Shakespeare with extra spice
Is the Bard too hard for today's texting and blogging generation? Does it leave ethnic minority pupils, many of them barely secure in everyday English, cold? Is Shakespeare about "dead white men" with little relevance to here and now?
Teachers grapple with ways to make Shakespeare interesting and some have found an unexpected answer in Asian productions that are visual, emotional, enticing, vivid and, above all, more surprising than traditional versions.
Tim Supple is artistic director of Dash Arts, a theatre company promoting artistic collaboration across national, religious, linguistic, cultural and social divides. His production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, now running in Stratford-upon-Avon, is told in seven interweaving languages, by actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats from India and Sri Lanka.
Hugh Blackwood, head of drama at Four Dwellings School in Quinton, Birmingham, a predominantly white, working class area, took his pupils to see it. He was impressed at how an innovative approach made such a difference.
"You have to find the right way for kids to access the Bard, to break them in," he says. "Here, they could piece together the relationships and pick up on the subtext. Before they realised it, they understood what was going on."
Similarly well received was the bilingual Mandarin ChineseEnglish version of King Lear, staged last year by Yellow Earth Theatre, a London-based Chinese group. The production, which opened in Shanghai, featured leading Chinese actors and incorporated Chinese opera techniques. When it toured Britain, it was greeted with whoops and cheers by sixth-formers.
So why does translating Shakespeare into a foreign language make it easier for children to understand?
"Other-culture productions make pupils think in a different way," says Nikki Haydon, an English teacher and assistant head at Haverstock School, Camden, north London. "Asian versions are visual and help pupils understand what is happening, even if they don't get the words. It brings the play down to basic storytelling. Start with the stories and they will understand the jokes from gestures and emotions."
Many Asian productions use stylised theatrical traditions from China, Japan, Korea and India, incorporating mime, dance, drama and gestures that may seem overblown in English theatre.
Yukio Ninagawa is a theatre director best known for Japanese language versions of Shakespeare. His Titus Andronicus, staged last June in Stratford, may have been a better way into the play than an English version. It was brutal, with murder, rape and cannibalism, but the stylised Japanese approach made it more palatable. Blood (and there was a lot) ran through the production as a red ribbon - a recurring motif in Japanese traditional theatre.
"Pupils who found Titus Andronicus difficult said they only began to understand it when they saw the Japanese version," says Thelma Holt, producer of 17 of Ninagawa's Shakespeare plays, and currently staging Coriolanus in London. "Ninagawa uses things that are Japanese to explain what, for us, is a quite inaccessible play."
Asian versions may also be closer to the social context that Shakespeare knew, Tim believes. "What is the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream? A father wants his daughter to marry a man who she does not want to marry and the father is so authoritarian he is willing to kill her. The emotional resonance for Asian actors is phenomenal."
"Shakespeare is very strong on class structure and hierarchies," says Jatinder Verma, artistic director of Tara Arts, a London-based theatre company that specialises in cross-cultural adaptations. "These hierarchies have broken down in England, but they remain in Asia. I think the best way to do Shakespeare and be true to him is to do it through Asian eyes."
Tara Arts' forthcoming production of The Tempest is set in a globalised world where the "savage island" is Britain and the civilising forces are Indian and Chinese. "Young people are ready for it done this way," says Jatinder. "The clubs they go to, the music they hear - they are born with images and sounds from all over the world."
Yellow Earth's King Lear, which was also set in a globalised China of 2010, drew on Chinese theatrical traditions. "They used marvellous graphics and striking costumes," says Joe Omar, head of performing arts at the George Abbot School near Guildford, Surrey, who advised the 44 pupils he took to see it to ignore the English subtitles. "Pupils were able to understand Shakespeare as vibrant, adaptable, modern. Without the language, we were going back to the theatrical elements and the drama."
Many directors restage Shakespeare in simplified modern language or adapt it to modern settings. "I want to get away from yet another 'mockney'
version and escape from layers of English tradition," says Tim.
"Shakespeare is a foreign language to many people and can be incomprehensible if done badly. The linguistic experience of the show allows us to hear in a fresh way. It demands a heightened alertness."
Tim Supple's A Midsummer Night's Dream can be seen at Stratford-upon-Avon until May 19, then it is touring. Go to www.dasharts.org.uk.Yukio Ninagawa's Coriolanus is at the Barbican, London, until April 29. Jatinder Verma's The Tempest is touring the country from September 10 to December 9.