Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 42
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director.
This podcast is called "Every Tongue Brings in a Several Tale." Shakespeare, of course, is not just performed in English, and his work is not just acted on stage. Foreign language adaptations of Shakespeare on film have a tradition that goes back as long as talking pictures have existed.
For the past 20 years, these films have been the career focus of Mark Thornton Burnett, a professor of English at Queen's University Belfast. Mark's book Shakespeare and World Cinema takes a close look at some of the best Shakespeare films of the past decade in Portuguese, Mandarin, Malayalam, Singlish, and more.
We invited him to share some of the highlights from this collection. He's interviewed by Neva Grant.
NEVA GRANT: You were raised in the United Kingdom. This is the land of Shakespeare. No doubt you watched plenty of Shakespeare films, and maybe teleplays, when you were growing up. What drew you to this body of work?
MARK BURNETT: Well, I've always been very interested in Shakespeare on film. That's been an abiding concern of mine ever since I first saw Olivier's Hamlet as a student. Then again, I suppose my interests were restimulated when I moved to Northern Ireland, and I saw Kenneth Branagh's films. His Hamlet, which I saw in 70 mm, was an absolutely wonderful and transformative experience. But, paradoxically, being English and living in Northern Ireland, I've often addressed in myself questions about identity and affiliation, and also addressed the implications of teaching a dramatist associated with Englishness and Britishness in a place that is historically, culturally divided. And it was precisely my location here, my context here as a teacher and a thinker, that then got me thinking outwards rather than inwards, and looking further afield to how Shakespeare features in a variety of cultures and contexts.
GRANT: And you mention a variety of cultures and contexts. Can you give us an idea of the range of cultures that are represented in your book?
BURNETT: Well, in the book I focus on some particular regional configurations, namely Latin America and Asia, but that's not to say that those are the only examples. But, in other words, there's Shakespeare everywhere. You just have to look hard for it.
GRANT: Can you imagine that we're sitting in front of a stack of the films that you watched, and later put into your book? Can we just imagine that we're just sort of flipping through them? What's in front of us?
BURNETT: Well, thumbing through a stack of representative examples, you would see films from all over the world. So, you might find an African Hamlet. Or we might see an Indian adaptation of Macbeth, called Maqbool, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. Or, alternatively, you might find a Latin American adaptation. But, that's just a representative sample. I wasn't writing a comprehensive "Shakespeare of world cinema." I'm not even sure if a single individual could do that. I think it would have to be an encyclopedia, headed by a team. But I was trying to offer a sense of the range and diversity, and the depth of this global engagement with Shakespeare, which is quite phenomenal and quite distinctive.
GRANT: Even fans of Shakespeare, or people who enjoy Shakespeare films, probably won't be familiar with most of these adaptations. But should we be surprised by that? I mean, Shakespeare wrote in English and there's such a wealth of beautifully produced films in the English language, produced both here in the United States and, of course, in the UK. Should we be surprised that most of us will not have heard of these films?
BURNETT: No, I don't think we should be surprised, but I think we need to pay attention to them. And I think the reason why it's the English language films, is those are the ones that tend to be funded, first of all. And those are the ones that tend to be exported in a traffic that is very often one way, rather than two way.
What I'm trying to do is to reverse the traffic, so that it goes from the rest to the West, as it were, and in so doing, expose audiences who haven't come across these examples to be more sensitized to them, to take account of them, and to be delighted and surprised by their aesthetic and their political instrumentality.
GRANT: I know there's a wide range of films that you talk about in your book, but I'm assuming that some of them would have been box office successes in the countries that they originated.
BURNETT: Yes, certainly. I can think of an example such as The Banquet. Now, this is a Chinese adaptation of Hamlet.
[CLIP from The Banquet]
And it adapts Hamlet through the lens of the martial arts movie. How better to translate Hamlet's felicity with language and his great ability to do verbal acrobatics, than to put that in a physical guise and have Hamlet as a martial arts fighter?
[CLIP from The Banquet]
That was a great success in China and in the Asian diaspora. It's less well-known in the UK, but certainly it was a box office hit, yes. And there are other examples: the Indian director I've just talked about, Vishal Bhardwaj, his recent adaptation of Hamlet, Haider, which is set in Kashmir in the 1990s. That became an international hit, and it has had success beyond its own national borders.
GRANT: Is there one region of the world, outside of the English-speaking world, that seems to have produced some of the most memorable and compelling Shakespeare adaptations?
