Tainan Jen gets Macbeth talking

The penultimate performance of the Shakespeare in Taipei series is a Taiwanese-language version of the classic

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 17

Pretty much everything that a director can do to a playwright, both good and bad, has been done to Shakespeare over the centuries.

The Shakespeare in Taipei series of performances at the Experimental Theater of the National Theater is no different from many modern performances that have preceded it in wanting to take the classic plays and use them for their own expressive purposes.

While the work so far presented has been interesting, with some of it, such as last week's Off Performance Workshop, (外表坊) Drumming with Lear, you may be forgiven for being inclined to wonder what any of it has to do with Shakespeare or his plays.

While not wishing to denigrate the artistic achievements of other theater groups, Lu Po-shen (呂柏伸), the artistic director of the Tainan Jen Theater, doesn't think that much effort has been made to actually bring Shakespeare to a Taiwanese audience. Given that his own work Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses (女巫奏鳴曲 馬克白詩篇), selects just 13 scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, uses just five actors and is spoken in Taiwanese, you might suspect that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Many consciously alternative interpretations of Shakespeare focus on a few particular aspects of a complex work and through the use of modern dramatic devices, impose new interpretations on the play. Sonata, although unashamedly alternative and experimental in its presentation, is relatively restrained in this respect.

The 13 scenes used to make up Sonata are direct translations of the English text, without omission -- or more importantly -- addition of the director's own dialogue.

"More than anything else, Shake-speare is about language," Lu said. "I wanted to create something that presented the sounds of Shakespeare's language to a Taiwanese audience."

For this reason, he is happy to be working in Taiwanese rather than Mandarin, for this enables him to make use of the richer tonality of the Taiwanese language.

Tainan Jen brought in Chou Ting-bang (周定邦), one of the foremost promoters of Taiwanese language and a major proponent of the traditional story-telling art to translate the text. They have taken the unusual step of providing a script in Taiwanese and in English. This is laudable, but unfortunately there is little opportunity to consult this useful tool during the performance.

What is possible is simply to enjoy the unfamiliarity of the sounds as they expound the all too familiar story. And this goes for both locals and foreigners. In order to reproduce the rich language and melodies of Shakespeare, Chou draws heavily on the literary tradition of Taiwanese, and Lu admits that even people who speak Taiwanese in daily life might not be able to understand everything.

"But that is no different from English people watching Elizabethan drama," Lu said. Lu, who spent much time watching Shakespeare in various European languages while studying drama in the UK, added that with the classics, it doesn't really matter if you don't understand the language. The poetry of bodies in action and words in flight is more than enough for him.

Although Lu places an emphasis on the audio component of drama, disparaging the distractions that TV and cinema trained directors now bring to the stage, or of the reliance on physical theater by many contemporary groups, his own creation is not exempt from this influence.

The three witches do a good deal too much wittering about a stage covered in red rice husks, and lighting effects are somewhat overused in an attempt to create a more dramatic backdrop. In statements about the play Lu has described his aim here as creating a poetry of motion, but this, in the opinion of this reviewer at least, detracts considerably from the aims of recreating Shakespeare's poetry of language.

"I felt a need to give the audience something to look at," Lu said. And while we might not all be totally grateful, a number of devices have proved very effective, most notably the use of masks and stilts to portray changed emotional states and the relative power of characters.

The interaction between Lady Macbeth and her husband revolves around a pair of stilts, which are effective as a symbol of relative power. The massive Lady Macbeth towers above her husband as she persuades him to murder. Later, Macbeth, caught up in his own bloody deeds and now indifferent to the world, acquires the stilts.

"I started just wanting to give a challenge to my actors," Lu said, "But ultimately these [stilts] became an important symbolic device in the play.

Putting aside the relative merits and demerits of the performance itself, the fact that an effort is being made to present Shakespeare in Taiwanese, rather than the easier course of adapting a Shakespeare story, is extremely exciting. This is the second in a series of such works that began with a presentation of Antigone by Taiwan Jen in 2001. Lu said he hoped to move onto other classic works of the Western canon.

Why the Western canon? Lu, like many directors before him, laments the paucity of local scripts suitable for the stage."If we don't have anything better of our own, as a director I take the best that is on offer," he said.

In emphasizing language by remaining faithful to Shakespeare's text in the Taiwanese translation he has commissioned, Lu is standing against a tide of increasingly physical theater, where visual appeal makes it accessible to a wider audience.

"Too much entertainment now is visual," Lu said. "We want people to start listening again."