Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Review of Richard III from the 2013 Bitola Shakespeare Festival

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

The expectant audience for the Bitola Festival’s Richard III had been brought up to speed by Henry VI Parts One and Three earlier in the week (the scheduled production of Part Two from Tirana was unable to come at the last moment). But even if they hadn’t seen these shows, spectators needn’t have worried. The National Theatre of China’s dazzling production made clear the narrative of Richard’s bloody rise and fall within the pivotal end of the War of the Roses and beginning of the new Tudor dynasty through superb visual story-telling.

Director Wang Xiaoying drew in Western spectators to his transcultural production with visual recollections of familiar Richard III scenarios. A brief martial dumbshow of the Yorkists defeating the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury (the closing battle of 3 Henry VI) opened the performance, followed by the extra-textual spectacle of Edward IV being enthroned. This is the backstory and mise en scène of traditional Richard IIIs such as Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film. Here it was clothed in gorgeous Chinese costumes before a white-curtain backdrop, on which were written theme-words in English (e.g. Lie, Kill, Power, Having, Benefit, Curse) and Chinese-looking characters. These, as Lee Chee Keng and Alexander Huang have each explained, are square-word calligraphy by visual artist Xu Bing that fragments rather than translates the English words.[1]

A further closing allusion to Olivier framed Wang’s artful blending of performance traditions. After Richmond’s army ritually encircled and stabbed Richard with their pikes, the latter rolled from the raised throne onto the orchestra of the open-air amphitheatre. For a second or two, the only sound was the naturalistic gritting of a body and clothes on the stone floor. Richard’s final body-shape in his protean repertoire was lying on his back, head slightly up, looking at a raised red-gloved hand, which slowly crimped in pain and collapsed. Only Olivier’s cross-hilted sword was missing from this silhouette.

The 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre in the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis (“Hercules [in the] the land of the lynx”) was a fortuitous choice for Wang’s stage interpretation. It went against English tradition by enhancing Margaret’s Shakespearian role as a Senecan tragic nemesis (a statue of the goddess was dug up at the amphitheatre and is displayed in Heraclea’s museum). Margaret (She Nannan) first appeared as one of three masked witches to prophesy, Macbeth-like, after Richard’s opening soliloquy. Later she emerged semi-blind with a stick to curse the Yorkist court, accompanied by occasional deep-bass rumbles suggestive of the earth gaping. Richard and an even more aloof Buckingham (Wu Xiaodong) listened impassively to their destinies, others nervously. Each time one met his or her fate, Margaret would walk up to the bottom tier of the elevated theatre seats and stand menacingly spotlit (and, from where I was sitting that night, with a full moon rising over her head). She gloated what seemed like a Chinese version of “I told you so!” and then slunk down to await the next domino. Satiated after Richard had fallen, her wailing voice could be heard in the distance over the remains of Heraclea.

Zhang Dong-Yu’s Richard was a slyly amusing villain and consummate physical actor. He hunchbacked himself only when he disclosed his thoughts to us, or when creeping from behind the back-curtain and pausing to listen (like Margaret). Joining the action, he straightened up to dissimulate in a naturalistic acting mode. The flexible power of his body suggested a modern kind of charisma when interlocutors such as Lady Anne (Zhang Xin) responded in classical Chinese-opera (Xi qu) gestures and sliding-tone voices.

Richard inevitably dominates the play, but in this beautifully disciplined and dynamic production he was also just one member of a virtuoso company presenting superbly individualized characters. Two delights were the comic-acrobat executioners (Xu Meng Ke and Cai Jin Chao), who presented themselves to Richard for Clarence’s murder with a breathtaking line of cartwheels. Wang cleverly used their vaulting humour to represent the whole class of aspiring henchmen who dispose of Richard’s enemies. Their more somber signature was mechanically drawing a large black veil over the next dead man walking.

I’d love to describe all the performances of this bravura production (performed by most actors doubling or tripling roles). But in this space I’ll mention just two more. Zhang Xin, who played Lady Anne, also played Prince Edward in what sounded to me like a deliberately grating Chinese-opera voice. Dressed differently from the rest of the company’s long-sleeved gowns, in cavalry boots and carrying a horsewhip, Zhang’s character (according to Lee Chee Keng) was that of a wu sheng (young warrior). But it was harder to know what to make of the two thin two-metre long pheasant plumes that sprang from his head. To me they looked like antennae and made the boy-prince look like a fantastic cricket. Possibly they were similar to the ostrich feathers worn in European military helmets. But they weren’t just decorative. Prince Edward used them to gesticulate his cheeky loquacity. Constantly quivering, the “antennae” suggested the buzzing energy that Richard was soon to stamp out. Theatrically they produced an image of thought-provoking estrangement that was characteristic of this production’s intelligent interlacing of Western and Chinese cultural signs.

Li JianPeng’s Richmond re-directed history like a force of nature. Freed from the iconic piety and chivalric ironies of Shakespeare’s text, he seemed to strike even more fear into Richard than the chorus of colourfully masked ghosts who haunted him before Bosworth. His fully embodied performance, like that Zhang and their NTC colleagues, highlighted the universality and uniqueness of individual physical expression that underpins culturally specific stagings of Shakespeare around the world.

[1] I am indebted to Lee and Huang for such details. Lee Chee Keng , “Performing Cultural Exchange in Richard III,” Shakespeare Beyond English: A Global Experiment, ed. Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming August 2013), 75-82; Alexa Huang, ‘“What Country, Friends, Is This?’: Touring Shakespeares, Agency, and Efficacy in Theatre Historiography,” Theatre Survey 54.1 (January 2013), 51-85.



“Villain, thou knowest no law of God nor man” (1.2.68).
Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


“Thus high by thy advice / And thy assistance is King Richard seated” (4.2.203). Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


“Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray / To have him suddenly conveyed away” (4.4.70-71).
Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


“Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. / Fainting, despair. Despairing, yield thy breath” (5.4.150-51).
Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


“Courageous Richmond, well hast thou acquit thee” (5.7.3).
Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


“Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord, / That would reduce these bloody days again / And make poor England weep in streams of blood” (5.7.35-37).
Photo: Kosta Dupcinov


Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His books include Henry VI Part Three (ed. 2001), Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (2008), Shakespeare / Adaptation / Modern Drama (co-ed. with Katherine Scheil, 2011) and Shakespeare and Ecology (2015).



Review of Poor Poor Lear from the 2013 Bitola Shakespeare Festival

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

The audience was waiting to get into the basement playing space of the National Theatre. Behind the door an old woman’s voice screamed “Go away!” The door opened. “Oh, welcome my friends!” The 90-year Nina Sallinen appeared in faded white shoes and stockings, a long 1960s coat, yellowed lace collars, stained white leather gloves, and wild hair. Excitedly she escorted us into “the unfair, cruel, sad, story of poor King Lear!”, as it said on the hand-scrawled programme notes she handed out.

A few pieces of lace-covered of furniture are scattered across her small spare flat, including a dining table with bread cut, a toaster, and burn marks above it on the wall. Several b&w stage photos of the famous actor hang around the room. There are also two front–row chairs with the names of Nina’s daughters posted on the back. Because this performance is for them.

In this tragi-comic tour de force, Nina Sallinen journeys through a highly subjective, hugely entertaining, and increasingly confessional version of King Lear. Her performance is meant to be a guilt-trip for her two daughters, to whom she recently signed over her flat to avoid death-duties. Now they and their husbands are trying to get her into a nursing home after a fiery incident with the toaster. A bitter offstage phone call with a one daughter and a screaming match with a bewildered man sent to move her furniture makes it clear Nina isn’t leaving before she gets revenge – with us as sympathetic witnesses. After tearing up the names on the two chairs, an old felt hat becomes Regan, a doll Goneril, and a white rose Cordelia, followed by self-justifying visits to her heartless daughters. A blaring hair-dryer becomes her storm. Nina’s rage against filial ingratitude breaks off just before Shakespeare’s Lear recognizes the humanity of his fellow sufferers. She offers us Turkish delight and lemonade – really! — and then goes off to rest.

It’s difficult to do justice to Sallinen’s mesmerizing, hilarious, and moving performance. Her voice roars, cracks, sobs, howls, and shamelessly importunes. Her tottering bustle, cackling energy, and costly little outbursts of physical exertion – as when she gives the suitcase for visits to her daughters a swift kick, or strains up or down from her sofa — are riveting. Perhaps the greatest success of her show is the skill with which she walks a fine line between the moving pathos of a lonely old woman trapped by memories of former glamour, and maudlin self-pity. Sallinen balances Nina’s vanity and vulnerability flawlessly.

Nina returns to admit her dramatic ruse has failed. Now more relaxed in a vintage nightgown (with a large ironing burn on the back), she tries to salvage the evening by reading Lear’s awakening reunion with Cordelia, where, in her view, Lear’s admission of wrong deserves and receives unconditional forgiveness. But lacking a third daughter, she sits on the sofa and slowly lays bare her guilt at sacrificing the full-time care of her children for her stage career. In perhaps the most beautiful line of the play, she confesses she needed recognition of the “world of possibilities in my self.” She invites us to become the petals of her white rose by tapering off into silence and searching the eyes of spectators for a good 30 seconds. Suddenly reverting to her old ego, her project seems to fail. But in a final show of Sallinen’s dizzying intermingling of stage illusion and theatrical reality, our standing ovation appears to give her the redemption Nina craves.

Nina Sallinen's Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen’s Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen's Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen’s Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen's Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen’s Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen's Poor Poor Lear

Nina Sallinen’s Poor Poor Lear


Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His books include Henry VI Part Three (ed. 2001), Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (2008), Shakespeare / Adaptation / Modern Drama (co-ed. with Katherine Scheil, 2011) and Shakespeare and Ecology (2015).


Review of Romeo and Juliet from the 2013 Bitola Shakespeare Festival

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Last night the local mayor who had once played Hamlet in the state theatre inaugurated the first Bitola Shakespeare Festival. It opened grandly with a bilingual Macedonian and Russian production of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Vera Komissarzhevskaya Theatre, St Petersburg and the National Theatre Bitola.

The 850-seat theatre – the largest of the National Theatre’s stage spaces — shaped much of the production’s action and meaning. Opening to the frenetic rhythms of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed fighting between darkly dressed corps of Capulets and Montagues established an aesthetic of classical ballet or grand opera. This formality was matched by a huge multilevel Roman proscenium that filled the entire back wall of the stage. It recalled the 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre in nearby Heraclea Lyncestis, thus suggesting continuity between Bitola’s ancient dramatic heritage and its vibrant modern theatre culture.

At first I found that the vast playing space and highly wrought movements made it difficult to engage with emotions of the characters. But as the performance continued it seemed to me that director Dejan Projkovski was using the distancing effects of physical scale and conscious artistry strategically. As the classical proscenium also suggested, his production framed Shakespeare’s play as a tragedy of fate. The irreducibly conflicted circumstances of the lovers’ world ultimately dominates their efforts to transcend it through romantic love.

Romeo’s journey was accordingly one of existentially crushed rather than defiant aspirations. He began far differently from the self-absorbed melancholic of Shakespeare’s text. Nearly as cocky as Mercutio, Romeo needed little persuading to gate-crash the Capulet’s ball. The Queen Mab speech declared their shared need for constant physical and imaginative stimulation. Along with an equally laddish Benvolio, they mocked their hosts by mimicking a little tea party, pinkies foppishly extended, exchanging pleasantries in English accents. But afterwards Romeo read the tea leaves in his cup, momentarily shaken by the dark future they appeared to presage.

Juliet was also a departure from the bashful 13-yr old of traditional productions. She was delighted by her mother’s talk of marriage to Paris, girlishly excited to try on a fine wedding veil. In her well-mannered way she had absorbed the Nurse’s fantasies of marriage as a golden social and erotic opportunity. During the ball, danced to the ironic music of Prokofiev’s feud, Romeo appeared to transfer his affections from Rosaline to Juliet seamlessly. Yet later Rosaline appeared to speak an invented monologue which seemed to curse his betrayal. (I could only gather an impression because I don’t know the Russian spoken by the Capulets or the Macedonian spoken by the Montagues.)

When the lovers first encountered each other, Romeo was physically bold, even slightly aggressive, while Juliet’s interplay of hands seemed as eagerly exploratory as modestly shielding. At their parting she even stole a chaste kiss from him. For the balcony scene, Projkovski used the large space of the theatre to show the gulf between the feuding families being symbolically bridged. Juliet appeared at a window in the backstage proscenium, while Romeo lay on his back in the middle of stalls, spotlit, before advancing to the stage during his alternating monologues with Juliet. Then, addressing Romeo directly, she joined him at centre stage and took the lead physically and verbally in arranging their clandestine marriage.

In the consummation scene that followed Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, the lovers lay embraced at the centre-stage crossroads. Falling rose petals (later doubling as gouts of blood) were projected onto the proscenium as soft Prokofiev strings played in the background. For a few lovely minutes, lyricism competed with temporal and worldly ironies. But ultimately, I felt, the operatic aesthetic dwarfed the spoken expression of the moment, making it more aesthetically than emotionally engaging. The effect of distance again pointed towards Projkovski’s interpretation. Even in this most intimate of scenes, the lovers were always struggling to resist a star-crossing fate insistently expressing itself in stylized anticipations of death.

The effect on Romeo was to transform him from a young man of boundless self-confidence into a shattered lover. I thought he captured this change most sharply when he came to Friar Lawrence in despair after his banishment. Although Lawrence managed to thwart Romeo’s thoughts of suicide, it was the Nurse to whom he turned for real if temporary comfort. Like a hurt little boy, he clutched her skirts and allowed her to cradle him in the same way that she had soothed the distraught Juliet in the scene before.

But unlike Romeo, Juliet moved on from this moment. Her struggles were more authentically embodied, and spectators could feel her determined emotions because she connected directly with audience, above all in her moving soliloquy, ‘Gallop apace, ye fiery footed steeds.’ Speaking from the stage apron, she downsized the anticipated big aria. Her hopes and fears were persuasively nuanced because they came from within. When she was abused in turns by her brutal father and the sexually rapacious Paris, Juliet worked her body in beautifully supple ways to express both her inner distress and fierce resolve to seek her own way.

Both lovers’ journeys were partly redirected, however, by the production’s biggest change to Shakespeare’s script. A gloomy Friar Lawrence, appearing more burdened by life’s miseries than hopeful by his religion, gave Juliet the sleeping potion to allow her to avoid consummating marriage with Paris rather than to enable a complicated future reunion with Romeo. The business of misdirected letters and the apothecary was cut (or, our knowledge assumed), so that the action moved directly from Juliet’s funeral to the lovers’ final private encounter in the tomb. Overwhelmed by grief at the sight of Juliet’s apparently lifeless body, Romeo swallowed poison and collapsed disconsolate. Juliet woke up to match his sacrifice with one quiet thrust of her lover’s dagger as she lay stretched upon him. The relative restraint of this ending generated genuine emotional power. But in keeping with the production overall, its ambiguity as a sacrifice allowed the play’s wider conflicted world to prevail, as the grief-stricken Montagues and Capulets made only tentative gestures of reconciliation before a helpless Prince and silent Friar Lawrence.


Romeo and Juliet, dir. Dejan Projkovski

Romeo and Juliet, dir. Dejan Projkovski

Romeo and Juliet, dir. Dejan Projkovski

Romeo and Juliet, dir. Dejan Projkovski


Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His books include Henry VI Part Three (ed. 2001), Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (2008), Shakespeare / Adaptation / Modern Drama (co-ed. with Katherine Scheil, 2011) and Shakespeare and Ecology (2015).


Review of Henry VI Part Three from the 2013 Bitola Shakespeare Festival

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

What does it feel like to watch Shakespeare’s darkest story of civil war in a region whose past and recent history has been written by endemic conflict? Bitola’s Henry VI Part Three gave an affective answer. When I saw this show at year’s Globe to Globe, I was thrilled by its kinetic dynamism and visual translation of Shakespeare’s poetic imagery. All those elements impressed me again last night.

But the Macedonian audience and theatre space also made this performance moving in a specially grounded way. The Bitola actors reached far beyond the surface brutality and lamentations of Shakespeare’s script, whose repeated death scenes can begin to feel numbing in lesser productions. Under John Blondell’s creatively focused direction, they kept our hearts and minds engaged through continual sharply meaningful contrasts of violence, sardonic comedy, and lyricism.

The fighting looked and sounded different within the Bitola stage’s hard shiny walls and crashing metal doors, through which one caught occasional glimpses of a primitive open-mouthed raven on the back wall. Battle scenes were effectively stylized and individualized, danced or mimed to varied Macedonian folk-rhythms. In the first of these (Wakefield), soldiers in black muscle-shirts bashed, parried, and stabbed imaginary enemies with tribal-looking wooden staves in slow motion, suggesting the anthropological layers of Balkan wars.

The heart of this production’s political satire was the hilarious scene at King Lewis’s court, which also showcased its corps of powerful women (or cross-cast men). There Queen Margaret (Gabriela Petrushkevska) and Prince Edward (Nikolche Projchevski) have retreated after Henry’s defeat. Clowning Macedonian servants led by the superb comic timing of Ogden Drangovski (also a wired and lanky King Edward) downed a few rounds to spirited Macedonian music before the aristos enter. Margaret, losing self-discipline for the first time, chases her bitterness with rakija, while her bratty son switches from an endless stash of boiled sweets to the hard stuff. Warwick (an intense Sonja Mihajlova throughout the play) and Margaret clash. The coquettish Lady Bona (Valentina Gramosli, later doubling as the sexually and maternally ambitious Lady Grey) gyrates her fantasies of royal marriage to the new English king. Lewis (Kristina Hristova Nikolova) aggressively fondles Prince Edward (the Globe production went no further), finally shoving his head between her legs for some extended pleasure. Letters of Edward’s impetuous marriage to Lady Grey arrive. Margaret turns furiously sober, Lewis is outraged (by what interruption?), Bona wails, and Prince E fumbles gallantry to his new father-in-law Warwick, now fiercely but tragically vengeful.