BURNETT: Well, it all depends upon what region you select for attention, or what country you select for attention. One can point to a great variety of adaptations in Brazil. I can think of two very salient Brazilian adaptations of Hamlet from 1971. And both of these translate Hamlet to different part of the country, but they both locate in Hamlet a resistance to political tyranny. Very timely to a moment when, of course, Brazil was being governed by a military regime.
GRANT: Also in Brazil, you have at least one adaptation of a comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor.
BURNETT: Yes, As Alegres Comadres, directed by the director Leila Hipólito, 2004.
GRANT: Tell us about that.
BURNETT: So, this is a first, because it's the first cinema adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It's one of the first big-budget heritage style adaptations of Shakespeare in Brazil. And it's also the first cinematic adaptation by a female director in Brazil.
GRANT: Oh, really?
BURNETT: Leila Hipólito.
GRANT: What year was it produced?
BURNETT: This is 2003. And the conceit of the film is that The Merry Wives of Windsor is situated in the 19th century in the town of Tiradentes in Minas Gerais in Brazil. This was an area of the country during the 19th century that had Brazil's equivalent to the Gold Rush, so there is huge wealth and also divisions between the rich and the poor. In the play, Falstaff, Sir John Oldcastle, is an aristocrat who's fallen on hard times, and he comes to Windsor, a prosperous, bourgeois town, in seek of fortune, in seek of social betterment. How then to translate that type of character to a Brazilian imaginary? Well, Falstaff is renamed Fausto, and he's seen through the lens of the stereotype of the malandro, which is a man on the make, or a man who's able to use a sleight of hand in order to better himself.
GRANT: We're going to hear a clip now from the film that we're talking about. Tell us the scene that we're going to hear.
BURNETT: So, you're going to hear now the scene where Falstaff finally receives his comeuppance. Of course, he's received his comeuppance on a number of occasions over the course of the play, but this is the masterstroke, as devised by the wives, where he is plagued by the fairies. That's the episode in Shakespeare's play in this clip that you're about to hear. Falstaff, Fausto, is haunted by the monsters of Brazilian Carnival.
[CLIP from As Alegres Camadres]
GRANT: Tell us what we just heard. Tell us the scene that we just heard.
BURNETT: So what we've just heard here is how Falstaff is plagued by the monsters of Brazilian Carnival and folklore. He fears for his life, because he fears he's being persecuted. "Las monstras," he says, "the monsters," referring to types all dancing around him, such as the headless mule, and the boy with green teeth, and the forest devil.
GRANT: Yeah, I mean, just from the way you describe it and fror what we're hearing, it sounds like such a mash-up, if you will, of Brazilian cultural touchstones, as well as mixing it in with the traditional Shakespeare.
BURNETT: Well, you've got a lot of ingredients. As you say, you've got Shakespeare. You've got Brazilian Carnival. You've got 19th-century Brazilian history. You’ve got heritage film. They do all form part of a mishmash. But it's a creative one, because this is a joyous collective. To see the film, you'd notice the riotous colors, the bodies intermingling, as well as being struck by the soundscape of this buoyant music.
GRANT: Let's move on to another example, if we can. This one, a tragedy from Mexico, and it's an adaptation of Othello.
BURNETT: Yes, the director, when he was wondering about what film he could do, Iván Lipkies was having a conversation with his mother, a very famous Mexican actress, entitled in her films like La India María. And they were wondering about, "Well, how could we do a film concerned with love, jealousy, and deception?" And then the conversation turned almost immediately to Shakespeare. "You bang head on," the director was telling me, "into the best story ever written on these themes, which is Othello."
GRANT: So, it was advice from his mother?
BURNETT: Originally, advice from his mother, but I think the conceit of the film came from Iván, Iván Lipkies, the director. The conceit being that the action of Othello is transplanted to a rural part of Mexico and centers upon a dance competition, a town dance company rehearsing for a dance competition, using the dance form of huapango, from which the film derives its title.
GRANT: And that's a folk dance, a Mexican folk dance.
BURNETT: It's a Mexican folk dance, in which the couples dance together on a sounding board and the stamp of their heels echoes and amplifies through the sounding board, providing a rhythmic and a passionate beat to the music.
GRANT: Tell us about the clip we're going to hear.
BURNETT: Well, you're going to hear a clip from part of the rehearsal in the dance studio, in which the various characters are resting after they're dancing. And they listen to two trios of guitar players, playing to each other a parodic song.
[CLIP from Huapango]
GRANT: Can you tell us a bit of what the lyrics are saying?
