Andrzej Żurowski*

The characteristic feature of contemporary theater understood as an international phenomenon, the feature which determines the unique specificity of contemporary performance art is, without a doubt, the mutual interpenetrating of performing styles and cultural conventions. The essence and the artistic shape of this phenomenon are too deep and intricate to be scrutinized and explained exclusively by recourse to the obvious, and nearly banal aspect of the world at the threshold of the 21st century, i.e. the phenomenon of globalization.

Naturally everything had begun much earlier than it began for good. There is no need to trace the processfrom its very beginnings.. It is sufficient to recall the artistic shock caused by the productions staged in Paris by the theatre from the island of Bali in 1931. This exotic theatre of dance, song, pantomime and music became a revelation and an inspiration for contemporary Europeans who contested their native traditions and the predominance of the psychological theatre.

Antonin Artaud, great reformer of theater, was enchanted by the pure theatricality of the Bali theatre. But it was not the theatricality understood as the display of form only, but rather the essence of this theatricality i.e. the form of the Bali convention as the stimulation of spiritual dimension. The elements of performance which transform the very performance into a kind of metaphysical trance such as the structural blending of dance, song, coloring and dramatic narration, the ritual dimension, the archetypal nature of the stage image, expressive sensualism and ecstasy of the Asian actor. This experience wielded enormous influence on the crystallization of the idea of the theatre of Artaud (cf. Artaud 1931), and more widely; it co-revolutionized the mode of thinking of the artists of the European theatre in the first half of the 20th century, and therefore, it contributed to the crystallization of the vision of the modern stage of that period.

Based on my almost forty-year experience of relentless traveling around the world, I would like to comment on the international co-operation of theatre people such as theatre practitioners, theoreticians and critics, which has resulted in the multicultural performance which is so characteristic of today.[1]

As an old Shakespeare maniac, I look for the examples of these ideas as well as for the various and continuously changing shapes of this splendid phenomenon in the contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. I explore the productions which exemplify the theatrical “translations” and cultural “contaminations” of Shakespeare on the world stage, and above all the interplay of the European theatre and the theatrical conventions of the Far East.

For my generation of Europeans, multicultural Shakespeare was born on the threshold of the broadly understood contemporary time, along with the works of the progressive artists of the preceeding generations. It will be enough to mention the fundamental classics of the European Shakespeare of the second half of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, this refers first of all to Peter Brook, and considering our present interests, to the ideological and artistic roots of the phenomenon, i.e. the experience of Brook and his international team of actors resulting from their work outside Europe. This work had both ideological and practical dimension, as for example in the case of Orghast staged in Iran in 1971 in the natural scenery of Shiraz, where they tried to overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers, and – in particular – the enlightening “return to the source” during the journey of Brook’s Paris International Center for Theatre Research to Africa in the years 1971–72. Working directly with various members of tribal folk cultures in African villages they sought to establish human communication based on theatrical expression which would go beyond language and culture.

I would rank the late version of The Tempest staged by Brook in 1992 in Théâtre Bouffes du Nord among the best results of these explorations. On the empty space covered with sand, the charismatic Prospero played by Satigui Kouyaté, black actor from Burkina Faso, dressed in the loose white robe, was conjuring up the metaphorical Shakespearean island like a shaman performing some powerful ritual. He created this world before the eyes of Miranda who was played in turn by Shantala Malhar, Hindu actress, and Romane Bohringer, French actress, and before the eyes of Gonzalo played by a Japanese, Yashi Oida, and before the eyes of us all. Brook’s empty space expanded from the small square of the African village into the metaphor of our global village, and in this multicultural guise was projecting itself upon our common dreams, disillusions and hopes.