Much of Bitola’s musical irony and tenderness had to do with the heightened impact of the piano and strings, repositioned downstage from their more peripheral placement at the Globe. Quiet reveries created otherworldly juxtapositions, such as when the York brothers wonder at the three suns that appear before they learn of their father’s savage death, or when they arabesqued floating black balloons before the final slaughters at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Pulsating rhythms drove the traditional Macedonian oro, danced in a circle by soldiers around Margaret, who was spiraled into tragic vertigo in her flaming red dress. Perhaps the most powerful marriage of music and movement was Warwick’s threnody, which transformed the worldly farewell of Shakespeare’s text into a spinning bridal folkdance.

I’ve written elsewhere about last year’s Globe production and could say much more about this locally nuanced performance in Bitola. But for reasons of space I’ll leave that to a future piece about the Festival overall.

Randall Martin

Randall Martin with the director

3 Henry VI

Henry VI Part Three, dir. John Bondell

3 Henry VI

Henry VI Part Three, dir. John Bondell


Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His books include Henry VI Part Three (ed. 2001), Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (2008), Shakespeare / Adaptation / Modern Drama (co-ed. with Katherine Scheil, 2011) and Shakespeare and Ecology (2015).


Shakespeare’s Shadow: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear at the Globe

Monday, August 17th, 2015


“KING LEAR: Who is it that can tell me who I am?

FOOL: Lear’s shadow.”[1]


In 2012, the Belarus Free Theatre participated in the Globe to Globe festival, staging King Lear in Belarusian, radically edited and modernized. The choice to use Belarusian as the primary language of this performance was a daring one, for it is a language that does not exist in a single accepted version and, even within Belarus, is frequently superseded by Russian. An online comment posted under a 2012 review in The Guardian offers a vivid example of indifferent dismissal that such a choice might have produced: “I can imagine few things worse than being subject to Shakespeare in Belarusian. Honestly who’s interested?”[2]

The public response to the decision to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage emphasizes the difficulties accompanying a former Soviet republic’s emergence onto the global stage. According to some reports, the Russian-speaking diaspora in London was unenthusiastic about attending a performance in one of the “minor” languages (due, one may guess, to the general idea that Belarusian is somehow less culturally significant than Russian, and perhaps to the potential viewers’ doubts about their ability to follow the text).[3] Reviews in English, while generally laudatory, also tended to perceive the choice of language as detracting from the authenticity of performance. In his online review, a freelance theatre critic Andrew Haydon commented that “the language into which the text has been rendered is demotic, not poetic,” despite, presumably, not actually having command of the language.[4] A year later, when the performance came back to the Globe, Laura Mooney called it “Shakespeare largely without Shakespeare, with all those famous speeches being, from an English-speaking audience member’s perspective at least, absent.”[5] As these comments demonstrate, the Global Shakespeare project depends, to a large extent, on the English-speaking audience’s openness to polyglossia and continuous cultural exchange.

As it turned out, many people were interested. In September 2013, the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear was brought back to the Globe to glowing reviews. Produced by a theatre exiled from Belarus (the country sometimes called the last dictatorship in Europe), this performance speaks directly to the questions that emerge, again and again, in Global Shakespeare discussions. Is Shakespeare in translation still Shakespeare? Are the tensions of early modern play really best accessed through painstaking reproduction of the text, however it is defined, with period-appropriate costumes, props, and decorations, or through participating in an ongoing dialogue with present-day socio-political issues?[6] The Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear reaches beyond the “authentic historical Shakespeare” construct, frees the play from the constricting framework of expectations formed over centuries of Western performance and criticism, and brings together a varied array of histories to re-create potent Shakespearean drama for the twenty-first century stage. Intensely metatheatrical, this production repurposes the long Soviet history of making ideological use of Shakespeare to interrogate the performances of totalitarian power in present-day Belarus.

The Belarus Free Theatre draws simultaneously on Soviet and post-Soviet practices of reading and performing Shakespeare, and on the resonances between Lear’s fractured country and the contemporary states created after the USSR collapse in 1991. By explicitly situating the production within a non-Western literary tradition, the creators of the production are able to transcend the limitations identified by Susan Bennett in the second chapter of her monograph, entitled Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. In that chapter, Bennett explores the proliferation of King Lear productions in order, as she puts it, “To focus on Shakespeare’s particular contribution to the macro-nostalgia of contemporary culture.”[7] At the end of the chapter, she concludes that Western or Westernized performances of this play are incapable of challenging the existing power structures:

In a traditional horizon of expectations, it performs a nostalgic identification with greatness – of the text, of Shakespeare, of the history of its mainstream, productions and those who have directed and acted in the play, and of the audiences who recognize those values. The play provides an explicit illustration of the containing impulses of Shakespeare as cultural heritage.[8]

And yet, post-Soviet context offers to Shakespeare – and King Lear in particular, as a play so closely concerned with considerations of power – the possibility of being unmoored from this horizon of expectation. The play, to be sure, is still very much identified with greatness and viewed as cultural heritage, but the origins of such cultural heritage, the credentials of heirs, and the laws of inheritance have grown muddled. The term “nostalgic,” when applied to the claims made on Shakespeare as cultural property by present-day Russian-speaking countries, has become tremendously complicated. The post-Soviet audience can hardly be suspected of longing for early modern England: their imaginings of the good old Britannia, if any, are rooted in the nineteenth-century novel.

If, for such an audience, the history of the play is radically mediated by the seventy years of communist rules, what values do they recognize in a performance? It is not surprising that, in his overview of Hamlet in Russia, Peter Holland wrote tersely that “The Russian construction […] is neither Shakespeare’s nor our own,” suggesting that the function of the play in Russia is “fragmentary and referential, deriving from an accumulative cultural meaning, which may have only tangential links to the original play.”[9] Holland’s phrasing views “Russian Shakespeare” (an umbrella term that covers, in a swoop, the period from the eighteenth century to the last years of the Soviet Union) as both exotic and marginal, positioning it outside of the dichotomy of “original Shakespeare” and the Western “we” (which presumably interprets the original in a more acceptable manner). Speaking from this marginal position, and disrupting the easy pleasures of nostalgic identification with greatness, post-Soviet productions can complicate the idea of Shakespeare as cultural heritage and mobilize the destabilizing potential of Shakespearean drama.

Consider, for instance, the exchange between Lear and Goneril in Act 1, scene 4, where the king famously complains of being unable to recognize himself, and begs to be told who he is. In the English text (the 1623 Folio version), the Fool’s mocking response is: “Lear’s shadow” (ll. 214-215). In the Belarus Free Theatre production, however, the Fool quips: “Цень атца Гамлета!” [Hamlet’s father’s shadow].[10] This unexpected substitution transforms the line into a catchphrase harking back to the nineteenth-century Russian translations of Hamlet. The translations by Nikolai Polevoy (1837) and Andrei Kroneberg (1844) used the one-syllable Russian word “тень” [shadow] to refer to the ghost.[11] The phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” subsequently passed into Russian language as an idiomatic expression, suggesting overly dramatic self-presentation, and is occasionally used to refer to a vagabond or idle loiterer.

This bold refashioning move creates a moment of intertextual vertigo, pointing, on the one hand, to the status of Shakespearean drama as monolithic cultural capital, with disparate lines and characters merging together, in the public mind, into a continuous outpouring of universal truth. From this point of view, it is indeed difficult to distinguish between the two great shadows. On the other hand, the common usage of this phrase specifically in Soviet and post-Soviet context serves to undercut the idea of universal truth and applicability: in this metatheatrical moment, the audience is reminded that Shakespeare inexorably seeps into the popular culture, giving rise to a series of idiomatic expressions and widely known quotations, but that popular culture, in turn, inevitably colours our understanding of Shakespearean drama. Rather than search for the elusive authentic Shakespeare, the Belarus Free Theatre builds popular culture into the production, endowing the characters with painful awareness of their own cultural significance and transforming Shakespeare, from precious heritage, into hotly contested strategic territory.

“Truth in the Presentation of Life and Man”: Shakespeare in the Soviet Union

Post-Soviet theatre has a complex relationship with Shakespeare: emerging from the Soviet view of Shakespearean drama as the paragon of realistic writing, it draws on these conventions both to reassess the Soviet past and develop various forms of national identity. Staging Shakespeare in the Soviet Union was intricate and often risky business. As early as 1930s, with the advent of socialist realism, Shakespeare was hailed as one of the great realist playwrights, well deserving of being celebrated, emulated, and staged. Soviet criticism, built on the foundation of communist ideology, postulated that for any literary text, there existed a single correct interpretation, informed by the critic’s grasp of “real life” (which usually translated to the current ideological stance on such things as politics, social issues, or history). Accordingly, all performances of Shakespeare’s drama could be evaluated on the basis of how closely they have come to replicating this perfect reading of the play on-stage. A pamphlet by Mikhail Morozov (a famous Soviet Shakespeare scholar), published in English in 1947 with a preface by Dover Wilson, witnesses to the efforts exerted by USSR Theatrical Society (V.T.O.) to ensure that performances introduced no ideologically unsound elements and did not stray far from the sanctioned version of reality.[12] As Morozov explains, the primary value of Shakespearean drama for the Soviet audiences lay in its “Truth in the presentation of life and man.”[13] A particular production could thus be criticized for its failure to display the ultimate truth about human existence as discovered through the October Revolution: Nikolai Akimov’s production of Hamlet (Vakhtangov Theatre, 1932) is described as being “far removed from life” and therefore unsuccessful.[14]

In a very real sense, Shakespearean drama functioned in the Soviet Union as an instrument, however arbitrary and flawed, of creating a distinct post-revolutionary culture based on “true” understanding of the world, and identifying those who presumably lacked the capacity to become part of this culture. As such, theatrical productions and scholarly articles participated in one of the key trends underwriting the Soviet ideology – the ongoing effort to cleanse the new society by purging socially alien citizens, or those who were perceived as threatening to the new ideology due to their ancestry, past activities, or present-day convictions. This effort continued, in different forms and with varying intensity, from the October Revolution of 1917 and until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, through the purges of 1930s, cosmopolitanism persecutions of 1940s, post-Thaw crackdowns of 1960s, and so on.[15]

In the last decades of the Soviet Union, this concern with forms of belonging, and with one’s relationship to “truth,” was no longer strictly controlled by the official ideology.[16] In fact, Alexei Yurchak demonstrates that in its late stages, Soviet culture – while still operating on the principle of inclusion/exclusion – did not primarily rely on ideological distinctions but on the highly ritualized forms of social discourse linked to political and cultural concerns. In this dense cultural medium composed, as it still is, of immediately recognizable quotations and references, Shakespeare grew unmoored from the official doctrine and thus became available to those questioning the regime. Still, those seeking to resist the Soviet ideology and respond to the decades of state terror by re-appropriating Shakespeare and discovering the “real” significance of his works operated within the same horizon of expectations. Their refashioning deployed the same ideologically informed reading mode which posited Shakespeare, “accurately” interpreted, as the means of accessing some higher truth.

A well-known example of such refashioning is Yuri Liubimov’s production of Hamlet in the Taganka Theatre, with the idolized song-writer, bard, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky in the main role, which explicitly linked Shakespearean drama to resisting the regime. This innovative production ran for almost nine years, terminating only with the death of Vysotsky in 1980, and became a symbol of resistance against the stifling state. The performance opened with Boris Pasternak’s famous poem, entitled “Hamlet,” originally written in 1946 and later appended to the novel Doctor Zhivago. This novel, of course, was banned from publication in the Soviet Union and, after having been smuggled out of the country and published in Milan in 1957, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The speaker of the poem, presumably the writer himself, closely identifies with Hamlet, and the enthusiastic audience response suggests that the concerns of a lonely Soviet poet wandering dangerous ideological terrain were immediately identifiable with the doubts of the Danish Prince. Immense popularity of Liubimov and Vysotsky’s production demonstrates that the perceived potential of Shakespearean drama as a vehicle for ideological doubt only increased with time, even as such potential remained solidly rooted in the Soviet reading practices. Based on the premise that Shakespeare’s works could grant access to some sort of objective truth about the world and social transformations, this approach perpetuated the ideologically enforced modes of engaging with literature and theatre even as it fought against the Soviet cultural project.

Today, Shakespearean drama retains this significance in post-Soviet culture: it is still frequently treated as a viable link to historical and spiritual truth both by those seeking to move fully beyond the Soviet past and by those ardently wishing for the purportedly purer morals of the Soviet period. There are some rather startling recent instances of this view in action. Twenty years after the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Schigolev, a political activist in the Komi Republic (part of the Russian Federation), lodged a lawsuit against the V. Savin Theatre of Academic Drama, claiming 10,000 roubles in moral damages after watching a performance of Hamlet on November 5, 2011 (directed by Oleg Nagornichnyi). In his initial claim, Schigolev described his “complete disenchantment regarding professionalism and spiritual standing” of the theatre, and his “inner turmoil” caused by this modernized staging of the play.[17] Predictably pointing to the key authority of Soviet theatre, he explained that Konstantin Stanislavski would criticize this sort of production, where “bad or incorrect acting does not create an impression of reality” (italics mine); ultimately, however, the issue at stake was the “debasement/degradation of Shakespeare and of the respectable audience.” Schigolev eventually lost his suit, but not until after a formal hearing was held in December 2011, at which he again emphasized his fears that uncontrolled and unconstrained theatrical performance could cause severe moral degradation in the members of the audience and the entire community. In response, experts suggested that, since Shakespeare neglected to specify the precise dating of events in Hamlet, the action of the play could, hypothetically speaking, be taking place in any century. They further argued that the plot of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare and, in any case, the production used Pasternak’s somewhat free-handed translation.[18]

The seriousness with which this case was treated clearly demonstrates that in post-Soviet space, Shakespearean drama remains, to an extent, a sacred political property. A stand against “perverting” this sacred property is still seen as a means to bolster one’s influence, and testimony of experts is required to prove that no perversion has taken place. At the same time, Soviet constructs of Shakespeare, deployed by those wishing to question the current socio-political situation on the post-Soviet territory, become a powerful instrument of challenging the status quo, and an informed engagement with Shakespearean drama can enable a theatre to mount a penetrating critique of the state.

The Case of Belarus: Unstable Pasts, Unheard Voices

Belarus presents a particularly interesting case, since, of all the states formed after 1991, it remains one of the most Soviet. Having assumed control in 1994, the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka still rules the state with an iron hand: elections are rigged, opponents disappear, and theatres are under strict governmental control.[19] At the same time, Belarus continues to struggle with developing a strong national identity, with the continuing debate over the issues of national language and history. In his overview of Belarusian history, Andrew Wilson emphasizes just how fraught with difficulty the issue is: as a traditionally multi-confessional territory located at crossroads and becoming the terrain for multiple wars, drastically affected by the decades of the Soviet regime, with the etymology of its name still in dispute, Belarus lacks solid accumulation of history on which to found its nationhood.[20] The situation is further problematized by the fact that the numbers of people able to speak Belarusian fluently are decreasing, and there are three versions of the language in existence.[21]

The desire and ability to speak Belarusian, as well as the participation in the search for national identity, are obviously not unconnected to the desire for political influence. As Elena Gapova suggests, the pursuit of a national identity clearly originating from pre-Soviet history reflects the interests of the intellectual class, who are concerned with “a general restructuring of political and intellectual spaces” and, moreover, with “opportunities to bring a different group of people into power nationally, to enter the global intellectual market, and to become international players in this field.”[22] These concerns rarely align with the priorities of the general Belarusian population, frequently uninterested either in recovering the pure and authentic national language or in reaching for a national history beyond the Soviet period. The quest for retrieving a solidly defined, uniquely Belarusian past to fuel a passionate sense of united nationhood is, in other words, always doomed to failure. The alternative to this quest, however, is polyglossia: embracing the multiplicity of competing voices (and languages), while acknowledging that no single, stable version of the past may be established.

In a recent essay, Simon Lewis describes the “Belarusian memoryscape” as “haunted not so much by fantastic beasts, as by faint, indistinct echoes of unremembered pasts.”[23] The present project of cultural construction must, as Lewis puts it, reach “beyond a zero-sum game of the politics of national memory” and beyond the insistence that a persuasive version of the national past can and must be uncovered. The case for Belarusian cultural autonomy is to be made not through locating and defending a specific version of its past as a pre-Soviet nation, but through “cosmopolitanization of mourning,” whereby the present is able to establish a conversation with the diverse whispers of multiple “unremembered pasts.”[24] In Lewis’s vision, the local and the global are conflated, and memory is able to “cross boundaries between fact and fiction, across geo-political borders, and in historical time.”[25] Claims to Belarusian cultural autonomy are thus made not through discovering (or creating) a perfectly defined, unique past, but by permitting a multilingual chorus of echoing voices, all equally privileged.

With its considerations of national history and political conflict, as a play (in Bennett’s words) of nostalgia, King Lear is perfectly positioned to serve as a space for these conversations. The Belarus Free Theatre’s performance evokes the Soviet uses of Shakespeare to bolster the state authority and the dissident subversion of these uses while, at the same time, responding to the socio-political situation in post-Soviet Belarus y incorporating traditionally Belarusian clothes and props. The decision of the Belarus Free Theatre to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage, and to use more than one dialect, further adds to the sense of polyglossia: multiple versions of reality are competing for representation but ultimately cannot be untangled from one another. As Keren Zaiontz puts it, “the Belarus Free Theatre’s performance of King Lear in Belarusian does not signal the promotion of national cohesion but national rebellion” against the current political situation.[26] Even as this performance must acknowledge the haunting presence of convoluted post-Soviet nostalgia, it ultimately deploys Shakespearean drama to work toward cosmopolitanization of memory and a national identity based on free cultural exchange.

