missing a trick if I failed to mention the recent production of The Winter’s Tale by Propeller.

Propeller's 'The Winter's Tale' (c) Manuel Harlan

Propeller’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (c) Manuel Harlan

 Of course, it’s not intercultural, but as with Shakesqueer, I will allow myself some leeway in my blog theme by redefining the word trans-cultural to include trans-gender/cross-gender approaches.

I had heard much about this all-male company, who resist traditional travesti performance codes by neither fully inhabiting ‘femaleness’ nor by playing the (pantomime) dame. This is not to say that there is no element of drag: even (especially) without make-up or wigs, the men’s female clothing acts to re-emphasise their maleness, be it baldness or beer-gut. However,  by acting into the words, not the ‘parts’, gender – which at the outset of the performance dominates the audience’s attention in a very simplistic way – becomes increasingly problematised.  At one level, it is an irrelevance, whilst paradoxically, at another it is intensified.

Let me try to explain what I mean through example.  Hermione, played by the shorn-headed Richard Dempsey, replete with the bulging womb of a pregnant man, is both female and male.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with his wife, Leontes’ (Robert Hands’) perverse imaginings reflect back on himself, transforming the misogynistic field of his verbal abuse into one of sexual self-loathing.  Likewise, when Hermione goes on trial, in what has become the familiar performance garb of a woman who has had her child hauled from her bloody loins, the now-blunted shock of this image is sharpened through simple defamiliarisation. Dempsey, with a man’s (the guard’s?) oversized overcoat thrown over his rags, recalls an inmate of a concentration camp, stripped of all identifying features. His (her) defence is not that of a woman against a man’s tyranny, but against tyranny itself in Sicilia.

Vince Leigh’s rugby-player Paulina stands a head above all the male courtiers and speaks half an octave lower, his/her physical dominance matched by the verbal.  Ben Allen’s roles are complex: the pyjama’d man-boy Mamillius, who opens the play bewitched by a trickle of sand, becomes Time holding an hourglass, becomes Perdita, the echo of Mamillius in a dress.

Perdita and Florizel (c) Manuel Harlan

Perdita and Florizel (c) Manuel Harlan

In Bohemia, nothing is as it seems, and in this production the doubleness of this apparently bucolic paradise is doubly emphasised – and quite hilariously.  The all singing, all dancing sheep are cross-dressing men in wooly wigs and miniskirts (if  my memory serves me correctly), Camillo and Polixenes infiltrate the Glastonbury Sheep-Shearing Fest as Arkela and Brown Owl, and I’m really not sure whether Autolycus is Tom Jones or Alice Cooper.  Richard Dempsey returns as Dorcas, this time in lipstick and golden tresses and festival wellies.  And this time he really is transformed into a rather attractive and convincing woman, but this in itself, in the context of this company and this production, ensures that we never forget that he really isn’t.  However, if you ask me, Perdita and Florizel really are two boys in love, adding a whole new level of transgression to their already transgressive* relationship.  Except the transgression is not on the stage but in the eyes of the spectators.

By focussing on gender representation (or non-representation), I have of course only engaged with one facet of this production.  However, it seems to me that companies like Propeller and Two Gents Productions (coming soon!) are bringing an immediacy to Shakespeare through crossing gender boundaries in the same way that transcultured productions are actually bringing Shakespeare home.

*Re-reading this in 2018 after seeing Ben Allen in Antony and Cleopatra at the Barbican has made me realise how normalised our queer lives have become in a relatively short space of time.

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan