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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past
  • W. B. Worthen
Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. By Susan Bennett. London: Routledge, 1996; pp. viii + 199. $49.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

In Performing Nostalgia, Susan Bennett considers a fascinating collection of Shakespearean occasions, to ask how “Shakespeare” becomes the agent of a regulatory use of the “past.” Yet contemporary “Shakespeare” often appears to have an oppositional edge, in the “left/ish impetus” of some recent Shakespeare scholarship (31), in rewritings and adaptations of Shakespearean narratives, and—very rarely—in performances of Shakespeare’s plays. In Performing Nostalgia, then, Bennett tracks more contestatory uses of Shakespeare, productions concerned “with active representations of transgression, dissidence and desire” (2).

Performing Nostalgia “takes up the (dis)articulation of the past through the cultural apparati that produce Shakespeare” (1), instruments of nostalgia not confined to the theatrical staging of Shakespeare’s plays. The first chapter, “New Ways to Play Old Texts,” outlines the problems of disentangling history from its insertion into ideology. Literary canons are always the product of nostalgia of some kind, and even non-canonical works—such as some of the “‘vandalized’ Shakespeares” discussed in later chapters (12)—often offer only the fantasy of resistance. Bennett occasionally sounds as though she thinks there is little way any “old” play can ever have really “new” uses. She is skeptical, for example, about the complex claims of Robert Lepage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and evokes persuasive reservations about the orientalizing work of Théâtre du Soleil. Similarly, and given the massively “normative value” of Shakespeare (37), it can be tricky to locate the resistant politics of oppositional “Shakespeare”—whether in performances, criticism and scholarship, or revisions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that Bennett treats in subsequent chapters.

The second chapter, “Production and Proliferation: Seventeen Lears,” considers a gaggle of King Lears produced in the 1980s. Bennett takes a dim view of many of them. The ample overproduction of the play “performs a nostalgic identification with greatness—of the text, of Shakespeare” (77) that’s visible in the surprisingly narrow range of design, acting, and conceptual “choices” used to stage the play in the period—how many red-nose King Lears do we need? Twelve productions are reviewed briskly, marking the limitations of “mainstream” theatre production, of theatre training and practice, and the shortcomings that Lear assumes in the culture of nostalgia: “authenticity and/or originality are impossible with the recognized theatrical script” (47).

Bennett then considers how a “multiplicity of competing Lears” might foreground “precisely that understanding which a hegemonic authenticity works to negate” (47). Some are quickly dismissed: Edward Bond’s Lear (1971, 1982, 1983), a “modern classic,” is “carefully and easily contained within the frame of a mainstream cultural concept identified as theatre” (49); Howard Barker’s Seven Lears (1989) adopts a “Shakespearean antecedent as an intriguing and absolutely marketable device” for Barker’s habitual violence and misogyny. Other works promise a more direct confrontation with “Shakespeare.” The Women’s Theatre Group’s Lear’s Daughters (1987) uses multiracial casting and a dispersed narrative structure to stage a “herstory” that both “produces the gaps and absences of Shakespeare’s (and Bond’s and Barker’s) texts” (51) and challenges the conservative collocation of “Shakespeare” with the civil regulation of “family values” (53). Similarly, Barrie Keeffe’s King of England (1988)—“ Lear” is a contemporary black London Underground driver—interrogates contemporary race and class dynamics. Welfare State’s The Tragedy of King Real (filmed as King Real and the Hoodlums) involves members of Barrow-in-Furness in a community Lear project that dramatizes the dynamics of the local economy; it radically reframes the role of “art” in the “provinces,” and of the work of “leftist nostalgia: the attainment of socially responsible criticism through the production of site-specific community-relevant art” (60). The chapter concludes with a survey of several Lear reinventions, including the Kathakali King Lear project of David McRuvie and Annette Leday (1990); Amal Allana’s 1989 environmental King Lear “on the site of the New Delhi Trade Fair,” a production that addressed the “irreconcilable presence of the indigene and the tourist...

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pp. 391-392
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