King Lear and the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945)

As the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear opens, the first person on stage is Edmund: he is sitting on a low stool and peeling potatoes into a bucket. His shorn head, black army boots, and an outfit visually alluding to a uniform all suggest that he is serving time in the military. Both Kent and Gloucester have to wheel themselves onto the stage using their mobility devices: their outfits and behaviour signal that these men are military veterans. This opening explicitly gestures at the post-Soviet longing for the lost identity as an ideologically unified and formidable nation by making numerous allusions to the Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War (the part of the World War II that specifically involved the USSR, beginning with the German invasion of its territory in 1941). Immediately following the invasion, the war became a fruitful opportunity for intense myth-making, generating such potent models of Soviet resilience and martyrdom as Alexey Meresyev, the hero of Boris Polevoy’s canonical novel The Story of a Real Man (Повесть о настоящем человеке, 1946), and Aleksandr Matrosov, popularized by Leonid Lukov’s film Private Aleksandr Matrosov (Солдат Александр Матросов, 1947).[27] In addition to encouraging self-sacrifice, both in military encounters and on the occupied territories, this myth-making was used to counter the sense of alienation in individual republics and present the unified Soviet people rising as a single body to defend their motherland. After the victory of 1945, the memory of the Great Patriotic War became the single most significant aspect of the Soviet national identity: not only did it serve to reinforce the image of the USSR as a valiant nation under constant threat from the West but, simultaneously, was used to dismiss any challenges to the official ideology.[28] As a study by Zhan T. Toshchenko demonstrates, this function has held strong even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to sociological surveys conducted in 1980s and 1990s, the Great Patriotic War remains a key positive historical event in the national consciousness, and the victory of 1945 (unequivocally perceived as the Soviet people’s triumph over fascism) seems to justify the means, including political repressions and strict censorship.[29]

Of course, Belarus directly benefited from this cult due to its extensive participation in anti-German partisan action during the war. Post-1945, it became known as the Partisan Republic and was allotted a certain degree of self-governance, primarily administrated at the local level by the former partisan leaders. Memories of the Great Patriotic War, embodied in the so-called “militaristic-patriotic installations” throughout the country,[30] continue to haunt the landscape, still proclaiming past glories and promising a kind of autonomy. The fact that 2014 was officially declared the year of military tourism in Belarus, with a specific emphasis on the Great Patriotic War memorials, suggests a conscious ongoing investment in the imperial patriotism and a persistent tracing of the national history back to the 1940s.

In the opening scene of King Lear, as staged by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Globe, Kent and Gloucester are linked together precisely by the shared memory of the Great Patriotic War, indelibly written into their bodies. Like the model Soviet “real man” Alexey Meresyev, they have both lost the use of their legs and, despite the visible differences in their social status, share a nostalgic worship of this common past. Kent is easily recognizable as a man brought low by his war injury, not unlike many veterans in the decades following the victory of 1945, who found themselves helpless in a country unwilling to invest in social assistance and support. His cheap sailor-stripe shirt (decorated with four ostentatious military awards), the primitive wooden board with wheels he is using to propel himself along, and the large red accordion he later picks up all identify him as, on the one hand, a man who has sacrificed his limbs to the victory over fascism but, on the other, as a visual metaphor of social and political deterioration. Gloucester, obviously a high-ranking official, appears in a relatively sophisticated wheelchair; at the same time, his authority seems to rely, in an endless feedback loop, on the continuing acknowledgement of the Great Patriotic War as a foundational event in the history of the state and his own history. Explaining his connection with Kent to Edmund, he refers to him as his “баявы таварыш” (old comrade-in-arms” – literally, “battlefield comrade”) rather than “honourable friend” of the original text (1.1.27).

This shared military history, complemented by the two crippled bodies, signifies valuable ideological capital: Kent and Gloucester metaphorically enable the existence of the state and all its members through the ongoing investment of their own bodily wholeness. This connection is made clear when both of these characters lose their privileged associations with the court: Kent is sent into exile by Lear and must assume a new identity, while Gloucester is blinded and left to wander across the heath. Once their connections to power are severed, the need for continued sacrifice of their bodies to the state paradoxically disappears. Thus, Kent is able to walk when he is temporarily transformed from a veteran into a dangerous former convict, appearing to serve the powerless Lear, and Gloucester gingerly picks his way across the heath following the loss of his eyes. Before these transformations, however, Gloucester emphasizes the constant return to the foundational event by forcing Edmund, with a cuff on the head, to recite a snatch of a popular Russian poem, in Belarusian translation.[31] In this verse, like many a Soviet and post-Soviet child, the speaker expresses deep gratitude to the war veterans for their pain and wounds and, performing a rhetorical gesture typical for Soviet poetry, thanks them for his own happy life.[32]

The mockery and threat of violence offered by the two men in the direction of Edmund throughout the scene immediately challenge the claim to happy life produced by the Great Patriotic War. Instead, Edmund’s quasi-military outfit and his lowly position at court suggests a rigid social hierarchy constructed by the military cult that dominated the Soviet Union and remains active in present-day Belarus and Russia. Edmund’s initial appearance serves to localize Gloucester’s explanation that his son has been “away” from home and will go away again. As both men re-enact a sort of cruel slapstick with Edmund as the hapless object of their physical jokes, the audience is given to understand that Edmund has been fed into the military machine and occupies the lowest rank on the hierarchical ladder. Gloucester’s and Kent’s seeming pleasure in asserting their power over him is reinforced when the forged letter from Edgar is revealed. Gloucester reads the letter while urinating in a basin held by Edmund who kneels in front of him, clearly expecting his son not only to anticipate the trajectory of the stream but also not to be repulsed when his wrists are drenched. As a small cog in the military machine, Edmund is barely human to his authoritative father, and the peremptory confiscation of the letter, in this context, testifies to the complete elimination of private space: all intentions must be known, and all resistance is punishable. Through a complex set of visual clues, the Belarus Free Theatre performance redirects the audience from identifying with a bygone greatness to shrinking back in fear at the palpable threat emanating from the unyielding monolith of the Soviet past and the long shadow it casts on the present.

King Lear and the Totalitarian State

At the same time, the production relentlessly references the Belarusian project of self-recognition, after 1991, as an independent country but also as a totalitarian state, and participates in it by meticulously problematizing any and all displays of power and authority in the play. Although Andrew Dickson, the reviewer for The Guardian, called this performance “a Lear returned vividly to its roots: as a comic folktale that shatters into tragedy” and inserted a hyperlink to “King Leir and His Three Daughters,” the Belarus Free Theatre has not intended to explore the play’s English medieval roots.[33] Instead, as Natalia Kaliada, the co-founder of the theatre, puts it in her interview with the Exeunt Magazine, these are the roots of theatre itself as a potent force of political change: “We perform as an act of non-violent resistance, and to prove that we as theatre makers are much stronger than any dictatorship in the world.”[34] Directly responding to the current situation in Belarus, this production of King Lear ponders the imbalances of power created by tyranny, and individual vulnerability inevitably resulting from it.

As the opening scenes make clear, this Lear is, at least partially, a figure reminiscent of the Belarusian dictator Lukashenka. The connection between the two is cemented when Regan, in her hyperbolical song of praise, addresses Lear as “бацька” – a Belarusian word for “father”: this word has, in the last twenty years, become specifically associated with Lukashenka, who styles himself the father of the nation. Lest the audience misses the significance of this word, Regan repeats it several times, pumping her fist up in the air; the cheer is then taken up by the members of the court, while Lear struts around the stage, raising his arms in gratified acknowledgement. This initial connection complicates any sympathy the audience might subsequently feel for the king, and highlights the ongoing power struggle and anxiety about losing one’s authority in a totalitarian state. Departing for the heath, Lear is coldly menacing rather than wounded by his daughters’ betrayal, threatening to return and take back the state power. Not surprisingly, after he has left, Goneril passionately declares to the Duke of Albany her refusal to live in eternal fear: and who can blame her? Mad Lear’s command to “Let copulation thrive […] for I lack soldiers,” thus, becomes less a sign of his desperate ravings than evidence of conscious power hunger that never quite ceases (4.5.114; 117).

The quasi-military figures in standard-issue trousers, black army boots, and white wife-beater shirts, their heads concealed by black stockings, serve as a constant visual reminder of the raw and impersonal force of a totalitarian state that can be readily turned both to humanitarian ends and to cold-blooded murder. Regan orders them to put Kent in stocks; wearing sanitary masks to appear as an emergency response team, they cart Lear away from the heath and into Cordelia’s care. Of course, only a little while later, just as impersonally and mundanely, they take Lear and Cordelia into custody, seemingly unconcerned with any considerations beyond following the orders of those in power.

The Belarus Free Theatre’s decision to stage the interrogation and execution of Cordelia offers a blunt insight into the ruthless depersonalization of victims. In his review, Andrew Dickson argued that forcing the audience to witness this scene “reduces the impact of this most brutal and shocking of acts, and makes a nonsense of Lear’s entrance with her body.” This could perhaps be true if the production simply introduced a dumb show re-enacting Lear’s account of her death. However, instead, the audience sees bored low-rank interrogators, familiar with the procedure and dimly convinced of their own irreproachability, the very embodiment of the banality of evil, cataloguing the valuable items confiscated from their captives. Lear’s metal gauntlet, formerly an imposing symbol of his authority, becomes the target of their silent mockery. The interrogators take turns trying it on, in a visual metaphor for appropriations of authority while Lear addresses Cordelia for the last time in the background. This pairing of the poignant words with a derogatory image denies any hope for future existence in a state without respect for law and justice, even before the final orders are received.

The production does not stop at Cordelia’s death but depicts the totalitarian machine attempting to erase her existence entirely. We see the interrogators, galvanized into action by the appearance of their superior, destroy the record of the search and create a document that links the captives to public unrest, terrorist threat, and economic sanctions. For those who understand Belarusian this is a moment of very black and bleak humour: the Shakespearean heroine’s sentence is composed of the canned rhetoric painfully familiar from the post-Soviet media. At the same time, this destruction of the original record creates a terrifying hole in the dramatic narrative. Where Shakespeare’s text delivers only Lear’s grief over the death of his most loving daughter, the Belarus Free Theatre asks us to witness the stark spectacle of her death – the spectacle that, with the forging of the record, is on the brink of being utterly lost from the human memory. Lear himself, of course, is quite unreliable as a witness: his claim to have “killed the slave that was a-hanging” his daughter is recognized, in this production, as an empty boast by the audience who observed the actual hanging (5.3.251). Excising the neat ending of King Lear, this production creates in the final scene a vacuum of power, in which the living and the dead are given the same theatrical authority and become indistinguishable from one another. A single, authoritative version of national history, based on decisive battles, lives lost, and power gained, is thus rejected, and no promised kingdom is forthcoming.

Conclusions: the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear and Global Shakespeare

In subverting the audience’s expectations for a cathartic ending in which King Lear fully gains moral and narrative authority, the Belarus Free Theatre forcefully disrupts what Bennett called “a nostalgic identification with greatness.” This production does not look back to Shakespeare’s England as a source of clarity and power, refusing, as it does, to wrap up with a promise of a new, better kingdom. Instead, the production raises the local dead: the three sisters end the performance by singing a mournful Belarusian chant, simultaneously a prayer and a plaintive wail.

This chant is a mourning song for the present-day Belarus, and perhaps for the entire Soviet history, but also for the fetishized illusion of authentic Shakespeare who, speaking through centuries, can offer succinct answers to our burning questions. The Belarus Free Theatre’s production explodes this illusion by staging a spectacular collision between the spectre Peter Holland identified as “our own” Shakespeare, and the Soviet ideological claims to possessing the “true” Shakespeare. Openly acknowledging its inability to step out fully from its own cultural context, this performance embraces Shakespeare produced through amalgamation of versions rather than an attempt to return to a purified original. It suggests that, removed from the purely Western horizon of expectation, Shakespearean drama can perform a decisive rejection of any identification with imagined, unifying greatness, whether it be the Golden Age of merry olde England, the dream of orderly and egalitarian USSR, or the mythical free and happy Belarus governed by its wise father-ruler. Instead, the Belarus Free Theatre draws on a variety of reading practices and haunting memories to make an argument for fluid, cosmopolitan Belarusian identity, while producing powerfully anti-ideological Shakespeare for the new, global age.

Let’s call it Shakespeare’s dancing shadow.

[1] The Tragedy of King Lear: 1623 Folio Text, ed. Stephen Orgel, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 1.4.214-215. All further references are to this edition. Note that the 1608 Quarto gives both lines to Lear.

[2] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, accessed June 11, 2015 [], comment posted on May 23, 2012 by BimpuraChakrabarti.

[3] Keren Zaiontz, “The Right to the Theatre: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear,” in Shakespeare beyond English: Global Experiment, ed. Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 195-207. See this article for a detailed description of language politics of the performance.

[4] Andrew Haydon, “Belarusian King Lear – The Globe,” Postcards from the Gods, May 19, 2012, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[5] Reviewed by Lauren Mooney, “King Lear at Globe Theatre,” Exeunt Magazine, 23-28 September, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[6] These questions were reinvoked, for example, during the Global Shakespeare session at the Renaissance Society of America conference (2015), and especially by the presenters Katherine Schaap Williams and David Schalkwyk.

[7] Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 39.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Peter Holland, “More Russian than a Dane: The Usefulness of Hamlet in Russia,” in Translating Life: Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics, ed. Shirley Chew and Alistair Stead (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 315-338, esp. 316.

[10] Because the Fool is speaking in trasyanka, a colloquial mixture of Russian and Belarusian, he uses the Belarusian word for “shadow,” which is “цень” rather than “тень.”

[11] The considerations of meter do not allow for a literal translation, as the Russian word for “ghost” is the five-syllable “привидение.” Pasternak’s more recent translation uses “дух” [spirit] instead, while the phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” began its own independent existence in the colloquial language.

[12] Mikhail Morozov, Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage, trans. David Magarshack, with an introduction by J. Dover Wilson (London: Soviet News, 1947).

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] See Vladimir Brovkin, Russia after Lenin: Politics, Culture and Society, 1921-1929 (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), see esp. chapter one, “Extracting Socially Alien Elements.”

[16] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[17] The text of this claim is widely available in the Russian sector of the Internet after Schigolev posted it in the opinion section of the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted on December 13, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×]. Interestingly, this seems to be part of his self-promotional campaign, as he ran for a position in the National Council of the republic in 2012 and, most recently, in September 2014. A severely truncated description of the events in English with no author’s name provided is available at “Ophelia Raped in Russian Theater, Hamlet at Large,” RT, posted on December 18, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

[18] The response of the experts is given in the formal verdict, available on the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted by Rebekka Magomedova as “Gamlet. Reshenie suda,” on December 27, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×].

[19] David R. Marples offers a detailed examination of the early years of Lukashenka’s reign in Belarus: A Denationalized Nation (Amsteldijk: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999). See also Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) for a description of more recent events, including the rigged election in 2010.

[20] Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe.

[21] Wilson, 123-12.

[22] Elena Gapova, “The Nation In Between; Or, Why Intellectuals Do Things with Words,” in Over the Wall/After the Fall: Post-communist Cultures through an East-West Gaze, ed. Sibelan Forrester, Magdalena J. Zaborowska, and Elena Gapova (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 65-87, esp. 85

[23] Simon Lewis, “Toward Cosmopolitan Mourning: Belarusian Literature between History and Politics,” in Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, ed. Uilleam Blacker, Alexander Etkind, and Julie Fedor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 195-216, esp. 202.

[24] Lewis, 213; 202.

[25] Ibid., 213.

[26] Keren Zaiontz, “The Right to the Theatre: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear,” 196.

[27] The emphasis on unequivocal admiration and emulation of such models was brilliantly parodied in Viktor Pelevin’s post-Soviet novella “Omon-Ra” (1992), the characters of which are forced to undergo the same mutilations as the sanctified heroes so as to demonstrate the strength of their dedication to the state.

[28] See, for example, Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

[29] Zhan T. Toshchenko, “Historical Consciousness and Historical Memory: An Analysis of the Current Situation,” Russian Studies in History 49.1 (2010): 37-52, esp. 41-42.

[30] I borrow the term from the Belorussian Military Newspaper, published by the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Belarus (“Partisan Republic: Concluding the Year of Military Tourism,” interview by Anna Karpuk, issue 230, 10.12.2014, Not only does this publication construct a mythical history for itself, claiming that it has been published under different titles since 1921 (the year when the Bolshevik government and the Republic of Poland came to an agreement in dividing the Belarusian lands and signed the Treaty of Riga), but it is also is published in Russian and uses the outdated Soviet spelling for its title, suggesting an active alignment with the pre-dissolution past (on the information page:

[31] Edmund recites a loose translation of the concluding lines from Aleksandr Frolov’s “Bowing to the Ground” (Земной поклон): “За вашу боль, за ваши раны, / За жизнь счастливую мою, / Земной поклон вам, ветераны!” (For your pain, for your wounds, / For my happy life, / I bow to the ground to you, veterans!”. These lines proliferate, in various incarnations, over the Russian Internet. By now, they have become an authorless meme, placed on postcards, borrowed by inspiration sites, and frequently incorporated into inept but patriotic poetic creations posted online.

[32] This expression of thanks is immediately reminiscent of the Soviet slogan, typically placed into the mouths of children and used without the slightest sense of irony: “Спасибо товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” (We thank Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!). Both sentiments point to the assumption that one’s personal happiness necessarily constituted a debt to others’ sacrifice, but also the assumption that, after the sacrifice had been made (whether Comrade Stalin’s or the veterans’), one was duty-bound, as a citizen, to be happy.

[33] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, assessed June 11, 2015 [].

