This year is the 400th year from Shakespeare’s death and you can still go anywhere where British influence crept, and still creeps, and find Bill’s face. This ranges from Instagram frames in Nairobi to tours of acclaimed productions across the USA and the Far East. Indeed, in Hong Kong, Shakespeare seems both an obviously relevant and insultingly irrelevant medium to explore colonial hangovers and pressing political overhangs.
I like Shakespeare. Yet I acknowledge he is difficult. His magnificence is in the limits he pushes the language to, which is even hard for that great critic Jan Kot at times. His unbridled emotion, the great distress and turmoil and euphoria of his plays can be hard to engage with, particularly in cultures noted for their restraint. There is also a thick and shining armour which deflects many; he is the property of the elite, and to read him, to watch him, can feel like trespass.
In 2013 the University of Greenwich researched Shakespeare in Hong Kong, with an interesting focus on schools. Shakespeare was at the heart of English education during the period of British Rule. Since 1997 the focus on English proficiency, and Shakespeare, have supposedly slipped – though this is a favourite and annual debate.
The researchers found that Shakespeare was, still, very much part of the education system. Higher band schools did more Shakespeare and in depth, but the vast majority of the students sampled had had some contact with the Bard. Fascinatingly, when the interviewers moved to post-secondary environments their subjects chose to engage with Shakespeare of their own valediction and overwhelmingly thought that he had an important role to play in the schools system.
However, the study also found that the ways which dear old Bill had been taught was in a distinct and confined space. The text would probably be studied alongside a film, but attempts to break out of the classroom were limited. Indeed, the researchers observed a paradox: Shakespeare is claimed as depicter of human universals but denied a specific localised reading. Thus 93% of respondents felt that what Shakespeare reveals about life in general is “(to varying extents) important” while, 87% also admitted “to possessing little/no sense of what the study of Shakespeare can bring to light to them about their own society”.
This ringing in my ears I set out to see The Globe’s tour of “The Merchant of Venice” during its Hong Kong leg.
This re-staging in Hong Kong’s Academy for Performing Art’s Lyric Theatre of the 2015 production, which was itself critically acclaimed , was wonderful. It had doublets and hose, pomp and majesty. More importantly, this production does not shy away from some very difficult questions.
Portia, perhaps, more than any of the other characters in the play presents a thick knot of problems, which actor Rachel Pickup does not shy away from onstage and in our online exchange. Rachel says “the text that belongs to Portia in this play is in many ways harsh and cruel; the play itself is.”
Rachel has also taken guidance from the context, explaining her Portia as “a thoroughbred product of a rarified and exclusive world.” In her dealings with the Prince of Morocco, Jessica and Shylock, Portia is simply racist, as a noblewoman of that time and place likely was.
The production has kept the unpleasant lines about the Prince’s complexion and introduced new degrading moments between Jessica and Portia. Those scenes are hard to watch particularly when the Prince of Morocco, as played by Stefan Adegbola, is so hilarious. Rachel says “I struggle with those on a nightly basis and while I think it is brave that we have kept them, I think it is horrible to say and hear… If I am honest I don’t come off stage feeling particularly warm and glow-y about myself.”
It is worth saying that for all the sour notes of her character, Rachel’s Portia does show some warmth. She is a complex and difficult woman. In this, Rachel hits on the real problem of Portia – her womanhood. She says “nobody really loves an entitled woman who is also a winner – it is tough having to commit to playing her this way too – you know you are not going to be liked.. (it is not like playing the villain, everyone loves a villain,) but a heroine should be “likeable” .” Obvious comparisons to Hillary Clinton aside, it is worth noting that there is a paucity of women in Hong Kong’s board rooms. These are big, global issues. Rachel concludes that the messages of the play, and this production are “vast and universal and eternal.”
Talking to the producer, Tom Bird, he says “Both Shakespeare’s Venice and Hong Kong are… two very global cities.” He goes on to say “Shakespeare has transcended his Englishness, and has become a global artist,” and “different cultures and different languages have taken ownership of Shakespeare.” This is Shakespeare as a world icon.
With this in mind, I went to Opera Hong Kong’s production of Verdi’s ‘’Otello‘’. Verdi’s operatic translations are amongst the best examples of a different culture taking ownership of Shakespeare. The passion of Othello is brought into fierce heat by Verdi.
In this staging not a penny has been spared. The set drips with consideration, the costumes, like The Globe’s, are gorgeous. The orchestra is delightful. The production is a pleasure. It feels like the decadent distractions of the Ancien Regime and it is ouvert that there is big money backing this, allowing for a cast of world-class performers to be brought in. There is a sense of elite ownership but not of trespass, with tickets priced reasonably.
Wealth and privilege, as Desdemona suffers, are no barrier to the horrors of gender violence which haunt me after the opera. From the start until the final painful moments, we are faced by women being beaten by violent men, with this becoming normalised in isolated Cyprus. This does send a clear and local message against insularity, but that message could also apply to Brexit Britain, or Trump’s Great America, or anywhere else where borders and walls are going up.
It is hard, though, to ignore those concerns, which the 2013 study brought up. Shakespeare, at least in Hong Kong, tackles issues on the global stage but struggles to engage with the street corner. I approached these productions wondering how Hong Kong was going to deal with the colonial past and what its future looked like, and I had seen the failure to overtly deal with current issues as a fault.
Instead what is evident from these productions is that Hong Kong has both the cultural clout to draw in world class talent and produce its own. With that world focus it is entirely appropriate that these productions should use the global superstar that Shakespeare is to focus on global issues because that is where Hong Kong’s ambitions lies.
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