Living Shakespeare

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Ladi Emeruwa as Hamlet at the Globe's performance at the Palazzo Della Cancelleria in Vatican City. The Globe's two-year "Hamlet" world tour began on April 23, 2014, and concluded with performances at Shakespeare's Globe in London on April 23 and 24, 2016. Photo: ALIONA ADRIANOVA

A copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, which is on display at the British Library's "Shakespeare in Ten Acts" exhibition in London. Photo: CLARE KENDALL

A performance of the Globe's "Hamlet" at the National Theatre in Ethiopia in January 2015. Photo: Helena Miscoscis

"Hamlet" being performed at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

On October 25, 2015, the Globe's "Hamlet" was staged at the Zataari refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border. The audience was entirely Syrian. In the above picture, Dominic Dromgoole (foreground), artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe for a decade from 2006, with cast member Keith Bartlet after teh performance at the camp. Photo: Sarah Lee

"Hamlet" at the amphitheatre in Kourion, Cyprus, in July 2014. Photo: BRONWEN SHARP

Amanda Wilkin as Ophelia in the performance at the Zaatari refugee camp. Photo: Sarah Lee

Nayeem Hayat plays Hamlet in a performance at the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France. Photo: SARAH LEE

"Romeo and Juliet" staged in the grounds of the birthplace of Shakespeare at Statford-upon-Avon in central England on April 23. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

One of the 37 screens over an eight-kilometre route along the Thames where short films of Shakespeare's plays were shown on April 23 and 24 as part of the Complete Walk project. Photo: A.S. PANEERSELVAM

Crowds watch "Hamlet" on the south bank opposite St. Paul's Cathedral, part of The Complete Walk project. Photo: Chriss Ratcliffe/Getty Images

"Romeo and Juliet" along the riverside, part of The Complete Walk project. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Laurence Olivier's script with his own annotations and sketeches for the 1944 screen adaptation of "Henry V", on display at the "Shakespeare in Ten Acts" exhibition. Photo: CLARE KENDALL

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in the play produced for Two Cities at Denham. The still shows Hamlet at the moment when he realises that Laertes is using a sharp sword in the duel, contrary to the rules which call for use of buttoned weapons. Photo: BRITISH INFORMATION SERVICE

James Norton plays "Richard II" at Westminster Hall in London for The Complete Walk series. Photo: Emma Draper

Peter Capaldi plays Titus and Ekow Quartey plays Lucius in "Titus Andronicus" for The Complete Walk series. Photo: emma drapper

Nikki Amuka-Bird as Hippolyta and David Caves as Theseus in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", at Wilton House in Wiltshire, England. Photo: Emma Draper

Toby Jones plays Falstaff in "Henry IV Part I", at The George Inn, London. Photo: EMMA DRAPER

Aidan Gillen plays Duke Vincentio in "Measure for Measure" at Liechtenstein Castle outside Vienna. Photo: EMMA DRAPER

Gemma Arterton as Rosaline in "Love's Labour Lost" at Palacio Real de Olite in Navarre, Spain. Photo: EMMA DRAPER

Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at Areopagus hill in Greece. Photo: EMMA DRAPER

Dominic West plays the role of Coriolanus, at the Ostia Antica in Rome. Photo: Emma Draper

Vivien Leigh as Titania in "Midsummer Night's Dream" at The Old Vic Theatre, London, in 1937. Photo: Mander & Mitchenson/ArenaPAL

London is agog with celebrations marking 400 years of William Shakespeare. The Globe’s adaptation of “Hamlet” returns for its final performances after making all the world its stage; the banks of the Thames vibrate with 37 short films on his plays, and music and exhibits prove the bard played many parts in his time.

A fortnight-long immersion in the world of William Shakespeare during his 400th death anniversary celebrations in London was a political journey as much as a literary experience. A generation was pulled in different directions as the discipline of literary criticism gained ground creating a sharp division between the representational nature of a work of fiction and the intrinsic value of creation. Shakespeare was the first target of this battle within the literary canons. The works of the “Bard of Avon” were an integral part of the curriculum during the learning years. However, with Edward Said’s Orientalism and his subsequent books, The World, the Text, and the Critic and Beginnings, there was a shift in perception: Shakespeare’s works and his representations of the people who did not belong to the West European world began to be questioned. This thinking underwent another change in 1992, following the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in India.