[34] Ella Parry-Davies, “The Total Immersion Method” (Interview with Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre), Exeunt Magazine, September 19, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

Natalia Khomenko is an Instructor at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she received her Ph.D. in English in 2013. Her research interests include early modern drama, hagiographic and martyrological literature, literary adaptation, and Global Shakespeare studies. Her current project explores the cult of Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, and the strategies of selective reading and active refashioning used to produce ideologically sound socialist versions of Shakespearean drama.


Western Influence on Asian Theatre: Taiwan

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Western influence on Taiwan’s theatre, felt in both performance styles and repertoire, did not start until the 1960s, when theatre artists and scholars began returning from the West, and when censorship became less strict. Theatre artists not only appropriated Western performance idioms (such as illusionist and environmental theatres) but also adapted plays by Western playwrights, including Brecht, Maeterlinck, and Pirandello. Shakespeare in translation—the majority directed by Wang Sheng-shan (Wang Shengshan, 1921-2003)—played an important role in popularizing Western classics and stagecraft, which laid the groundwork for more innovative adaptations. Lee Man-kuei, the first serious Western-conscious playwright and director, pioneered the introduction of Ibsenian realist and illusionist theatre to Taiwan. She founded the Huaju Promotion Committee in 1962, starting a local tradition of adapting Western dramas. It organized and sponsored annual World Drama Festivals that produced as many as 236 performances of Western plays (in English or Chinese) between 1962 and 1974. Not only were such plays adapted and performed, new ones were written under the influence of Western performance theory. Yao I-wei’s Jade Bodhisattva (Nian yu guanyin, 1967) used non-illusionist expressive modes inspired by Brecht’s epic theatre and xiqu. Ma Sen’s Flies and Mosquitoes (Cangying yu wenzi, 1967) was influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd.

In the 1980s, Lee’s successors, notably Yao I-wei, extended her project to create hybrid performing idioms by bringing Western and Chinese (both xiqu and huaju) theatres together. Yao launched five annual Experimental Theatre Festivals between 1980 and 1984, where a wide range of Western performing methods, such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, were tested out on stage. At the first Experimental Festival, Lanling Theatre Workshop (Lanling Jufang, 1976-1990) staged a romantic comedy, Hezhu’s New Match (Hezhu xin pei, 1980), to critical success. Using a hybrid style taken from both illusionist and jingju theatres, the play reframes the jingju Hezhu’s Match (Hezhu pei) in modern language (Mandarin) and context (Taipei). While Lee Man-kuei believed that playwriting, not performance, is the key to developing a proficient theatre culture, Yao and his followers emphasized the contingency of performance.

The 1990s saw more varied and successful engagements with theatrical interculturalism. Godot Theatre (Guoduo Juchang, founded 1988), a major musical . theatre company(gewu ju), staged retitled adaptations of classics, such as Kiss Me, Nana (Wenwo ba Nana, 1995) and Oriental Rock Midsummer Night’s Dream (Dongfang yaogun zhongxiaye, 1999). The Contemporary Legend Theatre (Dangdai Chuanqi), a Westernized jingju company, has innovatively staged a series of jingju adaptations of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays since it was founded in 1986. These productions are not confined to small audiences as are many experimental works but are very popular both at the local and global levels. They have created new local traditions of engaging Western theatre cultures.

Further Readings:

Huang, Alexa “Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s Shamlet.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Spring 2005): 122-137.

Weinstein, John B. “Multilingual Theatre in Contemporary Taiwan.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Fall 2000): 269-283.

Shamlet: Shakespeare as Palimpsest by Alexa Huang

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

This article investigates one of the most traditional yet uncanny literary recursions in recent practices of cultural translation—the turn to Shakespeare.[i] It explores a range of questions regarding the mediated nature of transnational experiences. How, for example, does this mediation articulate a diverse range of ethnic and cultural identities in the visible, palpable and audible world of theatre? Why Shakespeare? How do stage translations of Shakespeare evince very specific ways of adapting culture in the postmodern Taiwanese context? What is the relationship between cultural translation and national imperatives?

The case in point is an adaptation of Hamlet produced in Taiwan that has successfully toured several different cultural locations: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s avant-garde play, Shamlet.[ii] As a dynamic event in the field of transnational cultural production,[iii] this performance constitutes ‘an act of violence’ against the cultural Other it attempts to ‘translate’.[iv] It manipulates and parodies the Other—as represented by Hamlet—through displacement of the foreign. This strategy to engage the Other is both an initiation and a result of changes in postmodern Taiwanese literary sensibility.

From this central set of questions and theoretical engagements emerge more precise topics for exploration. The supposedly self-contained meanings and signifying milieus of a complex early modern play like Hamlet are hard to reconcile with a performer’s impulse to re-invent these meanings. What is the relationship between the formation of transnational culture and canonical foreign texts? How does Shakespeare—a form of early modern English cultural consciousness—operate in this multicultural and increasingly globalised world? What are the peculiar conditions and forces in the making of this cultural constitution? As Li Ruru notes, since the inception of modern Chinese theatre, ‘Shakespeare has served as a powerful external force propelling [it].’[v] However, standing at the turn of the twenty-first century and witnessing what W.B. Worthen calls the ‘dramatic performativity’ of global Shakespeare, we must also ask what the forces are behind such signifying practice rooted in transnational cultures.[vi]

One of the most important forces is not the deconstruction of canonical texts but their parodying. In the late twentieth-century Taiwanese literary scene, improvisation and parody are new strategies to translate items of non-Taiwanese cultural capital that are identifiably foreign yet not exotic enough to qualify as truly such – for instance, Hamlet. The play, like the name of Shakespeare, constitutes internationally circulating cultural capital; they have formed a global cultural institution. Audiences of Shamlet are familiar with the themes and story of Hamlet through its circulation in popular culture, the educational system, and Hollywood films. This awareness constitutes a very different dimension in the engendering and reception of a cultural translation of the play. While the study of modern Chinese appropriation of non-Chinese literary texts (almost exclusively fiction) and its relationship to the engendering of modern Chinese literature is relatively well developed, the dynamic role and regulating position of cultural translation in postmodern representational practices (such as drama and film) have not been adequately studied.[vii] Shamlet, among other reframings of non-Chinese texts, are intriguing sites for further exploration.[viii]

This operation naturally calls into question a prevalent critical perspective known as presentism, a critical operation that brings contemporary events to bear on premodern works. Rewritings of canonical texts—a phenomenon that existed for centuries—are often met with sceptical eyes and historically conscious criticism, because these performances are perceived to be evading the historical specificity of the texts they seek to represent. However, the situatedness of the practice of literary interpretation and the reader’s localities and temporalities should be acknowledged and confronted. The urge to privilege the present and to re-invent the repertoire of meanings is a response to the urge to restore literary works to their earliest historical circumstances. As opposed to the approach to read Shakespeare historically according to an exclusive set of knowable ‘facts,’ presentism is invested in the validity and value of contemporary critical responses. It also brings to light the intricate relationship between history and epistemology, past and present, and text and performance. History can never be reduced to a series of ‘facts,’ preserved in a pristine state, as it were. Similarly, texts do not and cannot mean by themselves. As Terence Hawkes points out, texts have to be represented and connected. We mean by the texts we choose.[ix] Lee’s reading of Hamlet clearly espouses some of the corollaries of presentism.

Shakespeare & Theatrical Interculturalism

Performing styles further complicate this presentist approach to Shakespeare. I would like to begin by taking a closer look at the palimpsest-like nature of dramatic translation and intercultural performance. Rather than blending foreign sources into a reframed master narrative in the sense of ‘classical’ translation, intercultural theatre exposes the cracks and traces of cross-cultural encounters, in Walter Benjamin’s terms.[x] By such exposure, it repositions literary and cultural texts. The key to theatrical interculturalism is the conscious process of exhibiting ‘incongruent’ foreign elements, or the simultaneous juxtaposition of the local and the foreign. The fabula of the foreign play—or its cultural location(s)—is recycled and reassigned to a new local context through theatrical (re)production. Bewildered and annoyed at one moment or another, the audience sees the concealment of old lines and the revelation of new ones. In this sense, cross-cultural stage translation resembles the making of a palimpsest. It is also a frequently adopted strategy to perform a hegemonic text.

Further, because of the multiple layering of texts, contexts, translations and performances that grows larger every year, ‘Shakespeare’ has become a palimpsest on which performers constantly erase, re-write and gloss. These performances present a layered intertextuality and refer to one another, as well as to the barred ‘original’. On a palimpsest, new writings can never quite conceal the old writings that have been partially erased. The point at issue is how new layers permeate the old, and how all these new texts refer to the original Shakespearean text and to the Elizabethan field of reception, which is referenced but intentionally lost.

The process of the making and reading of the intercultural theatre work, Shamlet, is a good example of Shakespearean palimpsest. The play is wittily titled Shamlet: A Revenge Comedy, which signifies not only its genre, i.e. satire, but also its genealogy with Shakespeare. Intertextuality, theatrical interculturalism, and the readers’ location(s) are intertwining threads that contribute to the complexity of producing and reading a performance. On top of the layering of cultures and signifying milieux, patchy fragments of plot and speeches are other features that stand out in Shamlet. Intercultural theatre, more so than writing, often represents only one narrative out of the infinite narratives that are possible in a written play. Such kind of theatre works like a fragmentary quotation of the play-text and of the author’s world, while always extending beyond that quotation and its pretext. Intercultural performance inevitably quotes fragmentarily from foreign and domestic contexts and play-texts. It challenges audience members to step down from the comfortable saddle on which they ride daily. Intercultural theatre, as Robert Wilson characterises it, is not something that is ‘finished, put in a box and wrapped up with a bow’.[xi]

Not surprisingly, with a close link to Western experimentalism and American postmodernism, Shamlet opens as a quotation—a quotation with typos to be more precise—from Hamlet. The title of the play, Shamuleite (Shamlet), combines the first character of the Chinese transliteration of Shakespeare (sha) and the last three characters for Hamlet (muleite). Set in a playful tone, Shamlet also contains the sounds of ‘sham’ and ‘shame.’ The multiple layers of the title itself reveal Lee’s intention to use comedy and farce to impart social commentaries that can be read on different levels.

By turning the high tragedy into low comedy, the director of Shamlet claims to have deconstructed Shakespeare and resisted the hegemonic power Shakespeare’s plays hold in a global context. The question then becomes whether Shamlet has really subverted the cultural ‘hegemony’ represented by global Shakespeare. Further, in the name of what authority has the interpretive license been acquired? In whose terms and to which end does Lee translate and perform Shakespeare? If the performance, informed by presentism, could not and would not communicate the meanings prescribed by Shakespeare’s text, what do Shakespeare’s plays do in the theatre? What are their functions? What are they for?

The play offers no easy answer, but I would like to extrapolate a few principles behind the creation and circulation of the new international currency of Shakespeare suggested by this play.

Reading a Palimpsest

Renwei: I have written a song for you.

Juanzhi: Your sister has delivered the lyrics to me.

Renwei: I envisioned your relationship with Zhengzheng as that between Hamlet and Ophelia on the stage.

Juanzhi: The relationship between us has not been that tragic and melancholic!

Renwei: Yes, that’s why I made it up. Just as the script is invented, so are the lyrics . . . Will you sing with me?

—Act 9[xii]

This witty exchange sums up Lee’s understanding of the uneasy relationship between script and stage representation. Shamlet’s structure disrupts and reverses the hierarchies of text/performance, past/present, and dead masters/living actors. Yet at the same time, it demonstrates an unusual affinity with Shakespeare and with modern performances of Shakespeare. Lee did not have direct access to the English texts of Hamlet; he worked with Mel Gibson’s film version and two popular twentieth-century Chinese translations by Liang Shiqiu and Zhu Shenghao. The genealogical link between Shamlet and the Hollywood film remains unclear, but Lee indicates in an interview that the film has inspired him to stage Hamlet in his own terms. Attracted by Shakespeare’s treatment of death scenes, Lee focused on a few scenes from Hamlet that either deal with death philosophically or visually represent death and violence. Lee does not regret not being able to read Shakespeare in English. On the contrary, he is against staging straightforward literary translations of foreign plays, because he believes that spin-offs and adaptations offer more exciting creative possibilities. He claims, ‘If one chooses to stage a translated foreign play and follow it line by line, s/he will be deprived of the opportunity to create and re-write.’[xiii]

Thus, Lee does not use any readily available Chinese versions of Hamlet. He creates a play that rests partly on Hamlet and partly on the transnational culture in Taiwan. He envisions the relationship among its actors and characters in Hamletian terms: miscommunication, non-communication, hesitation, and a skeptical attitude. Here I would like to offer a reading of the production and the matrix of textual relations it entails. The actors on the intercultural stage move back and forth between the invisible realm of locus, the imagined locale of the story, and platea, a platform where the play is being performed before spectators. The exchange quoted above from Shamlet showcases how the actors freely move between the story being staged and the stage that sustains that story. Actors often break out of their roles in Hamlet and step into their roles in Shamlet. This movement is especially evident vis-à-vis the play-within-a-play, which enhances the multiple layering and framing of the plot of Shamlet within Shakespeare’s plot. The play manifests a strategy of intervention in the global politics of Shakespearean performance.

The characters in Shamlet are no Chinese counterparts to those in Hamlet. The story of Hamlet is framed by the story of a second-rate and ill-fated theatre company rehearsing and staging Hamlet on a tour of Taiwan. The play is titled Shamlet because of a printing mistake. The fabula of the tour itself formed a very interesting layer when the play was actually being staged in different Taiwanese and international venues.

There are at least two signifying milieux in Shamlet: that of the story of non-communication and procrastination in Hamlet (which is being parodied), and of the story of the failure of the theatre company (which is framed by their rehearsals of Hamlet). The play moves back and forth between the actors’ quarrels, affairs, life offstage, and the moments in which these actors bring private matters onto the real stage while rehearsing or staging Hamlet. As selected scenes from Hamlet are rehearsed, the motifs and fabulae of these scenes are also echoed in incidents happening in the theatre company. Actors move from their real identities, as the persons putting on the play Hamlet for the real audience, to their identities as actors in the story of the play, to their phantom identities of Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, etc. in the play-within-a-play (the failed production of Hamlet in Shamlet), and finally to their identities as actors in the dumb show (a play-within-a-play within the play-within-a-play) that Hamlet arranges for Claudius.

Moving among these four different sets of identities, the characters explore their local identities as actors from a typical Taiwanese theatre troupe. They are tormented by the difficulties facing all small and experimental theatre companies. These problems echo the difficult situations that Hamlet faces. Shamlet presents Hamlet’s procrastination and difficult choices through the framework of a dull-witted theatre company called the Fengping Theatre Troupe. The name parodies that of the real company putting on the play, the Pingfeng Theatre Troupe. Word play, anagrammatism and acrostic puzzles of names are as significant in Lee’s play as they are in Shakespeare’s. The plot revolves around Fengping Theatre’s backstage rehearsals and onstage productions. The success of this production is their only hope of rescuing the theatre company from its financial straits after years of poor performance, especially a catastrophic spell three years ago.

Whether or not the company’s luck will turn for the better depends solely on the success of this production and, more importantly, on resolving the entangled relations and negative emotions its members have towards one another. For example, the ‘director’ is preoccupied with proving his talent to his sceptical wife, who is having an affair. The ‘director’s’ name, Li Xiuguo, is an anagram of the playwright’s name and a mirror-image of him. The ‘director’ takes theatre as a profitless venture and seeks a career in film and television. The contingencies of their lives and comedic accidents dictate the contingencies of performance.

Rehearsed ‘Improvisation’

In addition to characters bringing private matters to bear on the play they are performing, Shamlet lays bare the process of mechanical reproduction of literary texts. ‘Improvised’ scenes are rehearsed prior to the actual performance. The fact that scenes with mechanical failures are also rehearsed gives Shamlet an unmistakable aura of theatre that challenges established modes of reading. It brings to light a key paradox of live theatre that stages a well-rehearsed illusion of a ‘life’ that is taking place for the first time on stage. Marvin Carlson calls this capacity the ‘ghostliness,’ one of the ‘universals of performance.’[xiv] Richard Schechner refers to this phenomenon as ‘twice behaved behaviour’ in theatre.[xv] While Shamlet bears out an important front of this theoretical engagement with rehearsed ‘improvisation,’ it also complicates the issue of the stage being haunted by experiences of previous productions of the same play. It might be true that, for the Western audience, Hamlet has always already begun, far before the performance is staged. The motifs and story of Hamlet have been circulating in print, on stage, on the screen, in the education system and in popular culture for centuries. For the Asian audience, this part of collective literary memory is more distant and vague. Therefore, Shamlet is not haunted by previous productions of Hamlet but by Lee’s preoccupation to create a new theatre that invites the actors and audience to ‘write’ and ‘read’ between the lines of the play. Shamlet opens with a ‘rehearsal’ of the duel scene in Hamlet—in which the actors get all the lines wrong—and closes with Fengping Theatre Troupe’s ‘production’ of the same scene that is as disoriented as previous ‘rehearsals’. Malfunctions in the routine mechanical business of the theatre, like the failure of the mechanism for the ghost to ascend or actors forgetting or accidentally switching lines, exhibit a translation in process.

These ‘errors’ diminish the tragic sense in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The character of the director keeps worrying about his wife, who is having an affair, while wanting to prove to her his capability and talent in performance. The troupe members also have troubled relationships with one another involving love, hatred, and jealousy. Unfortunately, the director is not the person to solve these discords within his troupe and their ill-fated production. Rather, the contingency of life is woven into the contingency of improvised performance. The audience reads the palimpsest on stage, where Shakespeare, the actors’ lives, Hamlet, and Shamlet meet in various narrative frames, so that neither centre nor structure is left. The working process of cross-cultural staging is laid bare, since Shamlet dramatises the failed rehearsals and ridiculous productions of a third-rate theatre troupe trying its hand at Shakespeare’s revered masterpiece, Hamlet.

