Global Shakespeares in the News

April 10, 2013

Written by Alexa Huang

Global Shakespeares co-founder Alex Huang and regional editor for the “Arab World” Margaret Litvin were recently interviewed on separate occasions by The Shakespeare Standard. These review and interviews are available online.

Highlights from these reviews and interviews.

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Excerpt from the Review by Josh Magsam

It’s been my experience that many open-access databases and archives often suffer in terms of ease-of-use. Curation, as digital humanists are fond of repeating, is as much an art as it is a skill, and it’s clear that the staff who curate Global Shakespeares are very good at their art. Given the not-inconsiderable size of the archive, site navigation and search filtering is a snap. The main page defaults to a grid view of the database (you can select a table view if you prefer), with most recently archived entries appearing at the top.

Users can quickly filter what they see here by restricting the view to performances of specific plays, the source language of the entry or performance, or the region of origin for the performance, as well as directly search the archive. Searches can be filtered quickly and efficiently in the same screen – no backtracking to reset search parameters, just click to add or remove filters as you wish. Inside of a minute, I was able to first search for English-language performances of Hamlet staged in North America, then North American performances in any language, and finally, Arab language performance around the world. This little exercise also underscored the non-anglophile focus of the archive, as my first search returned zero hits, the second returned just one (a trailer for Mesnak, a 2003 French-Canadian film) and four Arab productions, ranging from full video of director Hani Afifi’s 2009 stage play I Am Hamlet to a brief clip of the “to be or not to be” speech from an untitled and undated production. As a bonus, Afifi’s production is accompanied by a link to a video recording of scholar Margaret Litvin’s seminar on the production, given at Cairo University.

If, like me, your primary interest in performance relates to teaching Shakespeare’s plays in the classroom, then you’ll find plenty of exciting material to work with here. The materials archived on the site are great vehicles for getting students to consider the plays outside of euro-centric norms and perspectives. Showing a few minutes of Patrick Stewart’s performance as Macbeth can be an effective way to help students think about the impact of physical gestures, the posture and proximity of one actor or actress in relation to another, the impact of enunciation and speech volume – but it won’t easily open a conversation into the cultural implications and expectations that ground many of these elements.

Excerpt from the Interview with Margaret Litvin

Prof. Margaret Litvin with Skull

How do you incorporate the MIT Global Shakespeares website into your teaching?

The videos and contextual metadata on the MIT Global Shakespeares site give me the possibility and the confidence to teach productions outside my area of specialization, such as Wu Hsing-Kuo’s Lear is Here. I also rely on guest speakers a lot, calling in friends or colleagues to come introduce an area of their expertise, and I reciprocate whenever I can. Several of my colleagues at other universities are offering Global Shakespeares courses of their own, or, e.g., whole courses on Hamlet appropriation.  Does guest lecturing count as an instructional technology?  Well, it does when you do it over Skype because plane tickets are so expensive.  Another basic technology is email: I try to convince students that living authors are human and occasionally contactable.

What are the challenges to teaching Shakespeare in this globally minded way? Are there limitations to teaching Shakespeare though the lens of globalization?

The biggest limit is the length of the semester – “all the world in the time” as David Damrosch put it. Some of the students still wanted to spend more time close-reading the Shakespeare plays. Which is admirable in a way – and we did spend as much as we could.  Others wanted to spend less time on obscure (to them) twentieth-century works and more time on more “relatable” American adaptations, including more recent films like Almereyda’s very intricate Hamlet 2000 or even O (a high school basketball team Othello) and Ten Things I Hate About You. I tried to convince them they didn’t need a college seminar for those – they should have a film series on their own time.

What is your philosophy of teaching when it comes to Global Shakespeare? 

What English teachers have historically been good at is bringing in an adaptation and teaching students to “compare” it to Shakespeare’s “original.”  Humans are two-eyed beings, good at one-to-one comparisons.  As scholars and teachers, we find it easy and fruitful to look at Text B and ask how it revises Text A – or, if we’re especially enterprising, how it reflects Context X.  These interpretive and pedagogical habits are deeply engrained, because they work; they “teach well” and have yielded many productive readings.  But after all these years of talking about provincializing Europe, the binary approach still leaves us captive to a Prospero-and-Caliban model of reception and appropriation: modern writers responding, as though directly and in isolation, to the provocation of Shakespeare. I don’t have a background in an English department.  My background is in Arabic – and for the Arab world as well as many other non-Anglophone regions, this binary approach does not serve.  My book Hamlet’s Arab Journeyfocused on Egyptian theatre and identified the “global kaleidoscope” of influences – French, Italian, Russian, Eastern European, American, and other – through which the Arab reception of Shakespeare was filtered.  Unlike Caliban, modern Egyptian writers did not grow up on a cultural island, subject to a single dominant (British) cultural influence.  Like Hamlet rather than Caliban, they grew up in a world of competing authorities and would-be father figures; their cultural inheritance was multiple from the start.

