The Rough Guide to Shakespeare in Other Languages

CollageIn the past decade, my professional activities have centered on presenting, producing, curating and directing plays by William Shakespeare in languages other than the early modern English he spoke. Eleven years ago, Lit Moon Theatre Company, the locally based company I co-founded in 1992 and have served as artistic director, traveled to Gdansk, Poland, to present our production of “Hamlet” at their annual international Shakespeare Festival. That 2004 festival began the company’s—and my—work in Global Shakespeare. I have since directed five Shakespearean productions in three different languages for audiences in Sopot, Gdansk, Legnica, Prague, Kotor, Podgorica, Skopje, Bitola, Strumitza, Ohrid, Tirana, Butrint, London, Beijing, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. We’ve performed in a 4th century B.C. Hellenistic theatre on the shores of the Ionian Sea, a 12th century Orthodox church in Macedonia, a 16th century Catholic cathedral in Poland, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatre in London, and the almost brand-new, gleaming white theatre of the National Theatre of China in Beijing.

The motif of travel and pilgrimage runs through my experiences. The word “pilgrim” derives from the Latin peligrinus: a foreigner or wayfarer who travels to shrines or holy places. An older derivation, peragrum, means “through the field” and suggests someone who strikes out, walks beyond known boundaries, encounters the unknown, and endures challenges and difficulties to reach some sacred center of the world. Reaching the destination, a pilgrim may experience a vision, hear an oracle or touch a relic. But the deeper goal is transformation and regeneration. For the past decade, my pilgrimage has taken me in ineffable and mysterious ways toward the source of Shakespeare’s hold on the human imagination. For the bulk of this time, I’ve possessed a relic: the bones of a saint.

In 2005 I taught at the annual summer Shakespeare festival in Poland. Since 1997, the Gdansk Theatre Foundation had pursued a significant theatrical and cultural project: the construction of a new theatre and cultural center on the site of the country’s first theatre, constructed about 1610 and known as the Fencing School. At the time, Gdansk belonged to the Hanseatic League and was the richest, most influential city in the region. It became an important periodic stop for English actors who played in the provinces and on the continent. Global Shakespeare may have started then.

The Fencing School is significant because it closely copied a London Elizabethan theatre, the Fortune, built in 1600 by manager Philip Henslowe. Situated to the north, just outside London’s city limits, the Fortune was the home of one of the leading actors of the day, Edward Alleyn, and his company, the Admiral’s Men, after they departed the Rose, their South Bank theatre. Between 1601 and 1612 at least four of the Admiral’s Men (Robert Browne, John Green, Richard Jones and Robert Ledbetter) performed in Gdansk. According to Jerzy Limon, t he preeminent scholar on t he English comedians on t he continent, these actors likely provided information about London’s Fortune, which led to the construction of a near-copy in Gdansk, the only known example of an Elizabethan platform stage exported to the continent.

Professor Jerzy Limon, a friend, colleague, university professor, scholar and impresario, has spearheaded the building of a new theatre and cultural center using the excavated structures of the old Fencing School to create a new theatre for Polish and World Shakespeare. Following years of struggle, battles with EU authorities and Herculean effort, the theatre opened in August 2014 with London’s Globe Theatre production of Hamlet.

One sunny August day in 2005, Jerzy invited me to the excavation site of the Fencing School. He reached down, tore a hunk of rotting wood from a timber, and handed it to me. This, he said, was part of the upright support structure of the stage dating from the theatre’s construction in 1610. It’s a relic, the bones of a saint, literal remains—and my way to touch the past, to speak with the dead, to acknowledge, live in, and be energized. Shakespeare didn’t stand on it, but he certainly knew people who did, and this little piece of wood exists as a talisman, relic, totem and symbol of my forays into the past and the unknown.

Fifty years from now, when scholars write the history of this period of theatre, Global Shakespeare will comprise a significant part of the narrative. Although Shakespeare has been translated and played in different languages since the early 17th century (the first I know is a German translation of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1604), this cultural moment is unique as contemporary globalization has already transformed how audiences enjoy, think about and respond to Shakespeare’s plays.

Global Shakespeare means Shakespeare performed by indigenous cultures or combinations of artists from different cultures for bot h local and global meaning. First it means Shakespeare in performance and the methods, styles, and practices of presenting his plays native to the cultures that perform him, not necessarily what his plays mean in theory or in the imagination. Global Shakespeare is Shakespeare in performance wherever he is staged, whether in Calcutta or Tirana or Santa Barbara. In other words, Global Shakespeare highlights theatre practices idiosyncratic to the cultures in which his plays are staged, highlighting those practices or otherwise making them apparent in the production. In this way, Shakespeare becomes significantly local. His plays present and celebrate cultural specificity and national identity, promoting, representing or creating meanings significant to the culture of the artists playing him. Much of this might be unintelligible to the accidental or otherwise uninformed theatre-goer.

