Global Shakespeares was a panel discussion organized by the Barbican and Guildhall School’s Creative Learning Department, Barbican Centre, 28 May 2012 - Thelma Holt, Ivo van Hove and Deborah Shaw in conversation with Sonia Massai
This panel discussion took place in the week leading up to the opening of the Ninagawa Company’s stunning production of Cymbeline and the Barbican proved an ideal setting for it.Audiences all over Londonand the rest of the UKare enjoying an unprecedented number of home-grown and visiting Shakespearean productions and related events as part of the current World Shakespeare Festival, which is produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the London 2012 Festival. However, the celebration of the Barbican’s 30th birthday this year and its sustained commitment to bringing the best of world theatre to London made the timing, the location and the topic of this debate feel especially significant and propitious. And the debate turned out to be very lively and inspiring indeed.
The three speakers gripped the audience’s attention by talking about their encounters with Shakespeare at key moments in their careers. They also asked each other some pretty frank and searching questions. Most revealing was Ivo van Hove’s suggestion that while visiting productions of Shakespeare have become increasingly frequent on theLondonstage, few foreign directors are invited to direct Shakespeare inLondonand in theUKmore generally. Thelma Holt identified language, rather than cultural, barriers as the main deterrent but she then went on to explain, more optimistically, that the absence of Shakespeare’s language on stage is by and large no longer perceived as an obtrusive omission or a limitation. In fact, she welcomed the steady increase in the use of brief scene-by-scene synopses instead of surtitles, having pioneered brief synopses in the award-winning international theatre series she produced for the National Theatre in the late 1980s.
The panel discussion touched on other issues that are hotly debated by theatre artists, scholars, students and theatre-goers interested in ‘global Shakespeares’. I was particularly keen to get the panelists to share their views on the viability of the term ‘global’ in relation to the popularity of Shakespeare in contemporary performance. Is Shakespeare a genuinely global phenomenon? Is Shakespeare equally prominent in theatre repertories around the world?
Several studies have shed light on the role of Shakespeare in specific regions and theatre traditions. And, as Deborah Shaw pointed out, we do have some interesting global statistics, courtesy of organizations like the British Council. For example, we know that roughly 50% of children worldwide study Shakespeare as part of their school curriculum. However, as Deborah stressed, Shakespeare is taught differently in different parts of the world and is sometimes disingenuously and cynically appropriated by tyrannical regimes or governmental institutions to further different political agendas. Yet more crucially, we simply do not as yet know how many Shakespeare productions are staged each year across the globe or how many people visit them. And even when (or if) enough resources are employed to find out, what we are likely to discover, if the current offerings showcased by the World Shakespeare Festival are anything to go by, is a staggering diversity rather than variants of a unified phenomenon. As Shakespearean scholar William B. Worthen has aptly argued ‘the sense that a given product – KFC chicken, Nokia cellphones, Mercedes automobiles, Othello – is the “same” in all its local meanings ignores the lived experience of everyday life (a Coke in Istanbul is not, in cultural terms, the same thing as a Coke in Indianapolis)’.
One of the conclusions reached at the end of this debate was that the ‘infinite variety’ of ‘global Shakespeares’ therefore demands artists and scholars alike to adopt a local focus. In other words, ‘Global Shakespeares’ can only be understood in relation to the very specific sets of circumstances and traditions within which specific productions are directed and produced. And that is why the panelists’ willingness to share their experience of working with Shakespeare at international level proved so valuable.
Thelma Holt brilliantly explained that a shared cultural penchant for subtext in British and Japanese cultures must be at least partly responsible for the long love-affair between Ninagawa and British audiences. She also evoked, rather touchingly, her sense of excitement when she first encountered international Shakespeare practitioners inLondonin the 1960s, having had no exposure to international theatre traditions during her training at RADA. Deborah Shaw talked eloquently about her move from regional theatres to international festivals when she felt the need to find a fresh source of inspiration for her work and how her contribution to the Bath International Festival led to her appointment as the director of the executive director of the RSC 2006 Complete Works Festival. And, most tellingly, Ivo van Hove spoke about his realization that working with Shakespeare had triggered more personal and artistic discoveries than directing his own work.
Ultimately, the debate reinforced the idea that current encounters with Shakespeare, often within global traditions and languages far away from the original context within which Shakespeare first lived and worked, tend to lend cultural diversity a ‘local habitation and a name’.
Dr Sonia Massai
Reader in Shakespeare Studies
The London Shakespeare Centre
King’s College London
All photos are credited to Katie Henfrey