Saidian scholars are of the firm opinion that Shakespeare’s plays reflect Elizabethan society by manipulating our senses of what constitutes reality; the plays, or their texts, evoke people and culture in a stereotypical manner. They argue that Shakespeare tells the stories of the Orient and its people instead of having them speak in their own voices. The scholars often cite three plays— The Merchant of Venice, Othello and The Tempest—to show how Shakespeare portrays the people of the oriental countries as the “Other”. They see these plays as symbolising the 16th century’s hegemonic representations of these people. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock and the Prince of Morocco are treated as the “Other” and are alienated from the mainstream society because one is a Jew and the other is a Muslim. In Othello, scholars deduce a cultural stereotype of the Black. How else can one justify the portrayal of Othello as ugly, cruel, lustful and dangerous, a near cousin to the devil himself? they ask. There are similar readings about the character of Caliban in The Tempest.

The Hindutva brigade’s appropriation of the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana and its narrow interpretations leading to a bigoted narrative, and the carnage following the demolition of the Babri Mosque, brought back the idea of independent existence of meanings, interpretations and human travails in works of fiction. In a sense, it forced one to look at a work of art in a broader manner beyond the confines of rigid representational reading.

The Chennai Film Society’s screenings of Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of Macbeth as Throne of Blood, a retelling of Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well, and an insightful interpretation of King Lear in Ran created a fluid mind space to look at the works of Shakespeare afresh.

Early this year, I renewed my association with Shakespeare not in English but in a Tamil adaptation of The Tempest by the well-known playwright Indira Parthasarathy, which was staged by the Chennai-based theatre group Magic Lantern.

The Complete Walk

I was in London between April 20 and May 3, expecting a sunny spring when the weather thaws, the sun comes out in all its glory, and people begin to shed layers and layers of winter clothing to dress more elegantly, and the banks of the Thames come alive with a range of cultural activities. But, this April was unusually cold.

The cloud cover mimicking winter gave a grey appearance to the cityscape most of the time. But the overwhelming presence of Shakespeare provided warmth and energised the spirit.

Shakespeare’s Globe organised the screenings of specially created short films of every single one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays on an eight-kilometre route along the Thames between the Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge on April 23 and 24. The project called The Complete Walk starred some of Britain’s major actors and included footages of scenes in various locations, from Athens to the Ardennes, Vienna to Verona, and Towton to the Tower of London.

The Complete Walk series of 10-minute films was shot by the Globe’s film crews who went around the world to capture the astonishing breadth of Shakespeare’s international imagination. The locations include the Red Pyramid in Egypt, the Tomba di Giulietta in Verona, Glamis Castle in Scotland, the ruins of Troy in Turkey, Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, the Houses of Parliament in London and Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark. Each film, which was played in a continuous loop, included this fresh material, interwoven with footage from Globe On Screen films and the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Silent Shakespeare films, as well as newly created animation. Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, said: “The Complete Walk is a celebration of the astonishing imagination of Shakespeare, a Warwickshire boy who created worlds that still blaze with life on stage, on film, and in the minds of all who encounter him. We are hugely lucky and privileged to be able to work with a line-up of such extraordinary Shakespearean actors, and to be able to give these films away to the public for free over the weekend of 23rd April.”

The same weekend also witnessed the final performances of Hamlet, marking the end of its Globe-to-Globe tour as part of the 400th death anniversary celebrations. The Globe-to-Globe tour of the grand theatrical production began on April 23, 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The performance also marked the departure of Dromgoole from the Globe after a decade as its artistic director. A visibly pleased Dromgoole told the press with enthusiasm that Hamlet travelled over 300,000 km and was staged at 202 venues in 197 countries in a span of two years. The production saw 293 performances. In countries where the cast and crew were denied entry for security reasons, the play was staged for the displaced diaspora in refugees camps: at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan; at the Markazi camp for Yemeni refugees in Djibouti; in Mandjou, Cameroon, for the refugees of the Central African Republic; and in the Jungle refugee camp for migrants in Calais, France.

Dromgoole said: “It is a great delight to welcome home the Globe-to-Globe Hamlet company after their exhausting, exhilarating, life-changing journey around the world. Two years ago we set out on this tour on a hope and a prayer, and we have been endlessly amazed by the goodwill and generosity and joy we have encountered in all four corners of the earth. It has been an extraordinary education to play Hamlet like this, in a kaleidoscopic variety of places and permutations and to a vast range of different audiences.”

Almost all the major cultural institutions in and around London decided to host a series of events creating a simultaneous sense of excess and loss as every event clashed with the programmes elsewhere. The BFI, for its part, came up with a two-month-long programme, “Shakespeare on Film”. The BFI head curator, Robin Baker, said: “No writer has had greater impact on cinema or inspired more films. At the latest count, IMDb lists Shakespeare as the ‘writer’ of 1,120 titles. For me the best adaptations of Shakespeare are those that have taken his themes, situations, characters or language and presented them in ways that are purely cinematic: from the immediacy of the epic, bloody battles of [Sir Kenneth] Branagh’s Henry V or Kurosawa’s Ran [ King Lear] to the intimacy of the close-ups used in the love scenes of [Franco] Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Film and TV make Shakespeare’s work more accessible than any other medium and the BFI National Archive looks after the world’s largest collection of film adaptations of his work.” How I wished I had the ability of an amoeba so that I could be present at all the venues.