The next important phase of this process was associated with Ariane Mnouchkine. I consider her productions of the 1980s crucial for the European perception of Shakespeare in multicultural categories of that time. The series of Shakespeare productions in Théâtre du Soleil in Paris which consisted ofRichard II (1981), Twelfth Night (1982), Henry IV (1984), and which was significantly brought to its end with the premiere performance of L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Narodom Sihanouk roi du Cambodge (1986) by Helène Cixous, showed to Europeans a brand new way of thinking about theater. Mnouchkine proposed her own model of a multicultural stage, deriving from the great traditions of European and Asian theatrical conventions which were interpreted in compliance with the contemporary scale of aesthetic sensitivity. Mnouchkine combined in the primary structure of performance, as its basic constituents, the elements so diverse and distant from each other as commedia dell’arte of the Italian renaissance, the English sound pattern of Shakespeare verse (spoken in French) and – in particular with regard to music, movement and gestures – elements of the theatrical conventions of the Far East, Japanese and Hindu conventions in particular. She did not “incrust” the European theatre with exotic attractions, neither did she court non-European audiences with “exported goods”. It was a new artistic quality, and thereby, a new idea of a dialogue through theater transgressing the borders of local languages and cultures (cf. Żurowski 1991: 138–144).

Patrice Pavis attempted to theorize this ever intensifying phenomenon. He proposed the model of “the theatrical exchange of cultural experience” (Pavis 1992: 4). The process must have been in its full swing for Pavis to alienate the features of “the theater at the crossroads of culture” in the configuration typical for the last decade of the 20th century, and in compliance with the inner logic of the process, i.e. mutual stimulation of artistic endeavors and theoretical reflection. The 1970s constituted a sound foundation for the process which was quickly taking shape of the contemporary multicultural theater.

According to Sankar Venkateswaran who investigates the process primarily from the Hindu perspective, as well as from the standpoint of his own directorial practice of the theater at the crossroads of culture, the global process had began and developed firstly within the range of the European culture, although it soon spread widely and successfully, allowing for ever more complex interactions (cf. Venkateswaran 2010).

While discussing the Japanese reinterpretations of Shakespeare in the last two decades of the 20th century, Michiko Suematsu notices two new tendencies. The first one is “the bold adaptation, characteristic for the rediscovery of Shakespeare in the 1980s, whereas the second one consists in the attempts of Asian artists to stage multicultural productions which would use Shakespeare to reflect contemporary Asian reality” (Suematsu 2010: 143). My own observations as regards Shakespeare theater on other continents confirm the accuracy of the periodical divisions and the general diagnosis of the Japanese scholar. I would like to emphasize that these tendencies had a global character.

The reception of King Lear staged in Tashkent in the 1980s with Nabi Rakhimow, great Uzbek actor, proved how unpredictable the cultural translations of the meanings of Shakespeare’s text could be. Given the still intense trust of the Uzbeks’ in “the divinity” of kingship or authority, the spectators were annoyed by Lear’s abdication and treated it as… treason, i.e. the king’s failure to obey the rudimentary and holy duties of an anointed sovereign. They interpreted the production in the direct context of the perestroika which was then in full swing in the Soviet Union. In the eyes of the Uzbeks, Gorbachov, who had renounced his absolute power, was as much guilty as Lear, and the production had an acutely political character.

However, cultural translations and contaminations – just like in the case of Mnouchkine – took place predominantly in the sphere of performance aesthetics. Here are two examples from two vastly different cultures. In 1986, The Contemporary Legend Theatre staged in Taipei as their premiere production The Kingdom of Desire: Chinese Macbeth. In compliance with their overall artistic agenda they adapted some elements of the traditional Chinese theatre’s conventions – of opera, drama, spectacle and acrobatics – in search for their own profile of modern stage. They also blended structurally Occidental drama, Chinese mythology and contemporary reference. Hyey-Ming Lee, theater director, set Macbeth in the historical reality of China and in the Chinese ethical system. The spectacle was based on the traditional Chinese opera, dance and theatre. But he did not do it in an old-fashioned way, but in a creative way. Lee’s concept of Macbeth was nicely rendered in the name of the theater: Contemporary Legends, i.e. an attempt to articulate the problems of the contemporary man with recourse to the native world of history, myth and the language of art. It is worth observing that a similar idea was superbly pursued by Akira Kurosawa in the Throne of Blood and Ran.

