THE STAPLE OF NEWS - II

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen


The Dutch weekly, Vrij Nederland (30 June 2001), carried a curious review of Julie Taymor's Titus by Paul van de Graaf. Van de Graaf finds Titus "thoroughly Shakespearean and hence an odd failure." The explanation for this verdict lies in the reviewer's conviction that a Shakespearean play cannot be filmed as a ready scenario. Undue respect for the Shakespeare text and the pursuit of stage conventions like the aside and the soliloquy, he contends, produce a very shaky film. Essentially, the reviewer believes that the combination of "modern" film techniques and "old-fashioned" theatre jars. In Titus, Van de Graaf finds no characters but caricature. Far-fetched situations abound in the film, he argues. Moreover, he rejects the thick imagery, the heavy monologues, and above all the multiple anachronisms. Anyone who has seen Titus will find it difficult to believe that the combination of images of the Colloseum in Rome with those of Italian fascism in the 1930s, and of the Balkans conflict, mixed with Shakespeare's own text, should deserve the verdict of anachronism. Such postmodern virtues remain unacknowledged in this shallow and intolerant review whose central focus on the discrepancy of the Shakespeare play and the cinematic scenario, the clash of effective stage conventions and film technique is really dated in the sense that such criticism was first heard (and for the last time, one would have hoped) in the 1930s, when the silent film gave way to the talkie, and the Shakespearean verse became a new contender with the moving image as a means of expression. It is to be hoped that few readers were convinced by this facile verdict on a quality film that has unjustly run into more adverse criticism than it merits. For more details on this film, see the previous edition of "The Staple of News."

A film that, sadly, did not make it to Dutch cinemas but has just reached well-stocked video rental stores is Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost (1999). Branagh has turned Shakespeare's romantic comedy into a musical in the style of the 1930s, and has also set the action in 1939. The text has been ruthlessly cut to allow for the inclusion of dance routines as well as songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers in this film lasting a mere hour and a half. In order to enhance the period atmosphere, Branagh has added black and white footage in the style of 1930s cinema newsreels, which functions as the modern equivalent of a chorus. The newsreader's voice-over introduces the characters by name, summarizes plot developments, and makes witty comments. The movie is entertaining and merry, although one sometimes wonders whether all actors necessarily make great singers. The merriness is overshadowed by the threats of war it is, after all, 1939 which lends the lovers' pranks an aura of nostalgia as well as naivety. In Shakespeare's original, this carpe diem/memento mori element was of course suggested by the death of the King of France, which terminates his daughter's stay at the court of Navarre and, consequently, the young men's attempts at wooing the princess and her ladies-in-waiting, at least for the time being. In this film, it is the death of the French king that, as a newspaper headline informs us, precipitates the war and the fall of France. The lovers' leave-taking at the airport is a clear visual quotation from the end of Casablanca. In an epilogue without any equivalent in Shakespeare's original, more black and white newsreels show the lovers struggling through the war, to find each other again on VE-day. In this way Branagh's happy ending, which is so notoriously absent from Shakespeare's play, may serve to compensate for the war, which constitutes a far more serious threat to the lovers' happiness.

Shakespeare's Macbeth, a.k.a. the Scottish Play, has long been the subject of superstition. Productions of the play are said to have been jinxed, and even the sheer mention of the play's name is supposed to bring bad luck. Help is on the way, however. Last August, Reuters news agency reported that a British white witch, Kevin Carlyon, is planning to lay the ghost of Macbeth by politely asking the medieval Scottish king to stop interfering with Shakespeare's admittedly not very flattering portrayal of him. Carlyon is hoping to enlist foreign aid: "I'm looking for two witches, but preferably not from Britain they've got to have an open mind," he told Reuters. "We are going to try and get in touch with the spirit of the real Macbeth to find out whether he is anything to do with the weird things which tend to happen with this play." And that is not the end of Carlyon's ambitions: "If we manage to contact Shakespeare, we'll also ask him where he got the idea for the three witches from in his play. ... I'm very positive that we'll get some success, but I will need some help raising spirits from the dead is not my specialist field." Unfortunately Reuters did not give any address to apply to, in case any of our readers feel competent in this field; but then again, presumably a true witch would not need one anyway. Meanwhile, the play or more precisely, the superstition associated with its title has claimed another victim, as a player on The Weakest Link, who also happened to be an actor in Eastenders, refused to give the correct answer to a question, Macbeth, and said "The Scottish play" instead. Alas, quiz master Anne Robinson was as pitiless as always.