In 2012, as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad, Shakespeare’s Globe produced a watershed moment in Global Shakespeare. A festival featured all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, plus his poem “Venus and Adonis,” staged by 38 different theatre companies in 38 different languages. I was fortunate to direct one of the productions, “Henry VI, Part 3,” as part of the so-called Balkan Trilogy of the “Henry VI” plays played by the national theatres of Serbia, Albania, and Bitola, Macedonia. When Tom Bird, artistic director of the Globe to Globe Festival, sent a series of best practices for the festival and playing at the Globe, he asked us to make a production that was “light on its feet,” to use the Globe as scenery, and to incorporate a great deal of music, costumes and movement. I took that to mean—as did many other directors—cultural and artistic practices local to the communities developing the productions.

Last year, the Globe published a wonderful artifact of that festival that includes reviews of every show presented at the festival. Three examples highlight the principles of Global Shakespeare.

In one review, Malcolm Cocks wrote, “The Isango Ensemble from Cape Town, South Africa, kicked off the Globe to Globe Festival with a glorious interpretation of Shakespeare’s epic poem [“Venus and Adonis”] that left the audience grinning from sheer exhilaration. The compelling story of desire, power, attempted seduction and loss unfolds through a seamless medley of song, dance and music, drawing on elements from Western operatic traditions, South African acapella and contemporary pop music. This was Shakespeare with marimbas, drums, beatboxing, hand-clapping, whistles and improvised instruments I can’t even name. An all-black cast on the Globe stage in a multilingual production incorporating six of the nine major South African languages… this was Shakespeare like never before.”

Christine Dymkowski commented in a review, “Even to the uninitiated, it was immediately apparent that the production [“The Tempest”] would be a celebration of Bangla culture. The front of the stage was set with vividly painted boxes arranged in a multilevel circle, their fonts decorated with images ranging from ships to horses to a dinosaur and their sides with floral patterns; a helpful member of t he audience told me t hey resembled the folk art paintings seen on rickshaws, particularly in Dhaka.”

Reviewing my show, Sasha Dundjerovic wrote, “Blondelle’s [sic] Part 3 was generally considered by many commentators the most interesting of the Henry trilogy, and it has been praised for its modern interpretations of t he battle scenes… The pallet of blue costume, accentuated with bursts of color that drew attention to the particular emotional state of a character, worked especially well. These costumes were inspired by a hybrid representation of military uniforms and the Macedonian national costume, and were subtly accentuated with color and with such details as Queen Margaret’s red stiletto shoes, or a brooch that distinguished whether a character belonged to the House of York or Lancaster. Imaginative and highly symbolic use of music and dance with live drumming… was particularly effective. For example, a dance using sticks represented one of the numerous battle scenes. Like the Albanian production, the Bitola performance used the national drum (the ‘goc’) located centre stage.”

These productions, however, can’t remain local, or they would never be global! Productions become global when they travel, move throughout the world, become part of a global marketplace, and serve as cultural capital, as currency that validates identity on t he world stage. Global Shakespeare substantiates Stephen Greenblatt’s idea, where the circulation of social energy makes new intellectual, aesthetic and political products by the flow of social energies between cultures. The meanings of Shakespeare’s plays in the Global Age are not universal, essential and Anglo or Eurocentric but flexible, multilingual and multicultural. Shakespeare is not singular but plural. He is a they: Shakespeares, not Shakespeare.

When the Macedonian “Henry VI, Part 3” played in London at the Globe to Globe Festival, it was the first time the play appeared at any of London’s Globe Theatres, either the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre of Shakespeare’s day or its wildly successful facsimile built in the mid-1990s. Interestingly, early performances of “Henry VI Part 3” played at the Rose Theatre, Philip Henslowe and Robert Alleyn’s theatre, before they built and moved to the Fortune in 1600. The Globe later produced its own production of the Henry VI trilogy in 2013.

When “Henry VI, Part 3” took to the Globe stage May 12, 2012, it was a premiere for any Globe audience and the language of that premiere was Macedonian, a source of tremendous pride and nationalistic identity for the members of the theatre, the Macedonian audience in attendance, and the minister of culture. Here, on the Globe Stage, Macedonia was not only part of the world, but it was also part of Europe despite contemporary European politics and economic realities that have kept Macedonia out of the European Union.

Hybrids that fuse cultures, methods and approaches, Global Shakespeare productions refashion the plays and create new meanings. For example, when I work in the Balkans, I bring an Anglo-inspired approach to text and acting. I encourage the actors to speak, to think, to discover what is said in the moment of speaking, and to ride the waves of language and thought.

This deviates from the dominant Balkan method of playing, which is slower, more reflective. The actors use many pauses and think in order to speak. It takes a great deal of time to refashion that way of playing, to get actors to ride the wave of language, thought, and feeling, to create something that feels Shakespearean to me.