I managed to watch two brilliant films by Branagh — Hamlet, a four-hour-long gripping adaptation, and Henry V. The brief note on Hamlet issued by the BFI rightly pointed out that the film was long but not slow, deep but not difficult, and it vibrates with the relief of actors who have great things to say, and the right ways to say them. Branagh craftily converts many of the Shakespearean theatrical tools such as play within the play to create a perfect cinematic experience. He deploys simple, yet powerful, symbolisms with multiple mirrors, including two-way ones, makes palace machinations more intriguing, turns sorrow into poignant melancholy, and renders a rare ruthlessness to revenge. For instance, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “to be or not to be”, is delivered into a mirror, reflecting the ambivalent nature of Hamlet’s indecision to move against his uncle and mother. Kate Winslet as Ophelia brilliantly captures the real fallout of fratricidal manipulations: loved women are driven to madness and eventual annihilation.

Henry V was Branagh’s debut as a film-maker. Many Shakespearean theorists had felt that it was a rash decision as no one could ever better Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of the play. But Branagh’s 1989 version was as splendid as Olivier’s rendition, if not better. His efforts paid not only box-office dividends but also earned him Oscar nominations both for acting and direction.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts

The British Library organised a new exhibition, “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”, to look at how he became “the Bard” by focussing on 10 key performances. These “Ten Acts” are not necessarily the most famous performances but moments in history that changed the course of Shakespeare’s legacy, from the first performance of Hamlet at the Globe in around 1600 to a radical reinterpretation of the same play for the digital age by The Wooster Group, a theatre group of the United States, in 2013.

“Shakespeare in Ten Acts” also documents how the playwright’s course never did run smooth, tracing the rise and fall in his reputation—from adoration in the 18th century, to Tolstoy’s declaration that he was “in complete disagreement with this universal adulation”. By narrating tales of backstage gossip, scandal and centuries-old theatrical traditions that would shock modern-day audiences—such as watching female performers getting dressed to prove their gender—this exhibition took us on a journey through 400 years of history, providing some insight into the time in which it was staged. Some of the amazing exhibits were a human skull inscribed with poetry given to actress Sarah Bernhardt by the writer Victor Hugo, which she used as Yorick’s skull when she famously played Hamlet in 1899; the prologue read out to warn the audience before the first performance of a woman on stage as Desdemona in Othello in 1660, stating that they knew she was a woman because “I saw the lady drest”; the dress worn by Vivien Leigh for the role of Lady Macbeth in the 1955 production of Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company; the script of Hamlet owned by generations of Hamlet actors, including Sir Michael Redgrave, Peter O’Toole and Sir Derek Jacobi, now owned by Branagh; the only surviving play script in Shakespeare’s hand, which has his impassioned plea for sympathy and understanding of the plight of refugees; and some rare printed editions, including Shakespeare’s First Folio and the earliest printed edition of Hamlet from 1603, one of only two copies available in the world.

Music in Shakespeare

St. Martins-in-the-Fields, the premiere London concert venue for over 250 years, organised concerts to celebrate music in Shakespeare’s works. On April 25, the K’antu Ensemble explored Shakespearian songs and dances evoking the spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The music included compositions by Robert Johnson, John Dowland and Thomas Morley and broadside ballads and folk tunes quoted in his plays.

Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, observed: “The choice of music was beautifully judged, moving through a whole range of moods and genres: and even the most familiar pieces on the programme, by Dowland and Morley, seemed new, not only because they were performed with such candour and verve but because they were placed in a new context by the ensemble's inclusion of pieces (and musical textures) from Spain and the New World. These players are expert without being mannered, vivid without being simplistic, wholly alive to the expressive possibilities of Elizabethan and Jacobean music.” I could not attend the next musical at St. Martins-in-the-fields, Songs and Sonnets of Shakespeare, which I heard was a heart-warming and foot-thumping experience.

Beyond all these multifaceted performances, what captured my imagination the most was the latest issue of the magazine, Index on Censorship. Its editor, Rachael Jolley, introduced the Shakespeare special issue, which explores how his plays have been used to circumvent censorship and tackle difficult issues around the world —from Bollywood adaptations to Othello in apartheid-era South Africa and a groundbreaking recent performance of Romeo and Juliet by Kosovan and Serbian theatres.

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