More details have been announced about the changes at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. First, there will be a reorganisation of the actors, so that three smaller companies will each be doing one play at a time rather than one bigger company doing several plays in repertory. The London productions will no longer be at the Barbican but at the Roundhouse. In addition, there are ambitious building plans for Stratford. The experimental theatre, The Other Place, will not be closed down but have its auditorium extended. Most importantly, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is to be torn down and replaced by a new building. According to RSC artistic director Adrian Noble, the theatre, which in its current form dates back to 1932, has for long been regarded as "extremely problematic," mainly on account of the distance between the stage and the audience. The envisaged architect is a Dutchman, Erick van Egeraat. The new RST is to be the centre of a "Theatre Village," in which several theatre-related activities are to be concentrated. The cost of the entire scheme, which is to be completed by 2008, is estimated at 100 million.

The plans remain controversial, and fears of job losses in London and Stratford-upon-Avon have even led to threats of industrial action. In response to our letters expressing the concern of the international Shakespearean community, however, we received several replies intended to soothe those worries, from Adrian Noble, Chris Foy (the managing director), and from the secretary of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, who is the president of the RSC. All of these stress the continuity of the RSC's commitment to bringing the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries to modern audiences, also in Stratford and London.

Meanwhile, the Rose Theatre Trust has announced plans for a lottery to raise money for the full excavation of the Rose Theatre in Southwark, London. One of the few Elizabethan theatres whose foundations are believed to be largely intact, the Rose is associated with Marlowe and early Shakespeare. Part of its remains were discovered and dug up in 1989; since then, the site has been used for staged play-readings, and can be visited by appointment with the adjoining New Globe. The Rose Theatre Trust hopes to complete the excavation, and to put the archeological site on permanent exhibition, as an invaluable historical record as well as a potential tourist attraction to complement the New Globe.

As London's New Globe is developing into one of the world's major Shakespearean tourist attractions, a rival has opened its doors across the Atlantic. The Washington Post of 10 October 2001 reported that a replica of Shakespeare's other theatre, the elite indoors Blackfriars Playhouse, has opened in Staunton, Virginia, in the vicinity of Washington. Whereas the original is supposed to have held an audience of some 600, the replica can only squeeze 300 into the same space. The theatre is to become the home of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, which has begun playing A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (For the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, see their site at <www.shenandoahshakespeare.com>). The Post quotes a theatre scholar by the name of "Stephen Gurr of Reading University in London," who has called the replica "one of the five most historically important theaters in the world." Some relationship with Andrew Gurr of Reading University in Reading may be presumed.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has announced a new tool for research into Shakespearean stage history, dubbed FESTE. This is a database covering all RSC productions since 1865, offering details of casting and lists of reviews for each production. It can be found at <http://www.pads.ahds.ac.uk/shakespeare>.

