How has COVID-19 affected cultural and digital globalization? Performing Shakespeare is an act of mediation between characters and actors, creating channels between geocultural spaces and time periods. Adaptations accrue nuanced meanings as they move through physical and digital spaces. Theatre works and films gain cultural significance by paying homage to or remediating previous interpretations.
Global Shakespeares have been deployed to revitalize performance genres, resist colonial appendage, exemplify social reparation. How are culturally specific meanings dispersed and re-framed?
Here are a few examples that bear contrasting cultural coordinates and yet share important things in common.
Sampling Global Shakespeares
Set in modern Iran, the political play HamletIRAN (dir. Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Siena College, 2011) takes place around a pool, the centrepiece in traditional Persian gardens. Something is rotten in the country where the Green Movement arose in the wake of voting fraud during the 2009 presidential election. Ironically, even though the play is set in modern Iran, it was staged at Siena College, New York, rather than Iran, due to censorship. It is a political play made for American audiences.
While HamletIRAN exemplifies political theatre, other Middle Eastern works eschew politics. Barakah Meets Barakah (directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh, 2016), a rare romantic comedy film from Saudi Arabia, portrays the heterosexual love story between its middle-class male protagonist Barakah and wealthy feminist fashion vlogger Barakah and their struggle against strict social conventions. Barakah participates in amateur theatre in Jeddah. As the scene in theatre fades in, Barakah is heard reciting rather stiffly: ‘They bore him barefaced on the bier, and in his grave rain’d many a tear’. A dejected, thickly bearded Barakah appears in drag, in a blonde wig and green teal ball gown, chest hair poking out of an Elizabethan bodice. The scene serves both as comic relief and a sober reminder of Saudi law that prohibits women from performing with men.
In Europe, nouvelle vague (New Wave) film director Claude Chabrol uses his Ophélia (Boreal Film, 1963) to comment on France’s postwar identity and economic crisis. Son of the factory owning family Lesurf, Yvan (André Jocelyn) wanders the mansion and its grounds reciting poetry. When he stumbles upon Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet in a local cinema, Yvan sets out to become a Hamlet himself – parallel to how James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister embody aspects of Hamlet.
These examples showcase the complex relations between Shakespeare and global studies. This brief sampling of global Shakespeares shows that—despite their divergent features—adaptations are informed by three elements:
(1) site-specific epistemologies;
(2) a dense network of cross-references; and
(3) a polyphony of voices.
Site-specific epistemologies refers to the production and dissemination of location-based meanings. Location-specific narratives unfold alongside their intricately crafted mise-en-scène with ethnographic details, revealing the physical, fictional and geocultural dimensions of the cultural work being carried out under the name of Shakespeare.
Secondly, there is a dense network of cross-references. Adaptations relate more frequently to one another than to Shakespeare as sanctified source material. These examples show that non-Anglophone Shakespeares are not antithetical to English-language performances; both must negotiate pathways to contingent meanings through transhistorical and cross-cultural axes. There are more aesthetic and ideological connections among global adaptations than first meet the eye, and not all adaptations are routed through cultural hegemony.
Thirdly, location-specific meanings are governed by the polyphony of contrasting voices. Ophélia echoes Daedalus and Olivier’s film version of Hamlet. In the play-within-a-film in Barakah Meets Barakah, one hears echoes of familiar lines by Ophelia and sees references to – despite Baraka’s clumsy performance – the iconic scene where the mad Ophelia hands out flowers.
Going Viral Digitally during COVID-19
The rise of global Shakespeares is inseparable from the prevalence of digital video on commercial and open-access platforms, because these platforms provide inter-connected, instantaneous forms of communication.
The outbreak of the global pandemic of COVID-19 closed live theatre events and cinemas worldwide, but the crisis also ushered in a new phase of globalization fuelled by digital videos as at-home audiences took to streaming to engage with Shakespeare.
The pandemic has led to a proliferation of born-digital and digitized archival videos of Shakespeare in Western Europe, Canada, the UK and the US. Digital streaming – live or pre-recorded, synchronous or asynchronous – has helped Shakespeare go viral on a global scale, and the pandemic is accelerating that process.
As comforting, familiar go-to-material for uplifting the spirits, Shakespeare skyrocketed to the top of the list of digital performance events during the pandemic in the forms of memes (e.g. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague), quotable quotes, performances of select scenes and full productions.
Despite the challenges that the pandemic has brought to live theatre, it has also helped a few companies reach mass global audiences on an unprecedented scale. As of 18 May 2020, the Globe’s YouTube channel had attracted 1.9 million viewers for all of their videos, while the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston, on National Theatre Live garnered more than half a million views between 4 and 11 June 2020. The number of views far exceeds the number of audiences a live production could ever reach within the same one-week period (the Donmar auditorium has only 251 seats; even the National Theatre has a total of only 2,417 seats across its three venues).
Global Shakespeares have been deployed to revitalize performance genres, resist colonial appendage, and exemplify social reparation. To further our understanding of Shakespeare in a post-national and post-pandemic era, it is important to engage with the hybrid cultural themes that inform many adaptations.
The Arden Research Handbook of Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance