Shakespeare: the West and the East

Issue #4 • 552

Mukhabbat Tulyahojaeva,
Art Critic

The classical canons of interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedies which have survived two world wars were destroyed by the theatre of the sixties of the 20th century. Postmodern ideas have brought to the theatre the concept of deconstruction of the text, the plot and the very concept of tragedy. The understanding of the present through performances of Shakespeare’s tragedies is one of the productive trends of the modern performing arts.
How can the tragedies by Shakespeare like “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” be staged today? These are the questions that has faced, probably, every director who was seeking for new solutions for the last four centuries. Perhaps it is that these pieces are fraught with many secrets and mysteries, and the directors turn to them in the hope of solving the unsolved.
It seems that today the key issues of the theater lay in the approach to the means of expression. One of them is to overcome the tradition that compels us to interpret the play in a well-known and well-established genre and stylistic manner. The other one is to break the audience’s snobbery and the stereotypes of perception of a certain classical work established throughout the years. A spectacular example of this statement is the staging of “Hamlet” in Paris in the theater of “Bouffe du Nord”, in 2000, by the famous English theater producer and film director – Peter Brook.
It was extremely important for the director that the audience was not carried away by the dramatic story, did not look back at previous stage interpretations, and did not get overloaded by the knowledge of the theatre history of “Hamlet”. There is a great number of reviews on this performance, which directly expressed the opinion that “the director teaches its audience the ABCs of theatrical conventions”, that he does not stage the play of the worldwide repertoire, but just a family story, in which Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius are played by black actors. Peter Brook tells about ordinary people who happened to get into unusual story. The Prince of Denmark performed by William Nadilam appears as a young, brave, open and sincere man. His anxious mind and the troubled heart resist the newly discovered truth.
The production was played on the rug, where few pillows were scattered around it that used to be piled up in the Royal Throne or the grave, dug for Ophelia. One more important point is that performance is free from the usual theatrical props, it has a simple lighting that allows it to be played anywhere: indoors or outdoors, in any country or on any theater stage.
On November 4th of 2015, Shakespearean theatre “The Globe” has brought its production of “Hamlet” to Uzbekistan. It was staged by its artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and was directed by Bill Buckhurst. A brief history of this theatre: “The Globe” was built in 1599 in London at the expense of the troupe “The Servants of the Lord Chamberlain”, which was headed by the tragedian Richard Burbage. Shakespeare worked in this theater. However, in 1613, the theatre burned down due to the negligence of the technical personnel during the play “Henry VIII”. The theatre was restored and lasted until 1642. The modern building of “The Globe” was built in 1997 near the place where the original building used to be situated.
On occasion of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare, the premiere of a new version of “Hamlet” staged by the artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, and directed by Bill Buckhurst took place in the theatre. The world tour of the troupe was planned on the same occasion. In the framework of the world tour and with support of the British Council Office in Uzbekistan, this performance was shown on the stage of the Uzbek National Academic Drama Theatre in 2015. This event had a great and extraordinary significance, not least because the audience was able to see the famous actors of the English theater, who played the tragedy of “Hamlet” in the “old theatre” style. Artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, in the playbill to this performance has wrote: “Thank you for joining our merry venture”, clearly stating that this performance was intended for entertainment only, and the viewers needed to tune themselves to amusement and game.
So, there are no parallels with the theatrical productions of the past years and the rejection of stereotypes. The viewer has to accept the rules of the game, which the theater offers them. It can be said that the director follows the style declared by Peter Brook already in 2000, but continues it towards simplification of semantic accents, orienting to narration, naive improvisation and, sometimes, primitive acting. The center of the stage in the front is fenced by two pillars connected by a thin wire, which the curtain is fixed to. The backdrop of the stage is the curtain, to the both sides of which the hangers with the clothes of the characters are attached. The decorations are simple, they are of prevalently brown and gray-green color, and there is a normal working lighting of the stage. The play is performed in the dim light in the auditorium, which is a prerequisite for actors’ contact with the audience.
The play begins with improvisational outbursts of the actors. Polonius (played by Keith Bartlett) will start the show. First, he carefully checks the props, rearranges the road trunks and chests of different forms, goes through the clothes hanging on the partition walls of the stage (it is not clear of what epoch), then he descends into the audience and begins to converse with the spectators, asks them questions in order to establish the contact with the public. He is cheerful and sociable. The actors come on stage, each of them will choose a musical instrument: accordion, flute, violin, tambourine, musical cymbals and banjo and will start playing a merry tune, while dancing and singing. Then putting on a piece of the certain costume, the actors will transform into one of the characters of the play. During the performance, each actor (and there are twelve of them), will play different characters. So, John Dougal plays the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Claudius and the First Actor.
Simply and effortlessly, without exaggeration and pathetic intonations Lady Emeruwa recites the monologues of Hamlet. He does not resemble the Prince neither by his stature nor looks. He wears worn trousers; his appearance is far from the common traditional stereotype. He is a modest guy with open, kind face and slightly sorrowful look. He helplessly lowered his head, when his father told him the truth about how his murder has occurred. Everything is restraint and simple – in the emotional expression and gestures, in mimic and in the words.