On 16 October 2001 the Dutch quality newspaper NRC/Handelsblad reported on a quarrel between the Flemish translator Frank Albers and the distinguished The Hague-based theatre company, Het Nationaal Toneel ("Lear-vertaler boos om 'grof misbruik' tekst"). The row was over Het Nationaal Toneel's production of King Lear, which had premiered three days earlier, on 13 October. Central to the argument was the way in which Hans Croiset, the star actor playing the part of Lear, who also happens to be the one-time manager of Het Nationaal Toneel, approached Albers's new translation of the Shakespeare tragedy. In a style that one should call type-cast, Croiset sent Albers's secretary three pages of comments on the translation, not as an invitation to discuss certain issues, but as a fait accompli. At first, Albers accepted the comments of the leading actor, expecting that the official version of his translation would be sold at the theatres where the new King Lear was performed. Things came to a head when, at the premiere, it turned out that Het Nationaal Toneel had not bothered to arrange for the sales of the official translation, and had, in addition, neglected to invite the translator to the event. As an irate Albers told the press: "I am not talking about myself here. I am talking about the position of the translator. It happens only too often that theatre makers start to tinker with the translator's text behind his back. Too often theatre companies consider a document that the translator has worked on with passion for a year as no more than a working version. Mine is a plea for greater respect: respect for the text and for the translator." In a cultural climate where one sees a growing tendency on the part of theatre companies no longer to commission original, new translations for their Shakespeare productions, but, instead, to put together an acting version by using the existing translations, Albers's complaint comes as a breath of fresh air. Any translator with less than a personal stake in the text performed on stage might well have remained silent and gone into hiding over doyen Croiset's often far from courteous comments; but Albers, as we have learned over the years, is probably the most creative and sensitive Shakespeare translator in the Dutch language area. "More than any other play," Albers explains, "King Lear has been maimed by history. Much of the verse has been copied so often that it is no longer metrically sound. I have restored the metrical patterns. But Mr Croiset has changed it all again to suit his own taste."

Readers and translators of the sonnets may be interested to learn about a recent publication by Ulrich Erckenbrecht. Earlier this year, he published Shakespeare sechsundsechzig: Variationen über ein Sonnett (Kassel: Muriverlag, 2001). In 264 pages (4 x 66), this book presents 88 + 44 = 132 German translations of sonnet 66 ("Tired with all these, for restful death I cry"). The vast range of sonnets makes this collection an important achievement. It is a special testimonial to what Dennis Kennedy has called "foreign Shakespeare." It illustrates the linguistic potential of the original sonnet, bespeaks the German enthusiasm for translation as appropriation, and establishes the amazing potential of the German language as an instrument to convey Shakespeare to audiences unfamiliar with English. The long introduction to this edition of sonnet 66 is informative, but it also contains much excess speculation. The reader would do well to complement his study of Shakespeare sechsundsechzig with a recent paper on Shakespeare's most political sonnet by Manfred Pfister, "Route 66: The Political Performance of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66 in Germany and Elsewhere," Shakespeare-Jahrbuch 137 (2001): 115-31.

From Wednesday 14 until Saturday 17 November, the city of Basel was the venue of the conference on "Shakespeare in European Culture," organised by Balz Engler of the University of Basel, together with colleagues including Werner Brönnimann, Marti Markus, and Sylvia Zysset. This highly successful conference was part of a series of academic meetings devoted largely to the afterlife of Shakespeare in European culture and society. Previous meetings include the 1990 Antwerp conference on Shakespeare in translation during the Romantic era (organised by Dirk Delabastita and Lieven d'Hulst, and resulting in that indispensable collection of essays entitled European Shakespeares), the Bankya (Sofia) conference in Bulgaria, devoted to "Shakespeare in the New Europe" (also the title of the volume that appeared with Sheffield Academic Press in 1994), and the 1999 conference held at Murcía (Spain) to reflect on 400 years of Shakespeare in Europe, whose proceedings are gradually appearing in print. In November of this year, the Cuadernos de Filología Inglesa of Murcía University brought out a special theme issue, edited by Keith Gregor and Ángel-Luis Pujante, entitled More European Shakespeares. This issue (7:2 [2001]) contains papers on stage history and performance, Shakespeare in national cultures, and adaptations. A more substantial record of the proceedings will be forthcoming as 400 Years of Shakespeare in Europe, edited by Ángel-Luis Pujante and Ton Hoenselaars, Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press).

