Shakespeare’s travels in Eastern Asia

It is the East study session, The Globe, 17 March 2012

The third and final study session in this eastern-themed series looked at Eastern Asia.

Jamie Arden of Globe Education began by taking us through a set of exercises based on the methods of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. He emphasises the actor’s connection with the ground as well as the creation of community within a theatre ensemble. To this end, we did a lot of stomping and jumping in air, crying ‘Ha!’ on a given signal.

It proved difficult for the group to stand in a circle and number off from one to ten without two people speaking at once. Surprisingly this worked better when the circle faced outwards rather than inwards.

The real meat of the day began with a lecture by Dr. Yong Li Lan, who is director of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (A | S | I | A).

She used videos from the archive’s website (registration required) to illustrate the wide variety of ways in which Asian theatre companies have engaged with and adapted Shakespeare. The results were uniformly intriguing and stimulating.

  • A Japanese production of Othello in the Mugen Noh (fantasy Noh) style. A traveller arrives in Cyprus and meets the ghost of Desdemona who narrates the story.
  • Hamlet reinvented as a Korean cleansing ritual in which Hamlet becomes a shamen, not seeking revenge, but trying to cleanse the spirit of his dead father.
  • The Yohangza Dream – a Korean mixture of naturalism, dance, mime and tableaux. This production is coming to The Globe as part of the Globe to Globe festival.
  • Nonya Nightingale – a Singaporean children’s theatre production, combining Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale and King Lear.
  • Mak Yong Titis Sakti – a Malaysian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream used to circumvent religious censorship of a particular theatrical form associated with animism.
  • The Tempest as an international collaboration between China and Denmark. The production uses a circus format making Prospero ringmaster of a spectacle. Caliban turns his body in a sailing ship by balancing small sails on his arms and feet.

The way in which the Mak Yong production was used to evade censorship was familiar to those of us who had attended the first study session on the Middle East.

Dr. Yong pointed out that Shakespeare is commonly used as the third point in a triangular negotiation between ideas in conflict.

The afternoon was given over to an incredibly fun session with Yellow Earth Theatre, who introduced us to the world of Chinese shadow puppetry and its accompanying music.

After a brief introduction to the form by Kumiko Mendl, the Artistic Director of Yellow Earth, we got down to the serious task of making our own puppets out of card in order to stage Macbeth and Banquo’s encounter with the witches. While one group performed, the other provided musical accompaniment on Chinese percussion instruments.

My group went beyond the characters required for the story (the three witches, Macbeth, Banquo & Ross) and added a cauldron with an escaping frog as well as a crown that hovered over Macbeth’s head when his regal destiny was prophesied.

Each puppet was animated by three sticks: one on each arm and one on the torso. The sticks were used to hold them against a backlit screen so that spectators the other side could see them in shadow. Great satisfaction was to be had in coordinating the three sticks to produce convincing movement and gestures.

The day ended with a group discussion that looked at the three It is the East study sessions as a whole.

Anyone with a dim awareness of Shakespeare’s global presence would have come away from these three events with a much deeper knowledge of the plays’ worldwide impact.

The Globe to Globe festival will soon be providing us with an extensive opportunity to see at first hand how Shakespeare has been translated.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s travels in Eastern Asia

  1. This was a wonderful trio of study days, which brought together a wide range of participants (on each side of the ‘audience’) to explore the concepts, politics and practicalities of Shakespeare appropriation in the context of the Globe to Globe festival. Your posts capture perfectly the essence of the sessions. I hope that we will bump into each other, and perhaps some of the other participants, at the festival itself. I am particularly excited about the Mandarin ‘Richard III’, the Palestinian ‘Richard II’, the Polish ‘Macbeth’ and the Lithuanian ‘Hamlet’. I am particularly disappointed that I can’t make the Korean ‘Dream’, the Japanese ‘Coriolanus’ and the Israeli ‘Merchant of Venice’. As for the Georgian ‘As You Like It’, I’ve no idea what to expect, but as I’ll be in London anyway, I may as well go! It’s at times like this that I wish I still lived ‘down South’…

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