A key episode of the play “The Mousetrap” drew the attention; which conception in the play is quite original. Claudius and Gertrude play the scene of the murder of Hamlet’s father dressed in the costumes of the traveling troupe actors. The curtain falls down. And the spectators for a moment are unable to understand how Claudius and Gertrude suddenly rush to the stage from the auditorium requesting to stop the show. Such solution has some sense, the stage director stresses the complicity of the audience in the “mousetrap”, highlighting that they are witnesses of what is happening on stage.
Impressive is the finale when all the dead ones resurrect, get up and begin to dance, play instruments and sing a cheerful song to the great amusement of the audience. The circle has been closed. This solution once again is confirmed by the director’s message: the actors of the wandering theatre freely retell the fate of the Prince Hamlet. The desire of the British people – to interpret Shakespeare’s texts in the simplest manner – has been communicated to a spectator.
In October of 2015, on the initiative of the Artistic Director of the Youth Theatre of Uzbekistan, Nabi Abdurakhmanov, with support of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Uzbekistan, the Tashkent audience got acquainted with the troupe of the Korean Theatre Company “Haeboma”, which presented the play “Pound it, Makbet” (“Macbeth”) based on the tragedy by William Shakespeare. It should be noted that until the 19th century, the leading form of Korean folk theatre was a theatre of masks. The actors, wearing the masks, used to freely interpret the text through dance, dialogue and songs. There was also the theatre of the oral tradition, where the prevailing form was narration of a story. Today there are three directions in the theatrical palette of Korea: traditional, experimental and popular ones. The popular theatre is principally engaged in production of Broadway musicals.
The troupe of the “Haeboma” Theatre Company can be categorized as the experimental theatre. The name of “Haeboma” in Korean means “the Sun peering into one’s soul”, at the same time it is an invocation, meaning “Go for it”. Actually, the troupe of young, full of life and creative energy, people ventures themselves. The production team – Artistic Director, Myung Gu Han, Directors, John Sik Kim and Jun Hung Hwang – are bravely and actively working with the classic material, modernizing the texts of Shakespeare’s plays. The stage managers focus on the diversity of artistic expression. There is a plan to “surprise” the audience, to implement the infinite inventiveness and technical perfection of the stage effects. However, at the same time, there are attempts of allegorical interpretation, the use of the imagery and symbolic meanings, masking the easily recognizable signs.
Psychologically complex, mystically dark tragedy of “Macbeth” suddenly takes on a new intriguing version of the stage performance. Directors choose the dramatic simplification of the text, adaptation of the story, while sticking to the key events. There is no line of Lady Macbeth in the play, as well as there are no soothsayers, witches, supernatural forces that could affect the will of the people. In this version, the persons themselves choose their paths, shape their fates and struggle with their own temptations. The show is made of several episodes and lasts almost one and a half hours without intermission. The stage is free from theatrical scenery – nothing should prevent the development of stage action. There is a backdrop made of panels of thick black and red colors, probably symbolizing the concepts like “war” and “power”. On the right part of the stage there are two musicians with their instruments. The national character of the play is ensured not only by the introduction of Korean musical instruments, but also by clothing. The characters of the play are dressed in the antique festive colorful costumes, where the main colors are white and red.
The show begins with the episode of “Attack”. The drums literally storm into the stage; they are being wheeled by the actors with exceptional ease and violently, rapidly drum out various rhythms and tunes, via these sounds creating an atmosphere of invisible combat. The sounds of drums will accompany the battle scenes and military marches. They will become a separate “character” of the play that comes into action in its most tense moments, disrupting and destroying the evil and reinstating the triumph of reason.
The visual appeal attracts, captures the viewer’s emotional content, theatrical game of bright catchy satirical and comic, plastic and pantomime scenes. The episode is built in ironical manner in the castle of Macbeth. In front of the audience is a funny, narrow-minded, but cunning and willful king Duncan (the artist – Chang Hwang). He presents Macbeth to the public as a handsome young man; however about Banko he says that he is fat. He laughs over his joke, engages in conversation with the audience, asks them different questions. Then he starts to flirt with the entertainers and dancers. Perhaps he is tired of ruling the State and he only wants to enjoy his life. Such a frivolous, thoughtless behavior of Duncan may be one of the reasons of Macbeth’s decision to murder him and take his place.
Macbeth performed by Chin Han Voula is selfish, ambitious, autocratic, smug, yet charming. This charming villain is purposefully moving towards his own targets, without slightest doubt in the correctness of the chosen path. In the finale, Macbeth, realizing the futility of his plot and acts, is killing himself cold-bloodedly, proving the complete impotence of a man, who stepped to the path of evil deeds. The finale of the performance impresses in a positive way. Again there is a beat of drums, but now it does not herald a military battle. The actors impact the audience with their magic skills; this is a breakthrough into the cultural space, where the audience and the stage integrate into a single whole.
The performance astonishes with its energy and expressiveness. The charm of the young actors of this troupe and their temperamental, dynamic performance, live music – the drum roll, the sound of Korean traditional musical instruments, the use of masks, pantomime, dance, puppets, original interpretation of the European classics with techniques and means of the conventional Eastern theatre have brought to an unexpected result. There was a merge of traditions of the Oriental theater with the improvisational element of the European theater, while the theme and the idea of the Shakespearean tragedy turned into the philosophical sententious phrases like “the fair is unfair, and the unfair is fair”. The irony of this maxim reveals the polysemanticism of Shakespeare’s idea.
Two performances – two different theatrical cultures. However, Shakespeare has united something, at first glance, seemingly incompatible. The West and the East have found something in common in their vision of the works by Shakespeare, on his staged works, the scenic language in the realization of a persistent internal force of the drama.

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