 

Excerpt from the Interviews with Alex Huang

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Many Westerners who hear “Shakespeare” and “Asia” probably do not go beyond Kurosawa.  How can the layperson move beyond Kurosawa? Can you explain what they are missing?

Akira Kurosawa is a master filmmaker, visual artist, and storyteller, which is why his Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) are so popular. However, his postwar film versions of Macbeth and King Lear are not the earliest or the only Shakespeare films from East Asia. There is much more to Asian interpretations of Shakespeare than Kurosawa, on stage and screen, in manga, fiction, painting, and many other genres. In Japan, Yukio Ninagawa’s widely toured productions are a staple at international venues and festivals.

There are a few performances and films that can take you beyond Kurosawa. Check out these gorgeous adaptations.

The Banquet, or Legend of the Black Scorpion, dir. FENG Xiaogang (China, 2006)

This martial-arts feature film in Mandarin Chinese gives Gertrude and Ophelia, traditionally silenced women characters in Hamlet, a strong presence, though the centrality of the Gertrude figure in the film’s narrative has been seen as problematic by some critics. As a bold period epic, the film is informed by rich intertextual traces of diverse themes from Shakespearean and Chinese sources.

The Tempest, dir. OH Tae-suk (Edinburgh, U.K., and Seoul, Korea, 2011 and 2012)

Renowned South Korean stage director and playwright Oh Tae-suk mounted his version of The Tempest to critical acclaim in Edinburgh. His production offers, among other creative twists, a two-headed Caliban played by two talented actors in a suit with a pouch. Recast as a vexed character capable of recognizing his own limitations, Prospero was often challenged by the spiky-haired Miranda and worked closely with Ariel, a shaman, to manage domestic affairs. Ariel sometimes assumed a motherly role to augment the aging father’s tenuous relationship with his teenage daughter. The production deliberately avoided the tired allegory of colonialism that has often been associated with The Tempest in modern times. The performance ended on a high note. Instead of a staff and books—symbols of authority and the archival source of knowledge in an ontological sense—Prospero carried a folding bamboo fan (hapjukseon)—a symbol of artistry and intellectualism—when he was not at the drum.  The folding fan is an integral part of a gentleman’s accessories and is a more versatile prop and powerful symbol than books.

 

Are there geo-political areas where it seems Shakespeare has little or no significance? What are the limits of Global Shakespeares?

There are countries and regions in the world where Shakespeare does not figure prominently in their local cultural history. From a collector’s point of view, this is archival silence. Archival silence is useful because it compels us to rethink our criteria, frame of reference, and historiographical assumptions. For example, while post-colonial critics commonly privilege works that critique the role of Western hegemony in the historical record of globalization, the meanings of Shakespeare today are not always determined by post-colonial vocabulary or the discourses of globalization.

Well, I am disappointed, and relieved at the same time, by the fact that there are no significant “Shakespeare traditions” in the Antarctic, Greenland, or large swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa (save for South Africa). The lack of a coherent, constructed Shakespeare tradition does not mean there are no local engagements with Shakespearean material. Artistic, political, and scholarly traditions of Shakespeare in any given location should be understood in different frameworks. While there are rich references and allusions to Shakespeare and his characters in Mexican cinema, there is no local scholarly tradition of Shakespeare studies, according to Alfredo Michel Modenessi who serves on our advisory board (of Global Shakespeares).

Global Shakespeares as a critical concept and a research project have changed how we think about Shakespeare’s legacy and Shakespeare’s place in different cultural marketplaces around the world. However, “global Shakespeare” as a concept is limited—though simultaneously energized — by the competing pull of tendencies to privilege local over macro-histories, and “global Shakespeare” as a project reveals multiple geographical areas where there are no significant “Shakespeare traditions.”

 

Can you do a few top essential global Shakespeare productions (available for viewing)? 

The Speaker’s Progress, dir. Sulayman Al-Bassam (2011), inspired by Twelfth Night, in Arabic and English with English subtitles with multimedia

  • A “retired” theatre director is sent abroad with a troupe of “envoys” to defend the image of their unnamed totalitarian homeland, which has banned all theatre. They present a localized Gulf Arab version of Twelfth Night.   – from Margaret Litvin’s review of the production in Boston

Titus, dir. Julie Taymor (1999)

  • Smart interweaving of different historical periods and modes of signification. Apocalyptic humor. A must see and a major milestone in Shakespearean cinema.

Romeu e Julieta by Grupo Galpão, dir. Gabriel Villela (1992), performed at the London Globe in Brazilian Portuguese

  • Mix of comedy and tragedy, and formal and street-theatre presentational elements. Stilts, songs, and a carnivalesque atmosphere. What’s not to like?

Lear Is Here, dir. and perf. WU Hsing-kuo (2001), solo Beijing opera semi-autobiographical performance with English subtitles.

  • The Taiwan-based Beijing opera actor plays 10 roles including his alter ego on stage. This is a visually stunning and intellectually refreshing story of an Asian actor’s soul searching and his engagement with one of the most profound Shakespearean tragedies.

 

 

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