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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 171-173

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New Sites for Shakespeare:
Theatre, the Audience, and Asia

New Sites for Shakespeare: Theatre, the Audience, and Asia. By John Russell Brown. New York and London: Routledge, 1999, 211 pp; illustrations. $21.99 paper.

In this new exploration of the intersection of Shakespeare and Asian theatrical practice, John Russell Brown--scholar, educator, and former Associate Director of Britain's National Theatre--expands the range and scope of Shakespeare studies. Using his travels throughout Japan, Korea, China, and India as an opportunity to explore concepts of theatrical space, he reinvents Shakespeare for himself. Brown uses these "sites" to get beyond the constrictions that are placed on our imaginations by both Stanislavski-based realism and postmodern irony. He is decidedly uneasy with current modes of production. Shakespeare remains at the center of the theatrical canon in both Europe and North America and is most often seen through what he refers to as "the distorting filter" of "only a part of the spectrum of what theatre can be" (3). In New Sites for Shakespeare, he eschews established modes of scholarship in favor of a more idiosyncratic personal response to Asian performance. His tendency to challenge conventional patterns of thought is not new. In a series of articles starting in the late 1960s, later issued as Free Shakespeare ([1974] 1997), he began calling for radical change in the way we stage and study Shakespeare.

In India, Brown visits the Orissa Opera, a Jatra or touring theatre. The cross-gender casting, the environmental staging, and the exit dance call forth Elizabethan stage practice. The effect of the textual repetitions in a contemporary play about everyday life drives Brown to mull over Shakespeare's use of reiterations and leads him to speculate that they might be designed to encourage audience participation as much as to reveal psychological insight. The slow ending of the Jatra play allows Brown to question our Western desire for broad directorial statements, big moments, and a focus on individualized, emotional revelations, rather than for personal response and reflection.

His attendance at a public cremation ceremony in Bali prompts a re-examination of the function of the audience whose attentiveness at the event is nonexclusive. Rather than rely on the Western paradigm of an audience submissively enthralled by the manipulations of theatrical charlatanism, Brown suggests that the Elizabethans might have been capable of selecting the scenes and threads of action to which they should give their attention. They and the Balinese might have been able to follow their individual thoughts and interests as a kind of free-flowing channel surfing.

Our distaste for hierarchy and patriarchal protocols has produced a theatrical world in which the formalities of behavior and the rituals of ceremony are often granted scant notice. However, in Asia, and in Japan especially, the predetermined patterns of gesture and posture are still vital cogs in the workings of both society and theatre. The complicated, repetitive, and nonindividualized tasks employed by Suzuki Tadashi in Waiting for Romeo (1992) enable audiences to become more fully aware of the nuances of deviations and breaks in [End Page 171] the outward composure of ceremony (57). Here it is the suggestion of difference rather than the explosion of individual temperament that matters and provides opportunities for chilling and startling insights into societal workings. Brown invokes Erving Goffman's Interaction Ritual (1967) and its attention to the use of posture, speech, and gesture--the equivalent of modern ceremonies. If these ceremonies of the everyday can be used in place of older ones, then the animation of classical texts might re-create the ceremonial enactments of the original.

The skills of actor Margi Mahdu unsettle and alter Brown's views on Shakespearean staging. With a tradition stretching back some 2,000 years, the actor in Kutiyattam (ensemble performance) performs for the gods. The spontaneity and precision of eye and finger movement present an immediacy so fresh that, for Brown, the very imagination and consciousness of the actor seems to be the source of creation. The actor betrays...


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