Something unique and new comes from my collaborations with Balkan artists. As an American director, I bring specific cultural and artistic sensibilities and an American spirit, which a Macedonian director lacks. Similarly, Balkan actors display different temperatures, ways of working, and energies than American actor s do. What results is something new and idiosyncratic, something that no American actors working with me could develop—nor could Macedonian actors working with a Macedonian director.

Are These Shakespeares Shakespeare?

Are these plays “Shakespeare” though? Many would argue— and I can sympathize with them—that much is lost when translating Shakespeare’s English into other languages. Although I concur, I also agree with Salman Rushdie, who suggests there is much to be gained in the act of translation.

Most English-speaking audiences, actors, and readers consider Shakespeare’s rich, allusive, and innovative use of language the most significant aspect of his art. But I suggest that his mind is the most significant aspect of his work and that translating his plays retains something authentically Shakespearean.

I believe that five principal features dominate Shakespeare’s mind:

  • It’s musical: his plays feature an uninterrupted flow of action;
  • It’s associative: personal, political, metaphysical, and theatrical life correspond and are connected to one another;
  • It’s dialectical: he relishes contrasts such as antithetical images set against each other in a line of verse or when a scene in a throne room gives way to bar room or one in the country moves to the city;
  • It’s anatomical: something hidden becomes apparent through a list or catalogue of examples to reveal a character’s inner life;
  • It’s multi-perspectival: Shakespeare provides multiple points of view and ways to think about the subject at hand.

My favorite speech from Shakespeare, the Mole Hill speech of Act II, Scene V, from “Henry VI, Part 3,” reveals Shakespeare’s mind. Henry has witnessed the bloody Battle of Towton, in which he is complicit as king. The text flows musically; it exhibits associative correspondences between politics, the natural world and Henry himself; it plays on contrasts; the speech includes catalogues and lists; and it presents multiple perspectives about time and what it means to different people. Henry displays turmoil in personal conflict, in the conflict between armies and in the battle of wind and sea.

I view the issue of translation more conservatively than I did five or six years ago. A translator who attends to the five features I identified above creates something authentically Shakespearean. I also think t hat a translator who ignores Shakespeare’s mind is simply inspired by his work, stories and characters. Both are valid and have a place in contemporary world theatre.

The issue of translation is especially thorny. Early Macedonian translators followed the Russian and Serbian practice of expanding the number of lines to capture ever y idea and word, which led to the addition of hundreds of lines. One early Serbian Hamlet translation is 5,000 lines; Shakespeare’s play contains about 3,500. To create a kind of iambic translation of t he play, Macedonian translators violated their own language, which is more trochaic than iambic. The irony is interesting: In their effort to be authentic, those early translators created works that are now unreadable and unplayable. Textual fidelity doesn’t necessarily lead to dramatic or theatrical effectiveness.

As an American director, I bring specific cultural and artistic sensibilities and an American spirit, which a Macedonian director lacks. Similarly, Balkan actors display different temperatures, ways of working, and energies than American actors do.

What results is something new and idiosyncratic, something that no American actors working with me could develop— nor could Macedonian actors working with a Macedonian director.

The sculptor Henry Moore once said, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

I don’t really know how to direct in other languages, but I enter into a rehearsal room and start doing it. I talk a lot, teach the play, stage scenes, read, take long walks, teach the play some more, prowl the stage, talk about language, re-stage the scenes I had staged, talk again about language, talk about character, teach t he play some more, tell jokes, develop context, re- stage the re-stagings of scenes that I had originally staged, jump up and down, teach the play some more, rant, tell long, hopefully inspiring stories, re-stage the re-stagings of the original re- stagings, throw fits, watch actors, stage more scenes, have a beer and do it again the next day. I once posted on the World Wide Director’s Forum known as Facebook that “Directing is an aerobic activity.” The post received a whole bunch of “Likes,” so we know it’s true.

Working with actors is working with actors whether I can understand what they are saying or not. Actors want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to know when they do something that works, and I have to be available to tell them when it does.

I’m involved in hugely gratifying, intensely difficult, enormously fulfilling cultural and aesthetic work. I do what academics dream about: original, meaningful work in my discipline. When I directed “Henry VI, Part 3” it had only been staged in English, German and French; none of the Henry plays (including the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V) had ever been staged in Macedonian. When I directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it had never been staged completely by a professional company in Albania. Think of it, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a new play! The opening night of that show, as the applause was dying and the house lights were coming up, an, elderly, nattily dressed man walked up to me. He spoke to me in Albanian, and the journalist I was talking to started translating. He had been a long-time actor with the National Theatre, now retired and pensioned. Tears were streaming down his face, and he pumped my hand, and said, again and again, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle.”

My work with Shakespeare in other languages is a pilgrimage across physical and imaginative frontiers, toward something sacred: an experience of transformation and regeneration. The relic of a Shakespeare text becomes whole through the act of performance, and audiences and actors alike are swept beyond their experiential boundaries to be touched and enriched by Shakespeare’s mind.

By John Blondell Professor of Theater Arts


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