Reading the production thus comes to resemble the act of unpacking Russian dolls: each one is empty, but serves as a frame for the others inside. This production, like many intercultural performances, does not seek to reconcile the authenticity of the texts and the authority of performance. These two poles do not exist for Lee. Performance is his way of interpreting himself to himself.[xvi] In Shamlet, Lee reinvents texts for his own ends, and what survive are a few central issues raised by Hamlet rather than anything that might be thought genuinely Shakespearean, or a residue from Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural contexts.

Shamlet also refers to editing problems that have long plagued critics and directors of Shakespeare’s texts. Set in the genre of parody-comedy, Shamlet, with its triptych of rehearsals and productions of Hamlet, stages the process by which Shakespeare’s play gets passed from one rehearsal to another, one actor to another. In Shamlet, the Fengping Theatre’s production of Hamlet—the play-within-a-play—turns out to be a total disaster, and Shakespeare’s tragedy is diminished, or reborn if you will, into a revenge comedy. Even the title for their play, Shamlet, is an accident, a typo:

Yiling: Mr. Director, I received a letter from a spectator after our performance in Tainan City a few days ago.

Xiuguo: Has he got something to say about our production?

Yiling: She said that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays during his lifetime, but there is none that is called Shamlet. It should be Hamlet.

Zongji: Isn’t this letter somewhat too late?! We have had so many nights.

Xiuguo: We should respect our scriptwriter. When I went to get the play from Lee Kuo-Hsiu, I argued with him. I said the first Chinese character should be Ha and not Sha, but he insisted on Sha and not Ha.

Zongji: He phoned me and said it is Ha and not Sha. It was a typo.

Xiuguo: A typo? When did he call?

Zongji: This morning.

Xiuguuo: This morning! And you are telling me now? I am the director, and I am the last one to know. Fine! Fine! Now go and get a pen. Get the programme notes. Simply changing one word will do. … [Pause] Oh, forget about it! No one ever buys our programme notes anyway.

—Act 9[xvii]

This scene questions what’s in a name and deconstructs the authority of the original text. The joke about typo actually identifies one of the core problems in Shakespeare’s texts. As has been noted by various modern scholars like Leah Marcus, the notion of a printed text as a site of materialized and fixed authorial intentions is foreign to the Renaissance playhouse. Just as there are many provisional and, sometimes, bad versions of fragmentary scenes of Hamlet in the rehearsals in Shamlet, there is no single authoritative version of Shakespeare’s plays—contrary to what Shakespeare’s first editors hoped for. Marcus pictures the conditions of theatrical production in Renaissance London as follows:

Rather than flowing effortlessly and magically from Shakespeare’s mind onto the unalterable fixity of paper, the plays were from the beginning provisional, amenable to alterations by the playwright or others, coming to exist over time in a number of versions, all related, but none of them an original in the pristine sense promised by [John] Heminge and [Henry] Condell.[xviii]

Heminge and Condell believe that an author’s ‘mind and hand [go] together.’ Further, commenting on the ‘stolen’ quartos, they wish in their prefatory epistle that ‘the Author himself had liv’d to have set forth, and overseen his own writings.’ There is a pristine sense of a self-sustained and perfect original. Heminge and Condell go on to condemn the ‘surreptitious copies, maim’d and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors, that expos’d them.’[xix] When we speak of the ‘original’ Shakespeare, though assuming some degree of stability, we inevitably have to specify which Shakespeare: First Folio, Second Folio, First Quarto, or modern synthesis like the Arden or Riverside Shakespeare. The conditions of editing problems of Hamlet relates directly to the typo from ha to sha in the title of the production. Its strategy of reading and writing the palimpsest is an aggressive one. The play establishes its authority by proclaiming up front that there will be no fidelity to Shakespeare or to Elizabethan cultural contexts. It does so by writing forcefully on the palimpsest, though it is not able to conceal everything.

The title Shamlet, and the multi-layering of plots that repudiates the integrity of the Hamletian plot, all parody Hamlet. Lee claimed in the programme that Shamlet is a ‘revenge comedy’ that ‘has nothing to do with Hamlet but something to do with Shakespeare’. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s revenge story is intricately woven into the plot of Shamlet when one of the actors puts laxatives in an actress’s drink to avenge his unrequited love. The conspiracy is successful: she rushes off the stage during a performance, ruining her reputation and the production. Pace Lee, Shamlet has everything to do with Hamlet. Much in the manner of postmodern productions such as Stuart Sherman’s eighteen-minute dumb-show Hamlet,[xx] Shamlet has four actors (characters) for the title character Hamlet. Both plays feature a carousal display of a number of different Hamlets. The stage upon a stage in Shamlet presents the making of the theatrical. The real actors are telling the stories of the actors in Shamlet, who are enacting the story of Hamlet with misreadings and accidents. Multiple layering and multiple narrative frames are characteristic of postmodern productions like Shamlet, but they are inherent in any theatrical production. In this sense, the play is not so much a parody of Hamlet as a parody of Taiwanese society, seen through the lens of a theatre practitioner.

The absurdity of the title Shamlet, engendered by the accident of a typo, repudiates the dichotomy of centre and border in cultural bodies on the one hand; but it also explores, on the other, the possibility of intercultural theatre as a hybrid yet integrated form of artistic expression. A multitude of possible meanings are woven into many confusing layers of signification. Its witty title and plot development that parallels those of Hamlet. The biographies of the actors make Shamlet resemble a palimpsest that unfolds itself, page by page, in front of the audience. Meanings are constantly being inserted through improvisational acts on stage. As such, the play destabilises the conceptual hierarchies of play texts and performances and past playwrights and contemporary directors.

Act Ten is most pertinent Lee’s effort to foreground the contemporaneity and contingency of theatre making and live performance. Fengping Theatre (the name of the theatre company in the play) is in Taichung, one of the cities they are touring. During a stage performance of the duel scene (adapted from Hamlet 5.2.224ff.), Li Xiuguo, who plays the role of Laertes, forgets almost every other line, since he is forced to take up the role without preparation owing to quarrels among the troupe members and last-minute emergencies. The one who was assigned the role has left the scene at the last minute, thereby engendering chaos. The troupe has to cover up the absence of several actors, either by having doubles or through improvisations. Li, playing Laertes, cannot remember what to say in response to Hamlet’s speech, translated from Shakespeare’s line ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong’ (5.2.225). As Laertes struggles with his half-forgotten lines on stage, Claudius, played by Chen Zongji (the character of an actor within the play), improvises and tries to smooth over the apparent glitch. A court lady prompts Li and tries to help him remember his lines. Unfortunately, all attempts fail, and she is forced to take out the prompt book from her pocket and start reading Laertes’s lines out loud. However, even this desperate attempt to rescue the production does not work. Halfway through her reading, she accidentally drops the prompt book. The pages fall and scatter on the stage. Stunned, Laertes and other characters deliver lines that are now out of order. This improvised play-reading disrupts the performance of Shamlet and intervenes with the otherwise linear progression of the plot line of Hamlet that actors in Shamlet are performing. The scattered prompt book pages—filled with ‘facts’ and prescribed lines—constitute a powerful image that simultaneously questions the viability of historical knowledge and transforms a tragedy that relies on rehearsed chronology into a playful comedy that espouses a new concept of authorship.

The collective authorship in Shamlet can be found on another level. In several scenes, the actors reflect the absurdity and ‘logical errors’ of Shakespeare’s plot. They travel across the stage to find and present the ‘real’ Hamlet— only to find themselves and a projection of their world. They seek revenge on their fellow actors for trivial matters, and ironically, by the end of Act Ten, their fate and the theatre company’s failure almost completely express Hamlet’s dilemma. They are players and spectators at once, both on and off the virtual stage in the play. What they see as ‘universal’ in the text of the Other—Shakespeare and all cultural contexts connected with the name—turns out to be the particular in their contexts of theatrical circles in Taipei, a bustling city in late twentieth century East Asia.

The overwhelming pressure of swapped and switched roles eventually paralyses the production. According to Lee Kuo-Hsiu, this is his way of deconstructing Shakespeare, an icon much revered by the Taiwanese audience. Lee questions this reverence and asks ‘what Shakespeare’s plays have to do with Taiwanese [actors and audiences].’[xxi] In a number of scenes, the line ‘To be or not to be’ is projected in English on a screen above the stage, forming a backdrop of confused yet interchangeable identities. While the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy forms a central theme in Shamlet, its presence does not invoke the image of the philosophical Hamlet or Shakespeare’s reputations. It serves to initiate a series of dialogues among the characters who tackle the question: ‘Who am I?’ from different vantage points. This is done in an improvisational mode involving multiple role-switching.

Qianzi: May I ask a question? Who is Horatio now?

Chengguo: Every one knows. Horatio is…

Xiuguo: Yes, I am Horatio.

Chengguo: Then who am I?

Xiuguo: [improvising and trying to smooth over the glitch] Who am I? Ha! What a great philosophical question. Who am I? Every person will experience this self-interrogation, often in the middle of the night, when standing in front of a mirror. He will ask himself: ‘Who am I?’ … Now, let me tell you who you are.

—Act 10[xxii]

As a commercial production for entertainment rather than a political theatre, Shamlet is not saturated with direct political comments. However, the comedy does offer a few political comments on at least two different levels. In the duel scene, when an uncostumed stagehand brings two swords on stage, several characters comment on her ‘foreign’ identity.

Gertrude: Is that person one of us Danes?

Horatio: Probably not, Your Majesty. She looks like one of those Taiwanese from the East.

Gertrude: Then take no more notice of her. I do not like foreigners meddling in our internal affairs.

King: That’s right! Danish affairs should be resolved by Danes!           —Act 10[xxiii]

It should be noted that this witty exchange was added in the ‘Millennium Edition’ produced in 2000, four years after one of the worst Taiwan Strait crises in March, 1996, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched missiles and carried out military exercises on the sea in close vicinity to Taipei. The exercises were meant to demonstrate the People’s Republic of China’s military prowess and its readiness to use military force to subdue the pro-independence voices within Taiwan and even to take over Taiwan. The United States sent two carrier battles groups to the area near the Taiwan Strait to ensure that the situation does not escalate into an invasion. After the reversion of Hong Kong (1997) and Macao (1999) to China, Taiwan became the focus of the Chinese government’s imperial project to recoup territories ‘lost’ in the nineteen or twentieth century. Whether Taiwan has belonged to, or should be, part of the jurisdictional or political map of China has been a hot topic for debate. The crises in the Danish court in Hamlet and Hamlet’s escape from the clutches of the English power can never be read in Asia after 1996 in quite the same way that the play could be read before 1996.

The exchange in this scene simultaneously comments on the foreignness of the Taiwanese actors to the scene being represented and China’s thinly veiled threats against Taiwan and other countries such as the U.S. that might intervene. The dialogue echoes Chinese government’s statement that foreign powers should not intervene in the ‘Taiwan problem,’ which is China’s internal affairs. This dialogue also dramatises the Taiwanese government’s retort that the political future of the island can and should be determined by the will of the Taiwanese people alone. On yet another level, this exchange brings out the irony of a Taiwanese troupe performing a foreign play. Taiwan, with its geographical and cultural locations in the Pacific Rim, is very receptive to foreign cultures and prides itself on being able to assimilate them. Shamlet questions the relevance for Taiwan of some of these cultural parameters, such as a Western cultural icon represented by Shakespeare. Commenting on cultural hegemony, Lee asserts that ‘[he] has one advantage over Shakespeare: the great British playwright is dead, but he [a Taiwanese playwright and actor] is alive.’[xxiv] This emphasis on contemporaneity and living the moment on stage becomes a principal force behind the making of Shamlet.

New Modes of Cultural Exchanges

Reinventing Shakespeare, as Gary Taylor cogently argues, is the business of reinventing an author to support ‘a series of conflicting values’ in societies of different periods.[xxv] To that end, I would add, reinventing Shakespeare in the intercultural theatre is also a business of setting up a venue to establish a cultural identity, as epitomised in Shamlet. In the process of making Shakespeare Taiwanese, Shakespeare is there and not there. Throughout the performance, the directorial voice of Lee emerges from the text in the background and the ‘text’ represented on the stage through the spontaneity and improvisation of Lee’s theatre. On another level, transparent at one moment and powerful at another, there is Shakespeare’s presence. On yet another level are the dynamics particular to Taiwanese society, perhaps best summarised as short-sightedness in pursuing immediate profits. In Shamlet, the characters that are actors engage in conflicts with one another both on and off the ‘stage,’ and thereby upset the production of Hamlet they staging.

Regarded in this light, to stage intercultural performances is not only to stage difference; it is about containing these issues in various frames. The interculturalism of theatrical transformation has to be connected to the phenomenon of globalisation and to Shakespeare’s global presence. If, targeting the illusion of origin and Shakespeare-ness in performance, Shamlet has successfully framed Hamlet and contemporary Taiwan in a postmodern pastiche, it suggests the emergence of a globalisation that both diffuses and sustains the pastiche of various origins.

Shamlet presents a pastiche of Shakespearean and Taiwanese cultural locations through postmodern, monotonous repetitions. For example, the duel between Laertes and Hamlet appears three times in a rehearsal and in stage performances: in the first, fifth and seventh scenes. The fact that the actors take turns in playing different roles in the play promotes a postmodernist reading of both plays, Hamlet and Shamlet. ‘Mediocre’ and ‘ordinary men’ are key words in the stage performance of Shamlet, suggesting that every one is Hamlet. The long shadow of a larger-than-life tragic protagonist is dissolved in dry runs of actors and comic rehearsals by common men. Shamlet tells a story of intrigues and trivial love affairs among members of a theatre troupe through the rehearsals of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It incorporates declaredly autobiographical traits of its director Lee.

In addition to the aforementioned repetitions that diminish the solemnity of the tragic dénouement, Shamlet also enacts a Hamletian culture of accidents through mechanical errors and switched roles, all of which contribute to its deconstruction of theatre as an unfolding one-time event experienced in forward linear time. Act 2 of Shamlet is set on the stage-upon-the-stage where the Fengping Theatre is performing Act 1 Scene 5 of Hamlet in Taichung, the second stop of their tour of Taiwan. The mechanical failure in this scene problematises the illusion that naturalist theatre with a proscenium stage strives to contain. After informing Hamlet of his grievances and urging Hamlet to avenge him, the Ghost is supposed to ascend on a steel rope as he delivers his last lines ‘Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me’ (Hamlet 1.5.91). A mechanical problem prevents this from happening, and the Ghost is stuck on the stage. The actor playing Hamlet is paralysed, and Horatio enters, as directed by the script. His comments are under heavy irony.

Horatio: My lord! My lord! My lord! Anything wrong?

Shamlet: How strange! [Looking at the stranded Ghost.]

Horatio: Speak to it, my lord!

Shamlet: Never ever tell what you see tonight.

Horatio: I will not tell. [Improvises] And I hope no one saw it! [Looking at the stranded Ghost and then the audience.]

Shamlet: Come! Swear by your conscience. Put your hand on my sword.

[Shamlet discovers that he does not have the single most important prop for this scene—his sword.]

Horatio: [Filling in and improvising] Use my sword, my lord!

Shamlet: [Soliloquising] Rest, rest, perturbèd spirit. I… [Forgetting his lines] I’ve forgotten what I had to say!

Horatio: [Prompting and reciting the lines for Shamlet] Perturbèd spirit, please remember that whatever historical period it is, you shall keep your mouth shut [referring to the stranded Ghost who is ruining this performance]. The time is out of joint. O what a poor soul am I that I have to set it right!

Shamlet: Yes, indeed!

[The Ghost, still stranded, keeps trying to see if he can be lifted up. Light dims.]                                                                                                             —Act 2[xxvi]

Snatches of familiar dialogue from Hamlet are transmogrified by errors and accidents. In Act Three of Shamlet, when the scene has been changed to Polonius’s house, the Ghost is still stranded by the malfunctioning steel rope. The unduly presence of the Ghost complicates this ‘stage production.’ Not without irony does Laertes tell the Ghost to leave them alone as he imparts advice to Ophelia. These accidents—while rehearsed and scripted—undermine the theatrical illusion that a naturalist theatre is supposed to sustain. Accidents and the advent of the unexpected lead to tragedy in Hamlet; whereas in Shamlet, these elements contribute to its comedic overtone.[xxvii] The character of the director, Li Xiuguo, is as indecisive as Hamlet, but his indecisiveness only leads to a comedic staging of the play.

As a comedy, Shamlet marks a departure from such practices of cultural translation as adapting the original play to a contemporary setting. In Shamlet, only seven selected scenes from Hamlet are represented, and that in an improvisational manner, inserted into scenes about the Fengping Theatre Troupe in Shamlet. Thus whisked back and forth between the beginning and ending of Hamlet and between the frames of Shamlet and Hamlet, the audience follows the actors’ hastened steps. Identities become interchangeable: one man often plays many parts. The actor playing the character of an actor in Shamlet attempting the role of Shamlet recognises different levels of consciousness in all these identities.

In this sense, Shamlet has most curiously enacted Hamlet‘s central theme of accident by employing interchangeable identities, a purloined letter, and switched lines for characters. Hamlet is filled with accidents. In a significant number of stage and film interpretations, Hamlet kills Polonius in an accident. He is supposed to die in another planned ‘accident’ when being sent off to England by Claudius, only to be saved by his capacity for counter-espionage. He switches crucial lines in the secret letter and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death in his place. In his feigned madness, Hamlet takes up various roles, from a bookish intellect to a solemn avenger, a melancholic prince and a self-proclaimed pirate. Even though Lee starts out with the proclaimed goal of deconstructing Hamlet, his adaptation features the Hamletian motif of accidents through the actors’ daily life.

