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

March 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm (Trans/Gendered Shakespeare) (, , , , , , , , )

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.

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

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

 

However, I really would be missing a trick if I failed to mention the recent production of The Winter’s Tale by Propeller.

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…

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.

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan

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