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Shakespeare in Asia: Contemporary Performance (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 269-272 | 10.1353/atj.2011.0016

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This set of essays has useful information on the proliferation of Shakespeare productions in various Asian countries. The coverage is not uniform, and the work of a few directors seems overrepresented since productions that hit the festival circuit are more accessible to scholars. China, Japan, and Singapore are focal points for most of the essays, though Indian material receives some discussion. Ong Keng Sen is most controversial, praised by one author (Yong Li Lin), probed by another (John Phillips), and bashed by a third (Rustom Bharucha). Ong has perhaps stirred up as much comment, pro and con, regarding cross-cultural appropriations as Peter Brook did with his Mahabharata, an accomplishment in itself and a testament to Ong's ability (like Brook's) to tour, a requisite for global cross-talk. Lear Is Here (Li Er Zui Ci), in which Contemporary Legend Theatre actor-director Wu Hsing-Kuo plays all the roles in jingju style, again merits multiple comments. Praise is uniform for this work, which combines Wu's strong jingju technique with his personal contemplations on closing his company, a parallel to the disempowerment of Lear. This personal focus, the relative mobility (and economic feasibility) of a one-person cast, and Shakespeare combined with jingju are selling points that clearly have made the production accessible. While one wishes productions that have not been curated in the festival circuit might have achieved similar cross-discussion, the more country-specific articles do give insight into work that is happening, and this makes the book a useful addition to the growing bibliography on Shakespeare in Asian theatre production.

In the introduction Dennis Kennedy and Yong Li Lan outline what they see as three major categories of Shakespearean production: national appropriation (as occurred in the Meiji period as Japanese explored Western authors to fuel their modernization), colonial instigation (as occurred in India where the British educational system inculcated appreciation of all things English, including Shakespeare), and intercultural revisions (in the manner of Mnouchkine and Brook and now Asian tiger maestros from Japan, China, Singapore, and, to an extent, Korea). Following this clearly written introduction, John Russell Brown ("Shakespeare and the Natyasastra") gives a very generalized discussion of his attempts to use rasa theory to inspire actors at the Bremer Shakespeare Company and the National School of Drama in New Delhi. One gets little sense of the productions, and the explanation of rasa is rudimentary and seems to be asking the actors to choose one of the eight emotions to use as their character's "objective." There is no discussion of director or playwright formulation of a uniform rasa experience through plot and performance features.

Daniel Gallimore ("Speaking Shakespeare in Japanese") has a good overview on Shakespeare in Japan and gives ideas on how techniques from kyōgen, rakugo, and so on have been explored and the use of dialects and translations. He gives particular attention to Shakespeare recitations by scholar-actor Arai Yukio, who used katari (narration) and utai (chanting) to indigenize his performance. A discussion of Shakespeare in contemporary Chinese comes in Fei Chunfang and Sun Hizhu's "Shakespeare and Beijing Opera: Two Cases of Appropriation." The article shows awareness of the argument of Rustom Bharucha that Shakespeare is too fraught with colonial baggage, but the authors say this objection does not apply to China, where colonial impact was incomplete and where borrowing from the West was and is selective, directed by the Chinese as part of self-strengthening. The authors show how in 1983 Othello was a safe text for a country emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Ma Yongan, who played the title role, was a painted-face (jing) actor known for hot-headed warriors. He could no longer present the roles that had made him beloved by the Cultural Revolution leadership: "Shakespeare liberated Chinese artists who were searching for new content that could serve traditional theatre" (p. 65). The authors contrast this use with a workshop they did in 1994 in Boston, where jingju techniques liberated American actors from the narrow confines of method-style acting. They found that each project opened new possibilities for the artists and asked: "If this is appropriation—why not?" (p. 70).

The essays share thought...



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