Asian dramatists keep Shakespeare’s plays alive in infinite ways 400 years on

The Bard’s works thrives across Asia, performed in many languages, in traditional, kabuki and avant-garde stagings. What is it that makes them so universally appealing and so ripe for interpretation?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 6:00am

William Shakespeare may have died 400 years ago but many of his works – and characters – live on in the most unexpected ways in Asia.

Take Ong Keng Sen’s latest stage offering, for instance. The Singaporean theatre director, who also heads the Lion City’s annual international arts festival, is in Japan for rehearsals of Sandaime Richard, his fifth Shakespearean play.

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Known for his unconventional approach to theatre, the stage veteran has based this new production on the 1990 script by Hideki Noda, a Japanese playwright who came up with a comic deconstruction of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most villainous literary creations.

The “king” here is not a disfigured and power-hungry murderer but someone called Richard Sandaime (“the third” in Japanese), a grand master in the cutthroat world of Japanese flower arrangement, which is a proxy for the War of the Roses.

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Kazutaro Nakamura, a female impersonator in kabuki theatre, plays the title role, in contrast to most recent productions, such as Kevin Spacey’s highly acclaimed performance, which, Ong says, portray Richard as “brutish and all about male power”.

But here, Nakamura’s femininity embodies the alternative representations of Richard that challenge Shakespeare’s authority, while another character, the Maachan of Venice, interrogates the playwright over his treatment of Shylock and Richard III.

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Speaking from Japan, Ong says he has been on the road for the past month rehearsing in Bali, Indonesia, as well as Tokyo – the play will feature Balinese puppetry as well as Takarazuka-style, gender-bending female entertainers.

The premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in September promises to be a rich melange of Asian performance traditions that has been a signature of Ong’s Shakespearean productions since his 1997 King Lear.

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That adaptation, which came to Hong Kong in 1999, had a Japanese Noh-style king, a Chinese opera diva as Goneril and a Thai dancer as Cordelia. Sandaime Richard will be performed in Japanese, English and Bahasa Indonesia.

All Asian theatre directors worth their salt would have tackled Shakespeare. Other than Ong, there are also Lin Zhaohua (Hamlet), and Meng Jinghui and Tian Qinxin (both Romeo and Juliet) from the mainland; Taiwan’s Wu Hsing-kuo (The Tempest); Yang Jung-ung from South Korea (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); and the Japanese theatre legend Yukio Ninagawa (Titus Andronicus). They have all put their own spin on the Bard’s repertoire – and to critical acclaim, notably, in the West.

“Shakespeare is an international classic … a platform that Asian directors can use to communicate on the world stage,” says Winsome Chow, chief executive of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and a seasoned festival programmer.

Moreover, Asian cultures and aesthetics – whether it’s Chinese opera or Japanese kabuki – lend themselves well to Shakespeare dramas.

Elaine Yeung Chi-lan, an assistant director of Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, says of all the Asian interpreters of Shakespeare, the director she most wants to present is Ninagawa.

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Yeung saw his Medea in 1989, the only time the Ninagawa Company came to Hong Kong. The English literature graduate was so impressed by the performance that, as a senior civil servant in charge of cultural programming, it became a personal mission to bring him back to the city.

Her department tried for years to book his troupe in the 1980s and 1990s, she says, but Ninagawa’s touring scheduled only focused on the West.

Now her wish is about to come true. The Ninagawa Company will bring Macbeth to Hong Kong in June 2017.

“When he handles Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, his interpretation of the grand, universal themes is so original and powerful, and his staging is stunning. Perhaps stylistically, his borrowing from Japanese theatre tradition brings the plays closer to an Asian audience,” Yeung says.

“I know many other Asian directors have reinterpreted Shakespeare but I am biased because his Medea left such an imprint on the young me. His productions are the ones I really look forward to seeing.”

For Ong, a multilingual, cross-cultural interpretation helps to bring a contemporary verve and dynamism to Shakespeare’s plays that goes beyond traditional, English-language productions.

“The language is beautiful and purists may have an issue with what I do, but even in translation, you can hear the musicality of the language,” Ong says. “Also, I want to go beyond language. I harness Shakespeare to look at modern issues.”

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His King Lear was a symbol for a new, young Asia that was challenging traditional patriarchal values and was very relevant to post-handover Hong Kong in 1999, he says.

The incongruity of the clashing cultures on stage not only highlights the continuing relevance of universal Shakespearean themes such as power, and political and family struggles, Ong says, but also challenges traditional readings of the plays that have played such a major role in shaping how we all see the world.

Hong Kong director Tang Shu-wing, known for his minimalist and physical approaches to theatre, gave his own treatment to Titus Andronicus in 2009 and, more recently, Macbeth, which was part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. The latter premiered at London’s Globe last year.

Tang says his style aims to offer audiences “a bigger space of imagination”, and that non-verbal, physical scenes can often trigger “something unexpected in the drama”.

Every artist can take away something when performing a Shakespeare work, he adds. “Some Asian artists want to adapt him to voice out their own concerns.”

Butmodern-day or avant-garde interpretations of plays that were written in the 16th and 17th centuries don’t always sit well with theatre cognoscenti.

Vicki Ooi, one of the first stage directors in Hong Kong to introduce Western plays in English and in translation, fears there is less space today for performances that stay loyal to the text.

The artistic director of Absolutely Fabulous Theatre recognises the need to tweak Shakespeare for a local audience, but her production of Twelfth Night, to be staged in October in association with artists from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education team, will “do it straight” in English.

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“I can understand that if one can’t go for the language of Shakespeare, one can still find a lot to forage in because his themes are so universal,” Ooi says. “I can also understand that these young Asian artists are more proud of being ‘local’ and would therefore want to put their indigenous [culture] into Shakespeare. They can be a good combination if Shakespeare’s language is thought to be too difficult or irrelevant. At least what we lose in the words we gain in the visuals.”

The dominant trend in theatre now is post-colonial deconstruction, or as she calls it “the revenge of Madame Butterfly”, Ooi says. “I do not denigrate those who want to do this. It is just not my choice.”

The education that Ooi received undoubtedly influences her views. “I was taught Shakespeare in Penang, Malaysia, when the country was still a British colony. Shakespeare is very much part of the baggage that the British colonials brought with them but I liked it because I was taught by good teachers who instilled a love of Shakespeare’s language in me.

“I learned that his theatre depended very much on his words. I cannot read Shakespeare without hearing the iambic pentameter,” she says,

Ooi praises productions such as Jane Lai’s King Lear, and Ninagawa’s Japanese productions, as perceptive interpretations. But there is now a tendency for overly subjective readings of Shakespeare and the addition of exotic, visual drama, she says. “Lose the words, and you lose more than what the visuals can give you.”