June 1 2016
The bard remains a strong cultural export but his Englishness is no longer something to worry about…
By Agnish Ray
ON THE 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, a series of activities at this year’s Alchemy Festival at London’s Southbank Centre showed that Shakespeare’s South Asian voice is thriving more than ever.
There was a small bare set, featuring nothing but a funeral pyre in the middle, Theatre Village, a company of actors based in Kathmandu, gave an earnest and compelling performance of “Hamlet” – the first Nepali translation and performance of a Shakespeare play, according to co-directors Gregory Thompson and Bimal Subedi.
The solemn protagonist appears in white, the (Hindu) Nepali colour of mourning, with a shaven head, customary of the eldest son at his father’s funeral rites in Nepali culture. Cremation replaces burial here, as Hamlet is charged by his father’s furious ghost to avenge his murder.
The production, enabled by the British Council, was first presented to an audience of 3,000 people in Banktapur Burbar Square, one of the most prominent heritage sites of Nepal. The atmosphere must have been magical – and challenging to recreate, in the intimate Blue Room at Southbank Centre, this time with a much smaller audience of around 70.
Nonetheless, the evocative drama of the company’s performance was there, filling the room with Hamlet’s menacing madness, Claudius’ devious wickedness, Ophelia’s sorrowful fragility and Gertrude’s guilt-ridden despair.
While Shakespeare in its original language sometimes struggles to connect with contemporary audiences with little or no previous knowledge or education of his work, there was nothing inaccessible or alienating about this production of “Hamlet“. In fact, with its musical accompaniments and dramatic and emotional performances, it might well have passed as a popular Nepali soap opera on prime time television.
Furthermore, the resonances with contemporary Nepali politics are clear. Just in 2001, Nepal’s Crown Prince and the rest of the Nepali Royal family lay dead in the palace compound opposite Theatre Village in Kathmandu. Violent regime change, one of Shakespeare’s favourite themes, is a living memory in Nepal.
This production left no doubt about how well Shakespeare translates into the South Asian context. But Indian subcontinent’s relationship with Shakespeare is not always a simple one.
The start of the 17th century, when Shakespeare was writing, was also the time when the East India Company was formally set up, instigating a process which ultimately resulted in the subjugation of India under British rule.
And under Britain’s Indian Education Act of 1835, Shakespeare was an essential tool in the colonising mission, used as a means of repressing native cultures and establishing the sovereignty of the English language over colonised subjects.
So the question of whether Shakespeare should occupy such a great status in South Asian education and theatre today, compared to native greats like Kalidas and Tagore, is therefore unavoidable.
Speaking separately to www.asianculturevulture.com, Koel Chatterjee, a researcher of Shakespeare in Indian cinema at London’s Royal Holloway University, said that subcontinental adaptations of Shakespeare have inevitably been haunted by the “colonial or postcolonial angst of trying to imitate the coloniser and trying to do him one better”.
But things are changing, she pointed out, as Indians have increasingly “owned” Shakespeare. Contemporary Indian adaptations of Shakespeare are no longer a way of seeking the approval of the western market, but as vehicles to talk about contemporary Indian social and political issues. So the postcolonial tensions are disappearing – “Shakespeare now exists as an Indian author”, she said.
At an intimate panel discussion also held on the weekend as part of Alchemy Festival, Thompson told the room about deliberately making his Hamlet production as Nepali and as political as possible, instead of treating it as a foreign play in translation. He also claimed that there is a big difference between Britain taking Shakespeare abroad, and other countries and cultures creating their own Shakespeares.
While projects like Globe to Globe* Hamlet exist to export a British cultural artefact to other parts of the world, he argued, initiatives like Hamlet in Nepali enable real cross continental collaborations – with the product belonging as much to the ‘foreign’ country as to Shakespeare’s homeland.
Subedi and Thompson’s “Hamlet” didn’t feel like Shakespeare in translation. Instead it so deliberately localised the work into Nepali culture to the point that the product would almost be too ‘exotic’ for an average Western audience.
This kind of ‘nativisation’ of Shakespeare is in many ways a reversal of the ‘Shakespearisation’ of India.
- ‘Hamlet’ in Nepali was performed at the Royal Festival Hall, Blue Room on May 27 and May 28 as part of the Alchemy Festival (May 20-30). http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/