A similar transposition of the Shakespearean plot into the realities of a local culture could be observed inRomeo and Juliet by the Brazilian Grupo Galpäo. The production was staged in 1992, directed by Gabriel Villela, and set in the context of the Latin-Indian folk. When a cart full of traveling circus players rolled onto the stage, it was all but natural for Europeans to associate it with the tradition of commedia dell’arte. But the cultural transposition reached further back. The spontaneous Latino Indian expressiveness and equilibristic acting, music, tribal dance and Indian song combined with a modern Brazilian show produced an emotional spectacle typical for multiethnic Latino culture. In this tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet, tears and laughter merged perfectly in the predominant expression of folk tomfoolery. The stylized “plainness” of the production endowed it both with sophisticated subtlety and irresistible ludic quality.

This tendency to transpose Shakespeare’s plays into the native performing conventions proved notably lasting. In 2010, the actors from Zimbabwe staged in London’s Two Gents Productions Kupenga quack Hamlet (Frenzy of Hamlet), a play directed by Arne Pohlmeier. Two actors tell the audience the plot of Hamlet, now and again acting out the parts of some characters, and then going back to their epic narrative. Thus we witness an attempt to reconcile two contradictory stage traditions: the African tradition of story-telling, all in all an epic tradition, and the European tradition of stage presentation of dramatic characters. In this contamination, the European component is definitely losing to its African counterpart, and seems superficial and naive. The African component, however, is mesmerizing given the spontaneous energy, ease and body expression typical for black actors. The art of story-telling allows them to conjure in the empty space the atmosphere of the fictional world with the help of a small prop, a musical instrument and singing. Purely organic power of theatricality.

The preference for fashionable multicultural productions set in the 1990s a trend which, in my opinion, led to nowhere. I refer here to the productions featuring actors from around the world, each of them playing in their native language. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Düsseldorfer Schauspielhause directed by Karin Beier in 1995 was heralded as the “European Shakespeare”. This alleged pan-Europeanness derived from the simultaneous employment of actors from nine different countries, and the fact that a Russian Jew spoke, for example, in Hebrew, a black Englishwomen in English, a Croatian actor in French, a Pole in Polish, whereas others in German and Italian. The unintended result was that, instead of the “European Shakespeare,” the confusion of tongues and acting styles brought about a complete semantic absurdity of the European Tower of Babel. Kiyota Yamamoto fell into a similar trap in Asia while staging in 1997 The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet: Isang Komedy, wherein he made his actors speak concurrently in Japanese and the Filipino language of Tagalog. This was even more so the case of King Lear staged also in 1997 and co-produced by Jay and Yoo Inchon Repertory Theatre Company within the frameworks of an international project staged in South Korea, Japan and some other countries. It hardly helped that the text largely complied with Shakespeare’s script. According to Jeong Ok Kim, director, the air of “multiculturalism” and multilingualism of the project rendered by the stage mixture of Korean, Japanese, English, German, Spanish and Bulgarian, was to reflect the mosaic of cultures in “a primitive Asian society, where various languages co-existed in a roughly chaotic way” (Suematsu 2010: 147). Indeed the production gave way to chaos, a kind of theatrical distortion of the spectacle which disintegrated into many incompatible linguistic elements, and therefore, into semantic unintelligibility.

The basic problem of such multilingual spectacles is to find a way to structure within the limits of a single production individual linguistic, and more broadly, cultural formats. Among many attempts at the “multilingual” theater, including those listed above, I have come across only one production which seemed to me entirely convincing. It was the production based on Hamlet and entitled …and a decent prison. The production was based on the screenplay by Hakob Ghazanchyan and staged in 2006 in Yerevan. The fact that actors spoke Armenian, Russian, Spanish, German, English and Japanese was endowed with a higher purpose allied with the conceptual design of the production. These strongly connected people simply… did not understand each other. And this situation was transformed into a metaphor of our contemporary globalized world. The multilingualism of the characters was the source of the compelling message of the spectacle, i.e. the absence of mutual communication, our helplessness in the whirl of the modern age, where each of us circles alone and experiences ever greater difficulty in establishing intimate relations with others. The central figure of this image of our “decent prison” was Ophelia and her madness which came only at the end of the spectacle. Paradoxically enough, this madness produced the impression that perhaps it was not the oversensitive Ophelia, and not even we ourselves, but the contemporary world which slipped from our hands and plunged into madness (cf. Żurowski 2009: 58–60).

