Whatever would William Shakespeare make of it all if he were to journey now through Asia, where the interpretations of his works differ so much across vast regions, ethnic groups, cultures and languages?
Since the 1990s, in the field of Shakespeare studies non-Anglophone productions of the Bard’s works have emerged as new territories to be explored on both page and stage. Numerous Asian theater practitioners have translated, adapted and directed the plays, and audiences, scholars and critics have witnessed and written about their work.
The inaugural conference of the Asian Shakespeare Association, dubbed Shakespearean Journeys, was held May 15-18 in Taipei in response to a call from Bi-qi Beatrice Lei, an associate professor at the National Taiwan University — who now chairs the ASA — to establish “a nonprofit, nongovernment organization dedicated to researching, producing, teaching, translating and promoting Shakespeare from an Asian perspective.” It tied in with this year’s 450th anniversary of the birth of that poet and dramatist supreme, whose life spanned 1564-1616.
In Shakespeare’s plays, characters often travel through cities and countries, by land and sea. But the most phenomenal traveler is the Bard’s appeal itself — crossing not only time and space but also language, culture and media. Indeed, his texts written in Renaissance England have often been translated and transformed to such extent that barely a trace of their roots survives.
Here in Japan, where Shakespeare’s plays began to be staged in the 1880s, they were first used as tools of edification. It wasn’t until a century later that scholars and practitioners felt they had accumulated enough knowledge and experience to justify the words “Japanese Shakespeare” — and even to create works of “Japanese contemporary Shakespeare.”
As an example of this, Owl Spot, a midsize theater venue in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, has this year been running the Owl Spot Shakespeare Festival featuring stagings of 15 works, from faithful translations to loose adaptations, as well as related events.
Although it launched in February with a conventionally staged double bill of “Measure for Measure” and “As You Like It” by Tokyo’s venerable Bungakuza Theatre, the festival’s two key characteristics overall have been its sheer variety — spanning everything from yose (traditional Japanese vaudeville) to contemporary dance and musicals — and its support for young directors.
Common to the lineup’s new-generation works has been their use of scripts rewritten in today’s colloquial Japanese, considerably different in sense and meaning from both the original texts and the conventional translations favored by established shingeki (Western realist) companies such as Bungakuza.
Last month for instance, Naoyuki Miura, 27-year-old leader of Lolo, produced the Tokyo company’s first foray into Shakespeare with a radically deconstructed pop piece titled “Children of Romeo and Juliet.” Similarly, 32-year-old Osaka dramatist Takashi Masuyama transformed “Macbeth” into “100 Watt Condenser and 100 Mile Road (Virgin),” in which the main plot as staged by his Kodomo Kyojin company (whose name means Giant Child) revolved around a triangular relationship between King Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain and an enigmatic woman who turned out to be Macbeth’s lover.
Meanwhile, though he’s still only 30, Norihito Nakayashiki is already known for his all-female productions of Shakespeare that fuse robotic speech patterns, group dance routines, references to cosplay and manga subcultures, raunchy costumes and satirical depictions of Japanese society. For Owl Spot, his Tokyo company Kaki Kuu Kyaku staged “Bousou Juliet” and “Meisou Cleopatra.”
In the former, set in a high school, Juliet is a tomboy who races through love and death; in the latter, Cleopatra became an exotic queen in a Chinese dress who stood in vibrant contrast to her Anthony starkly clad as a wartime Japanese soldier.
Now, from Nov. 20-24, Junko Emoto’s Kegawazoku company will showcase a version of “Taming of the Shrew,” a problem play widely criticized for its misogyny. However, Tokyo-based Emoto, 35, who is known for her bold and kinky approach to representations of female sexuality, intends to play with gender conventions through the themes of money and control.
The festival culminates next month with a keenly anticipated piece from Tokyo’s Hanagumi Shibai company, led since he founded it in 1987 by Yukikazu Kano. Using his “nouveau kabuki” style, Kano, 54, will present an all-male adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” written by Sakurako Akino (aka the actress Kaori Yamagata) that attempts to give new form to performance traditions from both West and East.
So, what is common to these productions under the Owl Spot umbrella — or indeed to all “Shakespearean Journeys” across Asia (as that Taipei conference termed the phenomenon)?
Well, clearly it’s the search for new contextual realities based on local concerns, ideas and practices — and there’s still time to witness some of those remarkable twists on this festival’s stages, where actors and directors continue to grapple with ideas and shifts in the geopolitical landscape that are reorienting Shakespeare to this very day.