Through Lee’s distinctive style of palimpsestical play-within-a-play performance, Hamlet is ruptured by quarrels among the actors and discussions between the characters of the director and actors. The audience finds itself looking into the box of the proscenium stage, looking at a play within a play, with an acute awareness of the contingencies of performance. The life inside the theatre (i.e. rehearsal) and outside the theatre (i.e. love affairs) of this group of mediocre actors is presented through Lee’s production, in which the emotions of the Shakespearean Danish prince are retained. The audience is offered the opportunity to undergo similar emotional upheavals and disturbances through Shamlet.

As a new model of localisation, Shamlet shares some similarities with Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (after King Lear, 1980) in terms of form. However, Shamlet retains a sense of scepticism toward scripted performance. Actors and actresses are at once in and out of their characters. The gist of the play-within-a-play, metaphors of dilating, and the manifested culture of accidents in Hamlet has been preserved in a most peculiar way. Ironically, in creating Shamlet, Lee transplanted the original play into his context and enhanced the canonicity of the original play. The relationship between this transnational performance and the Shakespearean play is at once symbiotic and mutually resistant, operating on a level of newfound cultural semiotics.

Conclusion: Shakespeare as Palimpsest

What Lee did to Shakespeare, changed contexts of presentation could do to Lee’s own text. In Taiwan, Shamlet was popularly received as a topical satire. But at the second Chinese International Shakespeare Festival in Shanghai in 1994, the precise point of its jests and allusions were lost to the alien audience. This may have been partly due to dual directorship and lack of co-ordination between the Pingfeng Acting Workshop of Taiwan and the Modern People’s Theatre.[xxviii] But the anomaly indicates how any adaptation of a text, like the original it adapts, is attuned to a particular context of composition and reception.

Local (Asian) readings of a global (or Western) text induce the creation of new hierarchies of original and secondary. Through rehearsed improvisation that brings the actors’ multiple identities to bear on the careers of Shakespeare’s characters, Shamlet encourages the fusion of local and personal perspectives and a global text. Thus Shamlet demonstrates a very different force of transnational culture. On the pragmatic level, Shamlet fuses fictional characters with the vita of the performers (e.g., parallels between the fate of Hamlet and the life of the actor-character performing the role); on the philosophical level, it adapts the identity politics in Hamlet.

In cultural transference, Shakespeare has become a parchment on which modern cultures write. Shamlet showcases Lee’s admittedly uneasy relationship with Shakespeare’s play while capitalising on the global economy of Shakespeare. In Shamlet, the act of questioning the logic of the plot of Hamlet becomes a critique of contemporary experimental theatre. After enjoying almost ten years of popularity and becoming part of the theatre’s repertory, Shamlet has become a new force of transnational culture in Taiwan. It also exemplifies a new aspect of the international currency of Shakespeare. Presentism and theatrical interculturalism continue to complicate the horizon of inquiry.

[i] I use the term ‘cultural translation’ to refer to modes of cultural production (such as performance) that re-produce and manipulate contents of foreign literary and cultural texts. The term is used in opposition to various parameters associates with ‘literary translation’. While printed translations of literary texts share similar features with cultural translation, their material existence usually lacks the performative aspect of cultural translation that extends beyond the printed texts. Theatre often represent the cultural Other in visual and theatrical terms.

[ii] Shamuleite: yige fuchou xiju (Shamlet: A Revenge Comedy), a ten-act comedy, was written and directed by Lee Kuo-Hsiu and staged by the Pingfeng Acting Workshop (Pingfeng biaoyan ban, organized in 1986). Pingfeng means screen that divides the front stage and the back stage. While being experimental and aesthetically innovative, Shamlet has been a commercially successful production since it premiered in Taipei in 1992. It was revived several times. The play toured Taiwan in a revised version in 1995, and Toronto, Canada in 1996. It was also staged in Shanghai on September 16, 1994, at the second Chinese Shakespeare Festival, through collaboration between Pingfeng Acting Workshop and the Modern People’s Theatre (Xiandai ren jushe). A ‘Millennium Edition’ of the play—the third edition—was staged in Taipei to full houses in August 2000, testifying to its unfailing popularity in the local communities that fostered it. Note on Romanisation: In this article, Chinese names in English will follow the convention of placing family names first. All transcriptions of Chinese are in pinyin, except for the cases in which the Wade-Giles system was originally adopted. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[iii] The concept is adapted from Pierre Bourdieu’s characterisation of the structure of the modern French literary field as a ‘field of cultural production.’ See Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Field of Cultural Production, or: the Economic World Reversed,’ Poetics 12 (1983), pp.311-56; Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993, p.164.

[iv] I am invoking Victor Hugo’s concept in a different way. In his preface to his son’s Shakespeare translations, Hugo points out that a translated text will almost always be received by the local culture as ‘an act of violence against itself’, because ‘such a widening of the horizon [of one’s] own national poetry’ constitutes a ‘rebellion’: quoted in André Lefevere, Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook, London: Routledge, 1992, p.18.

[v] Li Ruru, ‘Shakespeare on the Chinese Stages in the 1990s’, Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), p.367.

[vi] In his new book, Worthen uses the concept of ‘performativity’ (p.117) to explore the relation between Shakespeare’s text and meanings of modern performance, including international and intercultural performances that are vested in a ‘global performance economy’ (p.148): W. B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[vii] Important studies of the connections between literary translations of foreign literature and Chinese modernity include: Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995; Torbjörn Lodén, ‘World Literature with Chinese Characteristics: On a Novel by Gao Xingjian,’ The Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies 4 (1993), pp.17-39; and Michel Hockx (ed.), The Literary Field of Twentieth-Century China, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999. All the essays in this last collection deal with ways in which foreign elements have been incorporated or resisted in modern Chinese literary practice.

[viii] Dramatic translation and stage representations of non-Chinese cultures have traditionally received less scholarly attention, with the exception of a few recent studies that deal with dramatic Occidentalism, viz., Chen Xiaomei, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-discourse in Post-Mao China, 2nd ed., Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, especially the chapter on Chinese productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Brecht; Claire Conceison, Significant Other: Representations of the American in China, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

[ix] Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, London: Routledge, 2002, p.3

[x] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken, 1968, pp. 69-82.

[xi] Robert Wilson, ‘Theatre That You Have to Rethink,’ The Chronicle of Macbeth Programme Notes (1992).

[xii] Lee Kuo-Hsiu, Shamuleite, Taipei: Shulin Publisher, 1992, p. 119. English translation from Alex Huang, “Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s Shamlet,” Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (Spring 2005): 126-127. Renwei (the name of the character playing Horatio) and Juanzhi (the name of the character playing Gertrude) are rehearsing the play in this scene. Renwei and Juanzhi bring their love affairs to bear on Hamlet when they step out of their characters.

[xiii] Wang Shu-hua and Perng Ching-hsi, Interview with Lee Kuo-Hsiu, Taipei, 13 November, 1998. I am very grateful to the authors for making the unpublished transcript of the interview available to me.

[xiv] Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001, p. 173.

[xv] Schechner, Richard, “An Intercultural Primer,” American Theatre (Oct. 1991), p. 36-37.

[xvi] See Li, Liheng, Oh? Lee Kuo-Hsiu! (Oh? Lee Kuo-Hsiu!), a biography, Taipei: Shibao, 1998, p.105.

[xvii] Shamuleite: Fuchou xiju, p.121. Huang, p. 132.

[xviii] Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 44.

[xix] John Heminge and Henry Condell, ‘To the great variety of readers,’ Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies by William Shakespeare. London: Printed by Tho. Cotes, for Richard Hawkins, and are to be sold at his shop in Chancery Lane, neere Serjeants Inne, 1632.

[xx] See Elinor Fuchs, ‘Presence and the Revenge of Writing: Rethinking Theatre After Derrida’, Performing Arts Journal 36 (1984), p.170.

[xxi] Li, Liheng, p.105.

[xxii] Huang, p. 129.

[xxiii] Huang, p. 130.

[xxiv] Wang Shu-hua and Perng Ching-hsi, 1998 interview.

[xxv] Gary Taylor, ‘Introduction,’ Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p.3-6.

[xxvi] Ibid. 48-49. The use of Shakespeare’s original text in my English translation here is intended to alert the reader to the fact that this passage in Shamlet is a direct line-by-line Chinese translation (such as ‘perturbèd spirit’).

[xxvii] A representative work on the Renaissance conception of accident and contingency is Michael Witmore’s cultural anatomy of accidents as philosophical problem and theatrical conceit. Michael Witmore, Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledge in Early Modern England, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

[xxviii] Li Ruru and David Jiang, ‘The 1994 Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival: An Update on the Bard in Cathay’, Asian Theatre Journal 14 (1997), pp.104-9. See also Li Ruru, ‘Shakespeare on the Chinese Stages in the 1990s,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), pp. 364-5.

Yukio Ninagawa as a Great Shakespearean

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

“Yukio Ninagawa as a Great Shakespearean” by Katherine Bradshaw (Dean’s Scholar in Shakespeare, George Washington University)

Japanese director NINAGAWA Yukio

Japanese director NINAGAWA Yukio

Japanese theatre guru Yukio Ninagawa has earned international recognition through his stunningly beautiful interpretations of Shakespeare. He has directed almost all of the 37 plays, and will finish the canon in 2016. But, did you know that he never intended to become a Shakespearean director? Learn about Ninagawa’s fascinating journey and productions in Alexa Huang’s absorbing new essay “Chapter 3: Yukio Ninagawa” (in Brook, Hall, Ninagawa, Lepage: Great Shakespeareans Vol. 18, edited by Peter Holland). Huang places Ninagawa’s mesmerizing productions in their national, personal, and theatrical contexts, showing what makes Ninagawa a “Great Shakespearean.”

Find out what makes Ninagawa’s directorial style so successful. Huang sets Ninagawa in the context of Japan’s multiple theatrical techniques. The traditional Kabuki and Noh are heavily stylized, while the modern Shingeki emphasizes realism. Ninagawa was exclusively trained in the Shingeki method. Interestingly, Huang suggests that Ninagawa successfully combines older styles with Shakespeare because both are not his familiar format.

Ninagawa originally studied painting, which might explain his knack for stunning visuals. Yet, after attending a visual art program during college, he began training as a Shingeki actor. After he became an experimental theatrical director, Ninagawa had a strange and terrifying experience that confirmed that he should continue as a director. A young man threatened to murder Ninagawa if Ninagawa faltered in his commitment to theatre. So, Ninagawa always directs as if 1,000 young men sat in the audience, their knives ready to kill him.

Examine the results of Ninagawa’s commitment and dive into his awe-striking 1980 production The Ninagawa Macbeth. Huang unpacks the opening scene of the Ninagawa Macbeth ( She explains the significance of the performance’s set – a gigantic Buddhist altar.

Ninagawa Macbeth

Many of Ninagawa’s other productions are similarly surprising. Ninagawa’s Pericles opens with the sounds of an aerial bombardment and Ninagawa sets the play in a time after an unidentified war ( This interpretation is refreshingly unconventional, since the play’s text does not explicitly include war. Huang explains all. Early in Ninagawa’s career, he was a heavily political director of controversial new plays. Although he has moved to older material, Ninagawa still retains his desire to explore the themes of war, social unrest, and violent protests.

Ninagawa takes more than a purely academic interest in political and international friction. In fact, as Huang relates, Ninagawa strives to foster intercultural communication through his adaptations. Of course, there is the obvious trans-national connection to Shakespeare. Yet, Ninagawa went even further during his tri-lingual production of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women. Discover how Ninagawa did this, and what happened during that production.



Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die, by Colleen Kennedy (PhD Candidate in English, Ohio State University;


1. Shakespeare Must Die was the first and only film to be partially funded by the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva). Was this an optimistic moment for the arts? Are there any art projects funded under the new administration of Yingluck Shinawatra?

At least 50 other film projects received this funding. Some for script development, some for production, one for distribution (The 2010 Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee’). Recipients include studio films as well as independent films. In fact the studio films got the lion’s share; the amount also varied greatly. For instance, out of the 200 million baht fund, one big epic, ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’ received 49 million; and ‘Headshot’ by Penek Rattanaruang got at least 8 million. Most received between 5 and 1 million. Our 3 million is therefore on the lower-middle end.  (30 baht = 1 USD)

So no, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is most definitely NOT the only film funded by the Abhisit government’s film fund under the Creative Thailand Fund (the Thai name, Thai Khem Khaeng Fund, literally means “Fund to Strengthen Thais”.  For industrial applications, to increase the value of goods by improving the design; for cultural and educational projects, to stop the dumbing down of the population). ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was in fact the very LAST film to receive funding (though not the last to be finished; many other projects remain unfinished at this time, August 2013) , as some funding committee members were concerned about our depiction of the regicide scene.

(A few years back, Bangkok Opera got into absurdist trouble with the Cultural Ministry over its production of the ‘Ramayana’. They were told not to portray Rama’s slaying of the Demon King on stage. He might be a demon, but he was still a king, went the argument. The Ramayana! They were not banned from doing so, but would not be allowed to use the Ministry’s prestigious venue. The ministry claimed that it was against tradition to kill a king on stage. This is entirely false. I distinctly remember seeing this very scene on stage at the National Theatre. This shows how unpredictable it can be. The film ‘Suriyothai’, a historical epic, has very graphic scenes of regicide.)

So we had to shoot the scene and show them all the uncut footage before they would approve our funding. No other applicant had to do this. Everyone else only had to submit a synopsis and treatment. We told them that we would stick to Shakespeare’s staging of the scene, namely, that everything happens off-stage: all we see are their bloody hands, all we hear are their thoughts.  Just as Shakespeare intended, I believe, since the focus is not the murder but its effects on the Macbeths, before and after.

After viewing this footage, they were convinced of our Shakespearean sincerity, some even commending that it was in fact a moral undertaking because it “explores the nature of sin and karmic retribution”.

Therefore, far from being a ‘propaganda film funded by the Eton and Oxford-educated Evil Elite Royalist Abhisit to make fun of Champion of Democracy Thaksin’, as claimed by Thaksin apologists, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was actually the most scrutinised film and barely received the funding at the very last minute.

The Democrat Party is highly unlikely to choose me as their propagandist! My first fictional feature, ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned in 1998 by the Democrat government, Abhisit’s party (though he was just an MP, not the PM at the time). Unless you’d insist that by revealing the truth about the tourism/real estate and golf course industries, I made green propaganda films, I can honestly, and proudly, say that I have never made a propaganda film. Most other Thai filmmakers have, including well-known festival darlings who now portray themselves as anti-royalist and therefore democratic. Even Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Penek Rattanaruang have made government-funded films extolling the king. (Not part of the same film fund but a series of shorts funded by the Cultural Ministry to glorify the king’s 60 years on the throne, a project called ‘Nhang Nai Luang’—“The King Movies”, a way to make propaganda sound cool, with cool shorts from cool filmmakers.) No one would dream of approaching me to join such projects. I just wouldn’t do it. It would make me physically ill. Nothing against the king, but such overkill glorification is detrimental to society and the monarchy itself. I think such projects only provoke an understandable backlash.

The Creative Thailand film fund was the first and last of its kind, open to all types of film and filmmakers, without a stated theme (such as to extol the king or save the environment). It no longer exists; the Yingluck government has no film fund. It’s not very interested in our mental improvement.


2. Why did the Ministry of Culture fund this particular film? Did you apply for funding? Were you approached by the Culture Ministry? If the latter, why?

Please see above. No, we were not approached; we were in fact barely tolerated!


3. Even before Shakespeare Must Die, you were known as a provocative filmmaker.  Your documentary titles Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993) and Casino Cambodia (1994) all demonstrate your ability to highlight and portray the problems of Thai society. Your film My Teacher Eats Biscuits was banned from a film festival for its “depravity.” How does Shakespeare Must Die fit into your oeuvre?

I switched from print journalism to filmmaking because I needed to show rather than tell. As the first writer to focus on environmental problems in Thailand, at a time (1980’s) when the environment was not yet considered real news in the world, I often encountered scepticism and antagonism from editors. They just wouldn’t believe that things could be so bad.

The advent of Hi 8 video made filmmaking accessible to outsiders like me. ‘Thailand for Sale’ (which I wrote and narrated but didn’t direct, for the BBC and the Television Trust for the Environment) and ‘Green Menace’ are obviously straight-forward visual extensions of my green investigative journalism. ‘Casino Cambodia’, initially about Cambodia becoming a casino for the world’s speculators as armed conflict ended, came from my further past as a UNHCR volunteer in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border. Ultimately, it poses the question: who gets the right to write the accepted version of history? Henry Kissinger is not demonised like Pol Pot; instead he gets the Nobel Peace prize–why?

‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ seems a weird departure from all this seriousness. It was my experiment to make a 16 mm film with a very low budget; it was actually the first independent Thai film, made by people totally outside the system. I wrote a script around what I had or what I could beg and borrow, so my dog became the arch villain, a sacred dog worshipped as His Holiness in a New Age ashram. I wanted to examine the nature of rationalisation, of worship and belief. I had the mistaken trust that a comedy would get away with more. It turned out that people get even angrier when you make them laugh in spite of themselves.

In the above list you left out ‘Citizen Juling’, my documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand, which centred on an idealistic  young Buddhist teacher from the North who volunteered to teach art in the war zone of the south and was beaten into a coma, apparently by enraged Muslim housewives (untrue—turns out they were male terrorists in burqas). This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief, and when it was rejected by every documentary festival under the sun, the only way I could deal with it was to set myself an overwhelming task, my version of a Herculean labour, namely to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai. The sheer difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of it would leave me with no idle brain space for unproductive thinking.

I thought it would take years. But the task gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done. (Oddly, as soon as this was done, ‘Citizen Juling’ was invited to Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals out of the blue.) ‘Macbeth’ as ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is a totally natural outflow, of blood and tears if you will, from our conversations with the grief-stricken people of the South, Muslims and Buddhists, who have suffered most from Thaksin’s rule by fear and violence.