All of us would probably agree that the productions of Eimuntas Nekrošius rank among the best performances at the turn of the 21st century. His Hamlet (1997), Macbeth (1999) and Othello (2001) in Meno Fortas Theatre in Vilnius are well known, and thus there is no need to describe them. I would like to emphasize only the individual essence of these productions viewed against the contemporary global preference for multicultural Shakespeare. Nekrošius achieved a deep and innovative transposition of Shakespeare’s plays into his native culture. One can say that Shakespeare became… a Lithuanian in the deepest possible sense of his mentality, cultural reality, myths, and his assumptions about the world and man derived from the Lithuanian tradition and identity. The primitive men of Elsinore dressed in furs; their country frozen, smashed by the Baltic wind and washed by the rains of the cold North… Macbeth – governed by the magic and phantasmagorical power of the young, beautiful, and subversive witches which fascinate the audience with their eroticism and cruelty – set in the Lithuanian woods and against the background of pagan myths and pre-Christian folk beliefs… The Shakespeare productions by Nekrošius, which are simultaneously set in the context of his national culture and (which best testifies to their excellence) in the metaphorical dimension, match superbly the aesthetic sensitivity of our international and multicultural age.

It is in this European context of Nekrošius’s decade old productions that I particularly appreciate the two newest Shakespeare productions staged by the theaters of the Far East which I was given a chance to see. They are outstanding exactly as complete “cultural translations.” The first one is the Korean Hamletstaged by the Street Theatre Group from Miryang City, where the director, Youn-Taek Lee, adapted Shakespeare’s play in such a way that he combined the traditional Korean stage conventions with the expressiveness typical for contemporary preferences. Thus he interpreted Hamlet in the philosophical categories of shamanism (cf. Hamana 2009: 330–352). The whole performance was stretched in between – literally and metaphorically – the wedding and the funeral, between the bed and the grave, with a miraculous end when the dead characters wake up and walk naked… to a new life, in a different dimension, free of the conflicts and quarrels of the earthly life, heading for eternal reconciliation. The whole cultural translation and masterful interpretation was based on a seemingly minute revision of Shakespeare’s text: instead of “to be or not to be” the Korean Hamlet says “to be and not to be”. How can we be and not to be at the same time?… (cf. Sin-hyeong Son 2009). How can we be fulfilled in both existential dimensions: in the earthy life and in the afterlife…?

When I watched this Hamlet immersed in the world of Korean shamanism, I kept thinking about the great Polish forerunner of contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare through the prisms of local cultures. At the very beginning of the 20th century Stanisław Wyspiański wrote: “In Poland the riddle of Hamlet is what is in Poland – to think about” (Wyspiański 1905: 88). A century later, this imperative of reading and understanding Hamlet still holds true. For example in Korea, where Youn-Taek Lee uses Hamlet to show fellow Koreans what and in what way requires thinking.

Considering the time which had passed since my first encounter with the empty space of Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine and Nekrošius, the second production which has greatly enriched my experiences of Shakespeare theater around the world was the Japanese Hamlet directed by Yoshihiro Kurita in Ryutopia Noh Theatre, Niigata. Europeans tend to associate the empty stage of the traditional Japanese theatre with the empty space known from the theory and practice of Brook’s theatre. With the vivid memory of his Tempest staged on an “empty small square” of the African village in Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, I also expected a synthesis and metaphorical space.

The Hamlet of Hirokazu Kochi remains motionless throughout the whole spectacle. Both the stage image and its meaning seem apparent to me: the empty space is filled with Hamlet’s thoughts, imagination and existential reflection. Thus, even though different associations are triggered in the Japanese and in the Europeans audience by this stage image, it proves equally fertile for all of us from the intellectual and emotional point of view. There is an irresistible hieratic quality about this motionless figure of Hamlet which the Japanese certainly associate with the signs typical of their own culture and theater. We in turn interpret it against the background of the European tradition, and thus it brings about the associations with the classical Greek tragedy and French Neoclassicism. There are many aspects of Kurita’s Hamletwhich we certainly miss, but we do get some equivalents instead. And this is the very touchstone of the excellence of this production as well as the touchstone of its rewarding multiculturalism.

