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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 294-296

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New Sites for Shakespeare: Theatre, the Audience, and Asia by John Russell Brown. New York: Routledge, 1999. 211 pp. $21.99

This book is about Shakespeare; yet the scope of its arguments goes far beyond Shakespeare studies. The work derives from certain unique Asian theatre experiences; yet Asian theatre is not its topic so much as a mirror reflecting the author's thoughts about Shakespeare. This makes John Russell Brown's in-depth insights in New Sites for Shakespeare more profound than what is usually encountered in similar books. What is to be gained by linking these two very different entities, Asian theatre and Shakespeare, and devoting a whole book to them? The question is answered by the way this creative method allows familiar issues to be viewed from a totally new angle so that fresh insights suddenly become apparent.

Divided into "Part I: Visiting" and "Part II: Returning," New Sites for Shakespeare takes us on a theatrical excursion via a fascinating West to East journey followed by a trip in the opposite direction. In Part I, the author vividly reports on how he visited many local performances in such different places as India, Japan, Bali, and China during a period of over six years; these visits provide his book with a considerable amount of intriguing information. Readers should not, however, be misled by the volume's beautiful cover showing a painted-face jingxi (Beijing opera) actor--only a few of the book's 200 pages discuss Chinese theatre. Still, this does not affect Brown's rich, informative presentation regarding Asian theatre, and Indian theatre in particular. Most important, Brown frequently compares the performances he saw with various features of Shakespeare's plays. He then develops his ideas as he moves into Part II, where he presents additional arguments concerning his views on Shakespeare performances today. Inspired by his Asian experience, he calls for radical changes in European and North American Shakespeare performance and study. This, in fact, is the real purpose behind his writing.

Brown's attractive descriptions give us many colorful vignettes of various theatre scenes rarely seen in the West. He introduces jatra performances in India, which he watched while part of a crowd surrounding an open stage from midnight to dawn, exciting him about the extraordinarily intimate relationship between audience and performers. He depicts ritual images both in daily life and in the theatre in Bali and in Japan, which remind him of the vital role that ceremony plays in Asian theatre. He also details his experience in seeing kutiyattam in Kerala, India, and talking with the actors. Though Brown reacted to the performance with a sense of alienation because it seemed inaccessible to him, he nonetheless realized that in this form of theatre "everything is created by the imagination of the actor and formed in his consciousness and his being" while the audience "re-imagines the dramatic event in terms of its own individual memories and sensations." Thus a theatre like this is actually created by a mutual effort of performers and spectators. Such discussions give the reader fresh knowledge about some of the world's oldest and most unusual theatre forms.

But they are not the book's main attraction. The fascination in [End Page 294] Brown's writing lies in his always being able to touch on the outstanding features of Western theatre while he examines Asian theatre, as well as his ability to make apt comparisons in searching out the inherent meanings and essences of what he has seen. Not only an academic but also an experienced practitioner, Brown is skilled at combining what he witnesses with his critical perceptions in order to express underlying significances. Like many others, Brown thought Shakespeare's plays use many repetitious expressions. But it was only when he experienced Indian jatra performances, in which deliberate repetitions obviously were meant to cater to audience needs, that he realized something else. He found that audiences knew what to expect and would join in, functioning as a voluntary chorus...