While Thaksin’s crimes did inspire me to reread and then translate the world’s best-known study of tyranny, in my mind were also all the local mafia figures in nearly every Thai village who rule with fear. Thaksin is just their overlord. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk as well as other sources, many people believe that Thaksin (who had been a police colonel—he studied criminology in Texas–before becoming a telecommunications billionaire and then politician) achieved his monopoly on Thai tyranny by getting rid of all opposing local influential figures, many of whom were local canvassers for other political parties, through his War on Drugs, which killed at least 2,500 people in police-perpetrated extra-judicial killings, including women and children. My killing of Lady Macduff and her child comes straight from this: the official-looking checkpoint on a lonely road at night, the menacing group of men in uniform-like safari suits. Thaksin’s (and his wife’s) well-known interest in the occult is by the way; all tyrants seem to share this supernatural interest: Hitler, Idi Amin, Hun Sen, Burma’s Than Shwee, you name it. It’s hard to find one tyrant who was or is not into the occult.

I first encountered ‘Macbeth’ as a 15 year old at school in England. My English was barely serviceable at the time. But the play has haunted me all my life. Tyranny in the form of bullies is a fact of most people’s life; my own childhood was rich with them, so they have always fascinated me.


4. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn claims that you are denied your rightful place as a Thai filmmaker, as a female director, and as director of cult films, and goes on to compare My Teacher Eats Biscuits to John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes. Could you comment on the following description of your film?

I now realise that to call My Teacher Eats Biscuits a dangerous, depraved film, is the equivalent of the Thai government accusing Pink Flamingoof national treachery, or of clinging to the logic that the films of Paul Morrissey have the power to destroy religion.That’s because My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a ‘cult’ film in the spirit of John Waters. It’s low-budget, stars friends of the filmmaker, and is shot in the back of somebody’s house. The resulting film is one that had myself and a group of friends helplessly laughing every five minutes when we finally got to see it.

Was this film ever officially released? What is the status of this film?

I do love John Waters. He showed me and other guerrilla filmmakers of my generation how it was possible to make a film without real actors and with very little money. The key is to write dialogue that would sound funny even when recited, deadpan. I didn’t consciously copy ‘Pink Flamingo’ otherwise, except perhaps to force my lead actor (now a bona fide movie star but this was his first movie) to eat dog shit (actually just mashed up candied durian).  The film has not been released. It exists as one 16 mm print. It premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival before it was banned.

Many people have suggested that I should resubmit the film to the censors. That would have to wait for the end of the ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ and ‘Censor Must Die’ struggle. It would be too exhausting otherwise. However, along with the fact that these are the worst times for Thai freedom of expression in my living memory, it’s unlikely to pass for a very odd reason. In recent years, some ultra-royalists have taken to wearing pink to show their love for the king. The ashramites in the film wear pink and kowtow to a dog. They might even say I’m depicting the king as a dog, even though this film was made years before all this colour-coded nonsense. My actors wear pink because it’s the Ashram of Boundless Love. If they had worn red, no doubt they’d say I’m depicting Thaksin as a dog. When people see everything through the prism of propaganda, you can’t win; to argue with them is a total waste of energy.

Last year someone suggested to the National Film Archive to include this film, the first shoestring independent Thai film, in their list of national film heritage, but their committee rejected it. Not serious enough, probably.

My style does seem to change from film to film, because surely the style must serve the story. I work with the limitations that I have and make them work for me.


5. Can you tell us briefly about Shakespeare Must Die? Why use Macbeth as your source? What is it about Shakespeare that transcends time and space?

As for the title, Shakespeare must die because true artists (as represented by Shakespeare), by their very existence, threaten tyranny’s sense of security by shaking their flimsy constructs and versions of reality; by tyrants I mean those who would rule the world with fear and lies.

The film’s use of the Shakespearean play within a play device is appropriate as well as being affordable. It would’ve been delicious to have tanks in the streets, helicopter shots of Macbeth on a penthouse terrace over the Bangkok skyline at sunset etc., but that is not within our reach, so I couldn’t write that script. Cheap swords on a stage would have to work somehow, and the only way for that to work is to stage such scenes on a theatrical stage. The fake theatrical violence then serves to emphasize, by contrast, our bloody ending of a realistic lynching (of the play’s director) with echoes of the bloodiest chapter in contemporary Thai history (October 6 massacre in 1976, when a mob, incited by lying propagandists to become enraged by a protest play at Thammasaat University, massacred student protesters, Rwanda-style—some girls were staked through the heart like vampires. At least I didn’t depict that—perhaps I should have. I do imply it with a brief shot of two girls backing away from a threatening group of men.)

Shakespeare transcends time and space because, one: he’s just so damned good, regardless of all this clever postmodern deconstruction, this plague of pseudo-intellectual profundity in contemporary art today, any truthful person can recognise truth and beauty (as in John Keats) when they experience it; two: his subject is the human soul and he has the gift of ecstasy; three: he deliberately and joyously plays with time and space, through his sudden gear-shifting from one dimensional reality to another without any warning nor excuses; his trippy visuals; his synaesthesia; his magic (literally, as in invoking, incantational power), so much so that his world view, or view of the whole cosmos, is more akin to quintessential Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism than his own cultural context of social Christianity. Naked Hindu mystics on the banks of the Ganges are more likely to understand and relate to Shakespeare than the average Englishman today. His structural reality (and lack thereof) is universal, therefore. To me, Shakespeare is not only a poet, the poet, of unimaginable power, he is also a prophet, as great or greater than most accepted religious and philosophical figures. (Now you see why I should be burned at the stake.) His art leads us to self-knowledge and divine communion in the deepest sense.

While I was astonished that it took me only four months of total immersion to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai, I soon realised this was because there is something innately universal, quintessential, about his music, his rhythm, his very sound. Like the Hindu mystics (and the bible, actually), I do perceive the physical universe as the manifestation of sound: “OM”; “the music of the spheres”; “In the beginning was the word.” That’s why I worked so hard to keep Shakespeare’s sound. Interestingly, I had terrible problems with some passages, which I later found were suspected by some to be later additions to the original play.


6. Is Shakespeare an aspect of the Thai educational system? Are there Shakespearean theatre companies or other cinematic adaptions of Shakespeare’s works popular in Thailand? How and why does Shakespeare speak to or for modern Thailand?

Shakespeare is part of the syllabus for the last two years of high school, but only for those on the liberal arts course rather than the sciences. They learn from King Vajiravudh’s (first world war era) translations of ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘As You Like It’. (This was a man who should’ve been a writer/poet rather than king. He was a genuinely gifted poet but he bankrupted the country.) They are not direct translations but ornately rendered into a very rigid form of Thai poetry called the verse of eight. It’s a virtuoso performance, a genuine achievement; one particular part (“The quality of mercy is not forced…”, which he translates as “Un Kwarm Garuna Pranee/ Ja Mee Krai Bangkup goh hamai”) has entered the stream of common usage, but nothing else has. We can’t relate to it because it doesn’t sound like speech. It’s not easy or natural for actors to say. He directed and even performed in them himself at court, using not real actors but his intimate circle; the performances were not for the public. They haven’t caught on despite being part of the high school syllabus.

Real Shakespearean studies exist only at university level, where they actually study Shakespeare’s original texts.

No, there are no Shakespearean theatre companies, though one theatre group recently staged a loose adaptation of Lear called ‘Lear and His 3 Daughters’. Chulalongkorn University (the Thai equivalent of Harvard)’s Liberal Arts School staged the only nearly full-length (cutting out the ‘boring’ and problematic ‘English scene’ with Malcolm and Macduff which discusses the divine right of kings) performance of ‘Macbeth’ while we were still editing our film, using our Macduff as their Macduff and our Macbeth as their Lennox. It was directed by one of their lecturers, Noppamas Waewhongse (not sure about the correct spelling, just a straight transliteration), who used her own translation, which she did years ago. Since it hadn’t been published, I wasn’t aware until I was casting the film that there was already a translation by a Chula liberal arts professor. The actors told me about it. Macbeth had been an obsession of hers for years; I met her once and her joy in it was obvious.  A news talk show tried to use her to discredit me, but they didn’t expect us to get on so well, because of our common obsession.

They put us together on TV, to find out why her play was attended by the king’s daughter and upset no one, while my film was doubly banned (once by the censors then by the actual Film Board). She said it was because she stuck to Shakespeare and set it in 11th Century Scotland, with authentic armour and costumes. I said if I were to do that, I’d have to shoot in Scotland, the budget would be extreme, and besides there would be no point. Those films have been made; they’re not my story to tell.

My aim was to make an emotionally and spiritually authentic ‘Macbeth’, that brings the joys of Shakespeare to Thai people who must at the same time be able to relate to it. That’s why I changed Norway, England and Scotland to censor-taunting obvious mythic names from the realm of poetry and fantasy like Shangrilla, Atlantis and Xanadu. This is very much a Thai folk opera tradition. (I love ‘likay’, or Thai folk opera. They’re travelling theatre groups equipped with not much more than two canvas backdrops, usually one of a throne room and one of a forest, with singers/dancers/actors in fantastical sequin-encrusted costumes, including since the 19th century Western ballgowns and Napoleonic coats. I took liberally from likay but, since I was making a Shakespearean film for Thai people rather than to seduce international curators, decided against the outright exploitation of such Thai exotica as it would get in the way. For, say, Midsummer, it could be fun.

Thailand, or Siam by its true, pre-fascist name, is nearly unique historically in that it was never colonised by Western empires. (Don’t worry, the West got its revenge on the king who kept them off his land by caricaturing him as Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison and Chow Yoon Fat in Hollywood and on Broadway.) Indian society, for instance, has a close relationship and familiarity with English literature, especially Shakespeare.

Most Thai people do not speak a second language. Shakespeare is heard of as a name, a ‘high-end brand’, like Gucci or Chanel. That’s why it was so exciting to attempt such a challenge, in the most ideal conditions, impossible elsewhere, to perform Shakespeare with actors who would speak every word “as if for the first time”. One girl looked up from the script after trying out for Lady M and said, with genuine wonder, “Oh my God, what a character this woman is. I love her. I’ve never seen such dialogue.”  (She was reading “The Raven himself..” and “I have given suck..dash the brains out.” Alas she did not get the part.)

‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is the first and so far only Thai cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. But because of the ban and no one has seen it, you really have to say there’s been no Thai Shakespearean film and there won’t be any if the court decides against us.

The appeal of Macbeth to the Thai public is obvious. We are living under a real live Macbeth, albeit one with an army of international spindoctors; we are living through Shakespearean times and the world beyond our borders does not know it. High drama in the streets, in the courts, in parliament, everywhere we go. Rage and hatred, operatic villainy, extreme fear and violence, spindoctors staging obscene plays within the play, piling lies upon lies, you name it. The play also contains, in the so-called ‘English scene’, a discussion on the divine right of kings, of leaders and rulers of men, which is the discussion we desperately need now.

I’m quite unrepentant. I went in with my eyes open, fully aware of the sensitive nature of my choice of play. Its relevance is the very reason to do it. It’s absurd that we’re not allowed to film a play that’s taught to 15 year old school children in English-speaking countries all over the world.  It would be obscene to surrender to such a silly fear, even if—surely, especially when—the threats arising from this silly fear are very real.


7. Shakespeare Must Die is labeled a horror film. Can you elaborate? Is Macbeth a horror story? Is your adaptation more apt to be labeled horror? How so?

Like many people, I think Macbeth is the archetype of the horror genre. (The Odyssey is full of monsters, it’s true, but it’s an adventure story rather than a horror story, the blood wedding notwithstanding.) On the surface witches, dark prophecy, hallucinations, apparitions and the slaughter of innocents; then beneath that exotic manifestation we have the real horrors of spiritual corruption, guilt, insanity and torment, the ultimate horror being of course the loss of his “eternal jewel”. As the first Thai version of Macbeth, for an audience that’s mostly never heard of it, I felt the film had to deliver the eye of newt and toe of frog, both as gleeful Hallowe’en fun and as a device to emphasise, by contrast, the true horror of the Macbeths’ disintegration, again as I believe Shakespeare intended. Witches for a laugh and Lady M for shivers.

To be honest, I’d always longed to make a horror film. People have often told me that all my films including the dog-god black comedy have been horror movies at heart. As a horror movie junkie, I’m not offended. It is a genre that allows free exploration of the soul; heaven and hell, good and evil. Sacred texts like the Ramayana is at times a horror epic, not least because the hero makes his wife walk through fire to prove her fidelity. The bible has incredible horror scenes. It’s not a genre that’s taken seriously because it’s so enjoyable.

8. What are your inspirations or filmmakers (especially Shakespearean) you consulted when working on this project?

One major source of inspiration for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was TV melodrama: Thai soap operas and Mexican telenovelas gave the film its look and vibe (though with Caravaggio colours and lighting). This makes it instantly accessible for the soap-addicted Thai audience. The shock is also greater when it is delivered through this familiar guise. Where they expect mental comfort food served by vacuous TV stars mouthing inane TV scripts, they get, instead, powerful actors speaking Shakespeare’s intense words.

For its inner truth, I decided to trust the text unreservedly, no matter how unfashionable or scary that might turn out to be. I tried to be as free of preconceptions from existing Shakespearean cinema as possible, and did not show any Shakespearean film to my cast and crew. I didn’t want them to try to sound ‘Shakespearean’, but just to revel in the actual text. This was easier than it sounds as I haven’t actually seen that many Shakespearean films. I suppose my favourite Shakespearean film would be the Richard 3rd film set in 1930’s fascist England starring Sir Ian McKellen. I love Kurosawa’s Lady M, and the opening scene of Polansky’s ‘Macbeth’, with the witches spitting into a noose on a Scottish beach. I’ve been told that Orson Welles’ version is the only one that doesn’t delete the ‘English scene’, and I’d love to see his treatment of it, but I haven’t seen it yet.


9. How can a 400-year old Shakespearean play cause such controversy? Now? In another country? Can you comment on the censorship concerning depictions of the Thai monarchy?

I’ll answer the last part first, as it’s crucial to understanding. ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was not banned out of fear of the monarchy. It was banned out of fear of Thaksin Shinawatra.

As I explained earlier, we had to show uncut footage of the regicide scene before they’d fund us. They even praised the footage and greenlighted the money. That was under the previous government, a ‘royalist government’. So the Yingluck Shinawatra administration could not, cannot, use that old chestnut against us. The incredible scrutiny, meted out to no other film project, that we received from the Cultural Ministry during the funding process has turned out to be a blessing. Because of it, this government was robbed of its favoured tool, Article 112 or Lese Majeste law, which the Thaksin juggernaut exploits to burnish his ‘democratic’ credentials while soiling the king with a tar brush. Even so, as the ban made international news, Thaksin’s spindoctors did their best to portray that it was banned because of the king. You can read their handiwork in the news slant. It didn’t matter what I said, the story was already written to fit the Thaksin script. As a former journalist, I knew that, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I am not fond of Article 112; my family has suffered greatly from it, has even joined a campaign to amend this law. Now that it has become a much-abused political tool, all true reformers have been forced to retreat; we’d just get lumped in with Thaksin’s red shirts. Deliberate Thaksinite provocations (such as by uploading on YouTube a picture of the king with someone’s feet above him, which provoked the predictable hue and cry to force the Abhisit government to object and thereby appearing to be less ‘free’ than Thaksin) have also caused ultra-royalists to become hyper-sensitive. When Abhisit, as PM, said 112 should be amended, their reaction was so strong that he instantly retreated and has not mentioned it again. All thinking people in Thai society are stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.

The greatest irony is the king himself has publicly spoken against this law, on TV, broadcast nationally, on record.  But never mind him. Things that deviate from the script must not exist. Like the film censorship law which was ostensibly designed to protect the public from social poison but ends up harming the people by blind-folding them, the lese majeste law is meant to protect the monarchy and therefore national unity (as in “The king and the land are one so the king can/must do no wrong”), but its effects have been to harm the monarchy and divide the land. Who is the beneficiary?

The old divide and conquer strategy has been as fruitful for Thaksin and his corporate colonial cohorts as it was for the Western colonial powers in these savage lands. Thaksin would be the last to desire the amendment of Article 112. The knee-jerk reactions of ultra-royalists play straight into his hands.

The simplistic script as written by his spindoctors, and as slavishly followed by the international press, is this: Thais are not individuals with our own thoughts; Thais can be divided neatly into evil elite royalists and brave Thaksin democrats. People like me are inconvenient to such spin, so we cannot be allowed to exist. Thus ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is banned not only domestically but, through such spin, internationally. A business tycoon first and foremost, Thaksin thoroughly understands and exploits ‘soft power’; he’s smarter than the Iranian mullahs. I may not be in jail like Jafar Panahi, but in some ways I’ve been more banned than even him.

Thaksin’s best known spindoctor is Lord Tim Bell, whose most celebrated client was Margaret Thatcher. (This is why our fembot clone PM Yingluck was celebrated as one of the world’s great women by Newsweek, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and Hilary Clinton.) I’m sure this is why BBC and CNN didn’t touch the story of the banning of Shakespeare in Thailand, though Al Jazeera covered us twice. This is why the AP wire story was removed from the New York Times website not long after it appeared there—it never made it into print, of course. This is why BBC radio in London immediately cut short their interview with me the second I replied that no, we were not banned because it offended the king. I’d done other, formally set up interviews with the BBC, TV and radio, before. Normally it’s set up in their local office. BBC radio in London must’ve seen the wire story and decided to do the story themselves, so this was not set up in their office. I could hear the interviewer’s surprise at my answer and the sudden ending of the interview, as if someone came in and instantly shut it down.

Macbeth’s relevance to contemporary Thai society is almost literal: a man of insatiable greed for power who sets himself up as an enemy to the king. That’s why it had to be a faithful adaptation, an extreme close-reading even, of Shakespeare. The usual cinematic solution of Macbeth as a gangster, say, would be a coy distraction. It has to be political for these words to make sense: “Alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother but our grave…”  Ross’ lament is the reason I made ‘Shakespeare Must Die’. It’s even our theme song.