The very name of theatre, Ryutopia Noh, signals the attachment of the artists to the classic conventions of their native theater. The Japanese spectators will immediately associate the way of presenting the play-within-a play scene from the third act with the conventions of the puppet theatre Nin-gyo Joruri. For me this obvious reference is hardly intelligible, but what a European gets instead is the general sense of intriguing exoticism. Moreover, the picturesque phantasmagoria of the image helps to rationalize the esoteric dimension.

Paradoxically enough, condensation and economy of the stage image in this Hamlet which is manifested by the rejection of details, generic features and historicism, enhances a special type of… illusionism of the represented world. This world seems so “unreal” that it becomes even more convincing in the higher, metaphorical dimension. This is a fine path which the contemporary theater walks nowadays: beyond details to synthesis, and to the examination of the universal problem. In my opinion the overall anti-psychologism of this Japanese Hamlet complies also with the tendencies prevailing in the contemporary European theater. This allows to interpret stage characters and events as non-individual signs. And this, to my view, is the great advantage of Realism replacing realism.

Hamlet’s great soliloquy spoken by the statue-like, non-realistic character acquires a special dimension. This is not only, as it often happens, the image of some juvenile quivers of a hypersensitive individual with philosophical inclinations. These are the universal rudimentary questions which go beyond the life of a single human being. Throughout the whole performance, the figure of Hamlet viewed against the semi-darkness of the empty space becomes a stable point of reference in the metaphorical dimension. He is the figure of Man, the figure of the subjectively central, stable point of reference for all businesses of the world which are spinning around the Man immersed in all-embracing darkness.

What requires special attention is the unique, “porcelain” subtlety of the ritualized image of the represented world, a feature which Europeans tend to associate with Japanese art. The sublimation of the image leads to the sublimation of the philosophical discourse, or, if rephrased in semiotic terms, the sublimation of stage signs stimulates the sublimation of their meanings. For European spectators, the represented world of this Hamlet is extremely conventionalized which somewhat naturally projects the whole narrative into the dimension of Great Metaphor, and into the magical dimension. It reminds us of the European opera convention where one gesture takes away life or… rises from the dead.

Fortinbras does not appear at the end of Kurita’s Hamlet. If we read Hamlet like Jan Kott did, i.e. in the historiosophic or altogether political way (cf. Kott 1965), which is a well-established European interpretative habit (cf. Elsom 1989), we see that Fortinbras is essential. In Kurita’s production the play ends with the duel of Hamlet and Laertes, whereas actors from The Murder of Gonzago circle like ghosts around the Prince. The characters die one by one. Kochi’s Hamlet concludes the play with the words “the rest is silence”. And this is the silence of the darkness of cosmos which ultimately enwraps man and his question about how to be.


[1] The term multiculturalism which is used here has a definitely different meaning than the term transculturalism which Claude Grunitzky described as follows: “It defined what we were about, how we wanted to communicate with – and be viewed by – the outside world” (Grunitzky 2004: 25). In my opinion multiculturalism refers not only to viewing each other as if from outside, but to a structural and multicultural contamination.


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Żurowski, Andrzej. Czas przesilenia. Gdańsk: Graf, 1991.

Żurowski, Andrzej. “As a passionate… .” Hakob Ghazanchyan. Ed. Tigranuhi Ter-Markosyan. Yerevan: ITI Armenia, 2009.

Żurowski, Andrzej. “Spécialité de la maison polonaise. Criticism as an Art of Interpretation.” Critical Stages. The IATC Webjournal 2010, vol. 3.


*Essayist and theatre critic, Prof. A. Żurowski is lecturing at the Theatre Department (part of Polish Studies Institute) at the Pomeranian University in Słupsk, Poland. From 1981 he has been the Vice-President of the International Association of Theatre Critics; he became its Honorary life Vice-President in 2001. He has about one thousand publications on theatre history and on Polish and international contemporary theatre. Ten of his twenty three published books, are devoted to Shakespeare.

Copyright © 2012 Andrzej Żurowski
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Multicultural Shakespeare on the Contemporary Stage