The Basel conference was a great success, with valuable contributions from speakers including Peter Holland, Clara Calvo, Michael Dobson, Alexander Shurbanov, Werner Habicht, Michèle Willems, Manfred Pfister, Péter Dávidházi, Alessandro Serpieri, Ruth Frfr. von Ledebuhr, and Isabelle Schwarz-Gastine. Also the various seminars (devoted to "Performance," "Translation," "Criticism," "Education," and "Iconicity") were experienced as particularly rewarding by the conference members from a large number of European nations and from the United States. At the business meeting that rounded off the conference, it was obvious that most of the members of the conference had been pleasantly surprised to find so many young European researchers taking part. As this European initiative is about to celebrate its first successful decade, it is more than likely that the torch lit by the present generation will gradually be taken over by a new group of scholars. At the same business meeting in Basel, it was agreed that the next assembly of the European Shakespeare Conference will take place in Utrecht towards the end of 2003. To organise the new conference on "Shakespeare and European Politics," Paul Franssen and Ton Hoenselaars, both based at Utrecht University, will be joined by the University of Ghent (with Jozef de Vos), the University of Namur (represented by Dirk Delabastita), and the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries. For those interested in the international conference at Utrecht, please consult the website of the Shakespeare Society. From early 2002 onwards this will be the site to monitor the progress of the conference.

Ghent, Belgium, 7 December. Jozef de Vos, in collaboration with the University of Ghent, the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries, and the Documentatiecentrum voor Dramatische Kunst, organised a conference around the theme of Shakespeare and philosophy. Taking their cue from Alfons van Impe's recent book Shakespeare: Ook nog filosoof? (Louvain and Apeldoorn: Garant, 1999), a number of speakers from the Low Countries engaged in the interdisciplinary adventure of approaching the Shakespearean text with questions that were rather different from those which the general reader is likely to fire at the material. In the opening address, Van Impe himself spoke about those philosophers who were also Shakespeare's own contemporaries: Bacon, Machiavelli, and Montaigne. Interestingly, he revised his view of the position of "women" in Shakespeare's philosophy as expressed in Ook nog filosoof? Drawing on analogies from, among other things, the story of Genesis, Jacques de Visscher (professor of philosophy at the Hoger Architectuurinstituut Sint-Lucas in Ghent, and professor of philosophy, Nijmegen University, The Netherlands) argued that the character of Macbeth cannot only be approached with criteria of an ethical-cum-psychological nature; the character's actions that fascinate us, he argued, correspond to a range of archaic forces that can be further identified. In "A Philosophical Nightmare in Athens and Rome," Professor Henk Woldring (Free University of Amsterdam, and Member of the Dutch House of Lords), argued a convincing case for the accuracy with which Shakespeare represents the complex philosophical contexts of Athens and Rome in Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar. One looks forward to his full-length book on the subject, which is to appear in 2002. In "Heil Macbeth," Rudolf Boehm (emeritus professor of modern philosophy, Ghent University), argued that "delusion" might well be the most important issue in the Scottish play. Macbeth feels convinced of success because he engages wholeheartedly in his murderous plans. But this is not a recipe for success in itself. Macbeth is proved wrong, in a way that Hitler was by the holocaust. Reading Macbeth along these lines might have provided the world with more effective philosophical "armour" to resist or oppose the Nazi leader before it was too late. Finally, professor Karel Boullart spoke of Shakespeare as the "holy heathen" of our culture, whose deft manipulation of points of view, whose command of the means of expression, and whose sense of objectivity account for his "Standpunktlosigkeit," which is what makes him such a great "philosopher" who is not a "philosopher." Boullart's contribution also raised pertinent issues about the status of the text as philosophical material, and the status of the author about whom we can distil only very little. Folio will keep you informed about the publication of the proceedings of this challenging conference, which was well attended by members of the Shakespeare society, scholars, and students from both the Netherlands and Belgium.

The LA Times of 24 December 2001 reported the death of the prominent Polish Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott, at age 87, a few days previously. Kott, who had lived in the United States since 1966, gained international fame with his acclaimed study Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964).

Nearly a century and a half after the foundation of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, and a decade or so after the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries, Britain, too, will at long last get its own Shakespeare Association. The British Shakespeare Association, or BSA as it will come to be known, is to be inaugurated at a conference on a most apposite topic, "Shakespeare and Britain," to be held in Stratford-upon-Avon on 2-3 February 2002. More detailed information can be found on the Association's website, <www.britishshakespeare.ws>.