As for the depiction of Thai monarchy, filmmakers have mostly avoided it. This is because the visible and invisible rules are so unpredictable and the law is often used to discriminate against opponents. This means avoiding political and historical stories. That vast store is off-limit to us, incredible as it may seem.


10. Who has seen Shakespeare Must Die? Censor Must Die? (art galleries, international viewings, etc. I’ve seen that the Asian Shakespeare Association, for example, will screen the film at its conference)

Much of this I’ll answer along with question 11.

It’s funny to think now that while we were making the film, the people we feared most were not the censors but Shakespeareans, since I’m no Shakespearean scholar but an art school drop-out making a horror movie. As it turns out, most of the moral support we’ve received has come from Shakespeareans. Apart from local Shakespeareans, Professor Mark Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast and the Indian director Rustom Bharucha have seen the film and given us wonderful feedback. Rustom Bharucha will hold a talk with me after the Asian Shakespeare conference screening. This should go ahead unless they too are deluged by emails from Thai Studies types, warning them not to show an anti-democratic evil elite propaganda film…(see below)


11. Are there possibilities of the film(s) being screened at international film festivals (such as Cannes, the Toronto International Film festival, etc.)?

No, there is absolutely no possibility of ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ being shown at Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin etc. None, and not because it’s a crappy movie. I stand by this comment absolutely.

All, and I mean all, Asian cinema presented at the world’s great film festivals are controlled by the same small group of curators. They send scouts to our third world countries on film selection trips. (Such scouts even tell people how to cut their films. If you don’t obey the dictates of their tastes, you do not ‘go international’. That is why East Asian films shown at festivals are of the same type. This wouldn’t be so bad if local critics, colonially-shackled and lacking confidence, didn’t take their cue from these festivals. Thus entire national cinematic cultures are sacrificed at the altar of the festival circuit. I refuse to do this, so I do have this monolith against me as well as the Thaksin machine. If I had made my witches screechy ‘lady boys’, a Thai cliché, life might’ve been easier.)

The Cannes scout did come to my editing room. He said: “The politics are too specific.” He also “hated” my M and Lady M. Also, why make such a faithful Shakespeare adaptation, how unimaginative of me, how can I hope to compete with “real Shakespearean actors like Judy Dench etc.” as if we the savages have no right to ‘do’ Shakespeare unless we exoticise it, local colour being our only conceivable and acceptable contribution to Shakespearean cinema.

After we were banned, a French sales rep with Cannes connections asked for a DVD; he was initially ecstatic about the film and its chance of getting in at the last minute. Then silence. It was definitely shown to the selection committee. They would’ve consulted the scout in any case.

The Venice scout adored the film in the editing room, said it should be in competition blah blah, told me to rush the film’s completion for him, then at the last moment sends an email that it was not good enough to show to the selection committee, even saying that “the subtitles are in such weird, old-fashioned English”. The subtitles are of course the original text, “the work of one William Shakespeare”, as I put it to him.

Berlin, which had shown our ‘Citizen Juling’ not long before, said ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ “does not fit into our theme”—if we hadn’t been rejected, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ would’ve been in Berlin the same year ‘Caesar Must Die’ won the Golden Bear.

Toronto asked for a DVD, then silence. None of which surprised me as the aforementioned Cannes film scout is also consulted by Berlin and Toronto, both of which that year, last year, showed just one Thai film, the same film, ‘Headshot’, a gunman movie incidentally co-produced by the very same film scout (and also funded by the Creative Thailand Film Fund, 8 million).

The very recent case of ‘Boundary’, a documentary described by many as sympathetic to Thaksin as it tells essentially the same version of events as Thaksin’s sister’s government, illustrates my point succinctly. It was the only Thai film at this year’s Berlinale. It was co-produced by Thai Palme d’Or winner Aphichartpong Weerasethakul and the same Cannes film scout (though he’s credited only as a Thank You) and funded by numerous Western film funds whose logos appear on film. After its Berlinale premiere, it was submitted to censors. What happens next says it all.

‘Boundary’ was at first banned by a censors’ committee headed by the most senior bureaucrat (non-politician) in the Ministry of Culture who accused it of distortion—a serious charge for a documentary. Unlike with ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which was just vaguely charged of being a threat to national security, for the ‘Boundary’ ban the censors had a proper long list of their objections, minute by minute. (I haven’t seen it and can’t give my opinion, though I don’t believe in the banning of any film. People whose opinion I respect have gone so far as to describe it as a ‘red shirt film’ and ‘hate-speech’. I’m sorry to say I was invited to the local premiere but didn’t go. I’m too angry with this government to expose myself to unnecessary aggravation.)

Even so, in no time (just over 24 hours) the ban on ‘Boundary’ was suddenly lifted. This is legally impossible. Normally you have to file an appeal to the Film Board to reverse a ban; you have to do this within 15 days then the Film Board takes another 30 days to decide. These people hadn’t even filed an appeal. The censors actually phoned the director to “apologise for the misunderstanding”. The film then received an 18 rating (for those 18 and older), which is not even the highest rating (20), which the appeal committee told us to expect for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ (and which we didn’t get, receiving instead an 18 to 4 vote to uphold the censors’ ban, along with additional charges of being a disgrace to good public morality and national dignity).  To save face, the censors told them to mute some harmless sound from a scene of a celebration for the king’s birthday, so that it appears to have been banned for less than 2 days in order not to offend the king.

The ‘Boundary’ ban reversal is a great embarrassment for many. For us it’s a boon as we’ve been able to use it, as further irrefutable evidence of discrimination and political interference, to bolster our administrative court case. Also, we’ll be able to cite it if they do decide to ban our utterly truthful and factual documentary, ‘Censor Must Die’.

When ‘Citizen Juling’ was taken in hand by the same powerful film scout and invited to both Toronto and Berlin, he told me that when the title appeared on Toronto’s list of films in its official announcement, the festival was “deluged” with emails from Thai Studies academics, American professors at US universities whom he would not name, telling them to scrap ‘Citizen Juling’ from the programme—“You cannot show such an anti-democratic film” is one example as quoted by the film scout. Yes, the word used was not ‘undemocratic’ but ‘anti-democratic’, as in anti-Christ. “But the festival has decided to stand by your film,” was his conclusion then.

I have no proof that festivals received similar emails about ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, but given the film’s far-higher profile and Thai politics’ further infernal descent since then, as well as the merry go round of ecstatic-then-silent reactions, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they did. I do have an actual eye-witness to one incident: the director of a prominent contemporary art museum “furiously” told a film festival at that venue to remove the film from their list, “because we can’t upset another country’s government.”  (I only happened to hear of it because the girl who was “screamed at in the middle of the museum office” is friends with an artist I know well.)

People aware of the situation did try to save us. In the end we screened at one festival in Seoul described as “middle-level but fiercely independent” called CinDi, where people sat around muttering stories about “the festival mafia”, even as members of that mafia appeared at the parties and at least one sat on the jury. CinDi was set up to fight the mafia, but now it no longer exists; that was the last edition. I’ve been told we got great press, but alas I can’t read Korean.


11. Last year, 37 plays in different languages from different countries came to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. The Guardian was running a feature asking directors and actors “Why Shakespeare is … French/German/South African, etc.?” So, I ask you “Why Shakespeare is …  Thai…”

The fact that they banned our film shows how very Thai Shakespeare is.

Shakespeare transcends cultural differences because his focus is the universal human soul. He is especially relevant for Thai people because we are literally living through Shakespearean times.


12. In your public panel discussion on “Art and Censorship” (given at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 5 July 2012), the language that you use to describe Thai censorship and media control sounds very much like a dystopian novel: the popularity of mindless entertainment shows such as reality TV and game shows, the commercialization and politicization of dumbed down media, and, of course, the banning of difficult and intelligent films that may force viewers to think. Is Thailand heading into Orwellian territory here? What can be done to create smart, demanding, and problematic film and television options? Are there other filmmakers, directors, or artists that you feel are really pushing against this?

Of course we are in Orwellian territory. Bangkok has become the city with the highest number of facebook users in the world because under the Thaksin regime everything else is so heavily censored and spinned. But now Thai people can’t even speak freely on Facebook.

I’m not exaggerating. Thailand’s best loved political cartoonist, Chai Rachawat, an elderly man, is fighting a libel case, brought against him by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in criminal court, for a comment on his own facebook page. He was just letting off steam over a speech she made abroad with the line: “A prostitute sells only her body, but an evil woman sells out her whole country.” It’s not a cartoon in a newspaper, just a somewhat sexist personal comment to his facebook friends. He didn’t even name her. In another case this very week, the computer crimes police are interrogating four people including the senior political commentator at Thai PBS TV, for “spreading rumours of a coup d’etat” on his facebook page. He’d said that it was unlikely to happen.

Another example, a personal one. Last week at the last minute I was asked to be on a talk show at Thai PBS to defend the evil media against a family values media watchdog. It was obvious they couldn’t get anyone else to sit in the hot seat. The Family Foundation woman was upset with the dangerous behaviour of young people as portrayed by a cable TV series called ‘Hormones’, you know, kids taking drugs, sex and highly daring full frontal close-ups of bloody sanitary pads. (She was especially upset by that.)The damnedest thing that I should’ve been the one chosen to defend the very fortress that keeps me out. The director of the series, a famous film director, should’ve been the one to answer her, and I’m sure they tried but his producers must’ve told him not to feed the controversy. I haven’t even seen the series.

They did try but failed to get the president of the Thai Directors Association, Tanwarin Sukhapisit, whose film ‘Insects in the Backyard’ was banned for obscenity. She bravely fought the ban and was the first filmmaker to sue the censors in both the Administrative Court and the Constitution Court. (These courts did not exist when ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned.) She gave us the nerve to do the same, and stood by us as we went through the process. She used to be extremely outspoken, but she has since become very successful, making films for the biggest studio. This means she now has a lot to lose and has probably been told by studio handlers to downplay the warrior image. As directors’ guild president, she has vowed to continue campaigning for the end of the banning clause. (Our legal teams, along with Banjong Kosalawat, a distinguished director who has been fighting the banning clause for thirty years, have joined forces to propose a new film law.) Tanwarin lost her case at the Constitution Court (to interpret the banning clause as being unconstitutional), but her Administrative Court case, like ours, is still pending. We didn’t file with the Constitution Court—our more experienced human rights lawyer said it would hold everything up and be a waste of time.

Thai PBS ended up calling Manit Sriwanichpoom, my producer, who really couldn’t go. Normally he’s our spokesman, unless it’s in English. He told me I had to do it or no other filmmaker will defend our rights. In this climate of fear and rage, everyone’s afraid for their careers; I’m the only one with nothing left to lose but life and liberty. Manit is the one who’s actually had to face the censors and the film board in our fight to free ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, while I followed him around with a camera as a witness. He’s the star of ‘Censor Must Die’. But that day he really wasn’t free.

There was also a police psychologist and a media academic. The taping went fine. Except that when they aired it, they cut out everything I said about corruption (as in “Thai society’s concept of morality has been so distorted by fascist cultural engineering that we get upset by tops with spaghetti straps, though our quite recent ancestors wore even less; meanwhile a recent survey says 65% of Thais accept corruption so long as they personally benefit…We’re barking up the wrong tree.”), or anything else remotely connected with the Yingluck administration. This was a programme called ‘Thiang Hai Ru Ruang’ (“debate for clarity”), sponsored by a German foundation, to help to heal divisions in Thai society. So much for clarity.

I also said instead of fearfully banning evil, we should promote thought-provoking media and remove censorship so such media could flourish. Censorship is the very reason our media products are so bad; we’re prevented from touching real drama; our story-telling is so limited hence the prevalence of these slap-and-kiss fests that the Family Foundation is so concerned about. They cut that too. I said Tanwarin’s film is not porn as it was not made for sexual arousal; it’s a sad movie about love-starved people who try to fill their lives with sex and just get even sadder. You have to see the maker’s intent. They cut that too.

The show has an infantile gimmick: they tell “the opposing sides” to shake hands at the end. It was like a sitcom, so I hugged her instead. Ah, reconciliation achieved. I told you this long-winded story to show from my personal experience how out of fear even Thai PBS censors itself and collaborates with the spin.

Art and theatre have remained under their radar so far. Nevertheless, in a subtle way, Thaksin’s spindoctors are causing damage and distortion to Thai contemporary art. Now that every artist knows that the sure-fire way to ‘go international’ is to appear to criticise the monarchy or display some other marker of ‘controversy’, ‘democracy’ and ‘political integrity’, that is the way to go.


13. What would you be willing to do to make Shakespeare Must Die be released nationally? If the Censorship Board stated cut out this or that reference or allusion (e.g. the allusion to the 1976 Bangkok student uprising), what could/would you remove without harming the integrity of this film?

That decision is long past. The censors asked for “corrections”, which we refused to make. They objected to so many things: our use of red, Lady M’s jewellery, the lynching scene, on and on and on in a never-ending run-around.

From my contact with them, from their extreme reactions, I believe the thing that’s shaken them to the core is none of these things. Yes, they fear Thaksin, but they also fear William Shakespeare. They’d never seen or heard Shakespeare before, that’s all. This must seem incredible to you. But imagine that you’ve never experienced Shakespeare in any shape or form (except perhaps Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’) and never in your own tongue, then suddenly you’re hit on the head with ‘Macbeth’ which, incredibly, is just like your own country. You’ve only ever heard straight-forward, predictable Thai dialogue, then suddenly you’re hit by Lady M, in Thai, but Shakespeare’s words, invoking evil spirits to enter her. Nothing in your life has prepared you for such an assault. It’s in verse but it’s totally natural, and oh so intense. Meanwhile the English subtitles appear, Shakespeare again, floating in and out like a moving Shakespearean graphic novel, emphasizing it still more that it’s the exact translation, no hanky-panky from me.

Perhaps because of our Buddhist background, Thai people tend to mistrust intensity; it’s just not good for your mental health. It’s obvious to me that it just blew their minds. They’d never heard words used like this before; the power and the intensity thrilled and terrified them. You can see this clearly in ‘Censor Must Die’. Manit is convinced that it doesn’t matter what we cut, they’d still feel threatened by it. The most-rewarding response I’ve ever received was from an economics professor after a screening at Chula University, who said he now understands why ‘farangs’ (white foreigners) enjoy Shakespeare. He could never see the point before.

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For a non-Thai audience, I can easily remove the long talky ‘English scene’. I was tempted to remove it even before we shot it, since it’s extremely sensitive politically,  hard to do well and potentially boring: talking heads, a man weeping, discussion on the divine right of kings. Uncinematic and risky in every way. Who wants to touch that? But its relevance for the Thai audience cannot be denied so I couldn’t cut it with a good conscience, out of sheer cowardice. For the Thai audience, I can remove nothing without harming the integrity and impact of the film. Other Thai films have portrayed October 14 and October 6 events. The censors’ objection is not the real one. We are being discriminated against. They only latched onto that scene because, horrors, it’s the October 6 massacre!!!


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14. Is the Censorship Board missing all of the irony of banning your film, which is all about the banning of Shakespeare’s play?

They are too fearful to care about irony.  Manit did point that out to them, but they didn’t care.

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15. Finally, what is the current status of Censor Must Die? When will you hear more about Censorship Board’s decision?

The censors have been silent as the grave. They have until August 22nd (ten more days) to decide the fate of ‘Censors Must Die’, and may or may not summon us for questioning before they do. The ‘Boundary’ farce must tie their hands somewhat. It’s not going to be decided by them in any case. The current Minister of Culture is the husband of the then Minister of Culture (that’s how it works with the Thaksin regime), who looks none too good in the film. A summon is not a good sign, so there’s hope yet.


Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Speaker’s Progress: Introduction

Friday, July 26th, 2013

The third installment of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy premiered in New York in 2011. The Speaker’s Progress used Twelfth Night as a starting point to explore events in the Middle East. The play transformed Shakespeare’s comedy into a satire on the political inertia of the Arab world, and a theatrical metaphor for the mechanisms of dissent.  The production was strongly coloured by the ‘Arab Spring’, the succession of revolts against established regimes that have begun to rise up across the Arab world. Al-Bassam comments:

A new history is finding its voice among the millions across the Arab world who stood up and continue to stand—and fall—for dignity and freedom after decades of shame and oppression. This play, forged at the cusp of these two eras, has the fortune—and the responsibility—to be one of its platforms.

In an unnamed Arab country theatres have been shut down and theatrical performance criminalized. From a lectern, a former theatre producer, played by Al-Bassam himself, explains to the audience that what he is presenting is not a play, but a reconstruction of a 1960s production based on the story of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The costumes and set resemble a scientific rather than an artistic context, with the actors wearing laboratory coats. Men and women remain at a distance from one another. An ominous camera sits in front of the stage, suggesting universal government surveillance.

The 1960s production of Twelfth Night, we understand, had the radical spirit of its time, especially in its irreverence toward moral and political authority.  We see parts of it parts of it in black-and-white film on a large screen onstage, and hear Shakespearean dialogue adapted to a radical contemporary agenda:

Music is the food of love and love is the blood of freedom and freedom is the mother of progress. . . . How can you transform a country if you don’t put women at its center?

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The government-sponsored revival played out on stage tries to empty the performance of any radical sexual or political content. But the actors run into trouble, simply by having a woman dress as a man. Shakespearean drama becomes a metaphor for radical dissent.

The reconstruction is performed by eight actors who are also ‘not actors’, the Speaker emphasizes, but ‘envoys’ from the Tourist Board and the Council of Virtue. Initially the actors obediently deliver the official programme. Gradually they begin to deviate from the script, and wander into politically dangerous territory. They burst into song; women change into dresses and take off their head scarves; they cry ‘Freedom!’  People are arrested; voices are silenced; disobedience repressed. But the energy and humour of the Shakespearean drama continually explodes through the barriers of oppression. The Speakers Progress is Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Spring.