Today marks the Immortal Bard William Shakespeare’s 454th birthday! The inventor of thousands of new English words, for no reason at all, has been dead some 402 years but he is still very much alive in modern theatre.
In honour of his thriving legacy, let me offer you a round-up of some the more innovative ways his vast body of work has been adapted and built upon across the world in different eras, languages, and cultural contexts from the last ten years.
I have made a very deliberate choice to feature productions that have all come through London. There is something especially wonderful about the imperialism of English literature being brought back to the Empire with a brand new face that traditionally white English audiences must learn to adapt to.
Julius Caesar, the African Tyrant
The Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran directed an all-black version of Julius Caesar set in an unnamed African state.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Doran describes his idea for the production after looking at postcolonial African history:
You look at African history over the past 50 years, and there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar: Idi Amin, Bokassa, Mobutu, indeed Mugabe. The sequence frequently is of leaders coming to power on a wave of popularity, pulling power to themselves in a one-party state, feeling that they have to seize control. Then, that being followed by a military coup which is followed itself by a much worse dictator and then, possibly, civil war. That’s Julius Caesar you’re describing.
The production was part of The World Shakespeare Festival which ran in London in 2012, but traveled to New York the following year. Teju Cole over at The New Yorker had the chance to see it in Brooklyn and had this to say in his review:
Before going, I had thought that a more precise identification of the play with a particular country—South Africa, say, or Nigeria—would be preferable, the better to avoid the pernicious notion that Africa is a country. But the performance persuaded me otherwise: Shakespeare’s play is a gloss on an English translation of Plutarch’s “Lives,” and its force is in the dramatic language. The general African setting unexpectedly illuminates that language.
Shakespearean Comedies From Kabul
From the Roy-e Sabs Theatre company in Kabul came another entry to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. Directed by French-Syrian actor Corinne Jaber, the play is recited completely in the Dari language.
The performance is available to rent or purchase through The Globe Theatre’s website.
The group had already made Western news headlines after they staged a Dari-language production of Love’s Labour Lost in the historic site of Babur Garden in 2005. It was a bold choice for a comedy, complete that catered to local tastes for Bollywood styles. That endeavour was documented in a 2012 book called Shakespeare in Kabul.
The Samurai Scottish Play
Written in 1985, Yukio Ninagawa’s retelling of Macbeth in 16th century Japan is still being staged many years later. It was revived last year in Hong Kong and London to honour the playwright’s death, featuring the Japanese 1980’s television star Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth.
From The Guardian review:
Ninagawa went on to create even greater interpretations of Shakespeare, such as his refugee-based Pericles and lotus-filled Titus Andronicus. But this Macbeth shows his mastery of image and sound and a capacity to draw fine performances from his actors. Masachika Ichimura makes Macbeth a heroic soldier who exults in power only to be confronted by its insecurity and emptiness. Dauntless in battle, he quivers when confronted by the spectral victims of his despotism. Yūko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth, first seen playing the cello in her castle, is also clearly a woman of grace and sensitivity destroyed by her desire for supremacy.
Richard II, The Concept Album
From the British-born Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company comes a soulful production of Richard II. Unlike the others I’ve highlighted, this has never been put on a major stage but has rather toured around various community centres and spread through YouTube.
The combination of beats and verse should be a fairly obvious application to Shakespeare in this day and age, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this came out of the British context rather than the American, where hip-hop was born.
Founder of the Company Akala also has a great TEDTalk about his innovative approach to education. Akala’s philosophy is probably much more effective than this Lin Manuel Miranda SNL sketch, which is much beloved by me.
What are your favourite global Shakespeare adaptations? I have personally always dreamed of a Latin American version of Julius Caesar, Julio César.