THE ARDEN 3
WORLD SHAKESPEARES — SHAKESPEARE'S WORLDS
London, 21 March 1998
This symposium organised by Gresham College and the University of London addressed a great diversity of topics. Papers focused on the ways in which different cultures and traditions perform, adapt, and appropriate Shakespeare's plays, and devoted attention to Shakespeare as a cultural icon during the period of England's colonialist expansion.
The opening plenary briefly explored the fascinating topic of how Shakespeare was employed to teach English in colonised Africa, where the plays were pedagogical power tools for spelling, punctuation, and rhetoric. Martin Banham (University of Leeds), and Nigerian playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi discussed three contemporary African playwrights who broke free from a Eurocentric Shakespeare in English by translating the plays into African languages and cultures. Dev Virahsawmy (Mauritius), Thomas Dekker (Sierra Leone), and Wale Ogunyemi (Nigeria) made a political statement when they appropriated the colonizer's Shakespeare by adapting and translating the plays into their own languages. The Mauritian Creole that Virahsawmy used for The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Much Ado About Nothing was previously considered as suitable only for farce. Like Tanzanian president Nyerere who translated The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar into Swahili, these writers sought to prove that their native languages were equal to Shakespeare's and the colonizer's English. Ogunyemi's Yoruban adaptation of Macbeth as Aare Akogun (1969) carried great significance for Nigerian audiences with its novel reference to a recognizable army leader. In the nineteenth century, Nigeria was embroiled in a civil war between clans, with the north attacking Christians from the south. In our century the Nigerian state removed authority from the traditional Yoruban king and his religion and introduced Christianity as the official state religion. Anarchy ensued, for it was no longer clear whether authority was with the sorcerers and magicians of the old religion, or with the Anglican church. Ogunyemi freely adapted Macbeth, employing proverbial riddles and powerful charms to convey the power of the wizards, the Yoruban version of the weird sisters. African adaptors do not aim to create a definitive translation of the plays, but emphasise movement and change rather than national hegemony. The printed translation usually differs from manuscripts since Creole languages themselves involve movement, alter rapidly. Banham and Gbadamosi in their session stressed that theatre in Africa is much more functional than in Europe, very much politically engaged and therefore an occupation not without dangers.
Following this plenary, a broad range of workshops offered practical approaches to the texts. In these engaging workshops, led by theatre professionals, original ways into the plays were suggested: the Irish spirit world, Spanish theatre, Indian Rasa, Noh drama, Caribbean carnival, commedia dell' arte, physical theatre, designing and fighting techniques.
The final plenary session, entitled "Cross-Cultural European Shakespeare," was hosted by the Spanish director Lluis Pasqual (who has directed Shakespeare in Spanish, Catalan, and French), by Maria Delgado (University of London), and director Peter Lichtenfels. The session took the form of an energetic and playful performance in which Pasqual lectured theatrically in Spanish and was simultaneously translated into English by Delgado. It was a captivating performance, but Lluis Pasqual's address had an uncanny resemblance to the xenophobe's guide to Europe. After assuring us that Shakespeare's plays are like sacred writing, and forever universal because of their recognisable characters, a rather Eurocentric statement after the morning's discussions, Pasqual proceeded by making a tour through Europe and its actors. We learned that because of its monosyllabic nature Catalan is the most suitable language into which to translate Shakespeare, after Italian. Castilian Spanish, however, is a feminine language designed for praying and has too slow a rhythm for a successful Shakespeare translation. Furthermore, Spanish actors have the tendency to fight where English actors — naturally the actors most fitting to perform the Bard — play spontaneously and unaffectedly. French actors, Pasqual argued, are even worse, for they think before they act. Where English performers are more physical and give their emotions free rein, the French apparently analyse their feelings before enacting them, and this is not the way to play Shakespeare. The French language, moreover, is inherently slower and an As You Like It will always last about 35 minutes longer than its English counterpart. But this, fortunately, is not a problem for a French audience, for they regard theatre as a cultural act, and boredom is considered an inseparable part of any cultural experience.
At the close of a day of multi-cultural Shakespeare, this stereotyping discussion of European actors came as an anti-climax to an energetic and engaging conference on Shakespeare's broad-ranging worlds.
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