Thu, Jul 05, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Shakespeare in the East

Anime and manga quote him, the Chinese set heavy metal to him and Chiang Kai-shek compared him to Confucius — this book about Asian treatments of Shakespeare is a fascinating read

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Shakespeare’s Asian Journeys, edited by Bi-qi Beatrice Lei,
Judy Celine Ick, and Poonam Trivedi.

This collection of essays by different hands on Shakespeare’s plays as they’ve been approached in various parts of Asia is edited by Taiwan’s Bi-chi Beatrice Lei (雷碧琦), founder of the Taiwan Shakespeare Association and a research fellow at National Taiwan University’s Research Center for Digital Humanities. She also contributes a chapter on a crucial turning-point in Shakespeare production in Taiwan.

In that chapter she highlights a production of Hamlet in Taipei in April 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Prior to that, she writes, the autocratic government of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) had seen to it that any theater productions other than state-supported propaganda and shows mounted by troupes affiliated to the military were difficult to stage. As a result, many theaters closed down or were converted to cinemas.

But beginning in 1964, and perhaps with this very Hamlet production, Shakespeare began to be perceived by authorities as an anti-communist force, without much alteration. He stood, perhaps, for humanism, the integrity of the family and Confucian values in general. King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth, for instance, all stood for, or could be seen to stand for, the protection of the family against assaults from without. Foreign invasion, present in all three plays, need not be out of place considering the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) longstanding ambitions vis-a-vis China, although a play such as The Tempest, which depicts a ruler unjustly ousted from his kingdom and taking refuge on a small island, could present problems.

Over the next two decades of straight Shakespeare productions in Mandarin a reaction set in — but a reaction in theatrical fashion in the newly democratic country rather than any change in the perception of the Bard’s political position. And Shakespeare performances have continued in one form or another in Taiwan ever since.

Publication Notes

Shakespeare’s Asian Journeys

Edited by Bi-qi Beatrice Lei,

Judy Celine Ick, and Poonam Trivedi

271 pages / Routledge

Hardback: US


Lei also contributes an editorial introduction, arguing that the book’s motivation was her realization that most critics have failed to notice that Shakespearean productions in Asia have not only put him into another language but have promoted “new ways of seeing, hearing and knowing” him. Ample evidence is presented for this thesis. Lei says the book covers Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, countries that have often been omitted from such surveys before.

Furthermore, Asian productions of Shakespeare can serve to unite this huge region, Lei says. Whereas it may be pointless to compare an Indian dance, a Chinese opera and a Japanese film, to look at their respective handlings of the same Shakespeare play are very illuminating.

Nevertheless, connections between 16th century England and 20th century Asia can be misplaced. Hamlet’s revulsion at sex, for instance, apparent in many passages, cannot be viewed as comparable to Gandhi’s chastity, let alone seen as a way of focusing his life on a political aim and accepting the workings of providence, as Gandhi’s was. Yet Poonam Trivedi, one of this book’s editors, argues something similar. Hamlet’s revulsion was more likely simply Shakespeare’s own, in a play that is characterized by the diversity of its non-political themes.

Some of the productions described here would be wonderful to experience. One is Park Jung-e’s ongoing One-man Show: Macbeth, played by a single man and a single women on alternating nights. It’s in Korean, but there are scraps of English text, both in a modern and the original version, projected high up in one corner, and the setting is a squalid basement room in an undesirable Seoul suburb.

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