BURNETT: Yes. Well, Othello is a play very much concerned with misogyny, with money, sexuality, the economy. And, there are a number of moments in the play where you have speeches revolving around those themes. There's Desdemona and Emilia exchange towards the end of the play, where we have that wonderful line about infidelity being "a great price" to pay "for a small vice."
Well, Huapango takes the decision to render those kinds of exchanges in music, and, in particular, in musical dialogue. And we have an element of great rivalry and competitiveness between these two groups that are playing to each other, these two guitar trios. And the lyrics that are characteristic of the songs are also part of that rivalry. One trio sings for about how 150 pesos have been offered to cheat on a husband, "Ask your sister." So, sexual infidelity is being situated within the family.
[CLIP from Huapango]
BURNETT: And the other group, in its dialogue, talks about a good lady, "You know my sister, I know your mum."
[CLIP from Huapango]
BURNETT: So they’re trying to outdo each other in the musical phrasing that the songs elaborate.
GRANT: And are these songs in any way derived from Shakespeare's poetry, or are they completely original to this adaptation?
BURNETT: Well, they're original to the adaptation, but they take their inspiration from Shakespeare's language. Were it not for Othello's concern with money, sexuality, and economy, these songs would not have been generated. They're attempts to place, in a modern Spanish language vernacular register, some of the concerns of the Shakespearean original.
GRANT: I'd like to move now to a totally different region of the world, which you spend a good deal of time on in your book, and that's China. And one reason China is interesting is, of course, it was not a British colony. So the first question you might have is, why would there be a tradition, any kind of tradition, of adapting Shakespeare's plays to film in a place like China?
BURNETT: No, you're quite right. In countries, in parts of the world like Africa and India, you can quite understand where there's a postcolonial inheritance of Shakespeare and where Shakespeare or the use of Shakespeare becomes an instrument of resistance to previous authority.
China is a very different kind of case in point. But here I think Shakespeare is just globally associated with ideas of achievement. So, in other words, to imitate Shakespeare or to use Shakespeare, either on stage or in film, is to take possession of a certain kind of idea of quality, to assume authority over what's regarded as a work of art, in order to define yourself as a practitioner and an artist. Shakespeare is seen as the sort of litmus test for artistic accomplishment. And so they have become watchwords for types of sophistication in art. And, as such, they represent a challenge, but also an opportunity, for artists wishing to define themselves and to establish themselves. I think it's not accidental that Shakespeare has often drawn artists who are either at the beginnings of their career or who want to produce something that defines the crowning moment of their careers. Either way, Shakespeare in these instances is the means whereby a particular practitioner is foregrounded and made visible.
GRANT: There's a film with beautiful production design. It's called Prince of the Himalayas and it's a Chinese adaptation of Hamlet. Tell us a bit more about that.
BURNETT: This is an adaptation of Hamlet directed by Sherwood Hu. He's a Shanghai-based theater practitioner. This is a film produced in 2006. Now, you're quite right. It is a Chinese film. But its distinctiveness is that it is made and set in Tibet, in ancient Tibet, and that Hamlet becomes legible through a use of Tibetan custom and tradition, and through reference to Buddhist philosophies and religion, which, of course are so much part of Tibetan culture and history.
[CLIP from Prince of the Himalayas]
GRANT: We've just heard a clip from Prince of the Himalayas. Tell us this scene that we just heard.
BURNETT: Well, the director keeps us waiting for the great moment in Hamlet. What's the great moment in Hamlet? It's "To be or not to be."
[CLIP from Prince of the Himalayas]
BURNETT: In order to explain something about the positioning of the speech, I would need to tell your listeners that the Hamlet figure, Lhamoklodan, has just learned about his real parentage, which is that the Claudius character, Kulo-ngam, is actually his real father. So Hamlet has just discovered something very central about his identity and this launches him into his version of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, which here is recast as the overarching question, "Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?"
[CLIP from Prince of the Himalayas]
BURNETT: But, of course, there are lots of other sounds that we can hear in this clip as well. The winds on the snowy wastes... the Hamlet character has gone into the snowy wildernesses in order to commune with himself. You hear the interrogation from his father, who has come to his rescue. And then the scene shifts to a different visual landscape: the Hamlet character being rescued from the mountains, taken back to the castle, warmed up by his real mother and father, who join hands over his form. "To be or not to be," then, as this film imagines it, becomes the occasion for an emotional reunion. And this is significant, because the film is a wonderful example of how Hamlet can be reimagined, not as a tragedy of revenge, but as a parable about love and forgiveness.
GRANT: That is fascinating. And also, because, based on what you've just described, not only are there structural changes, there are also complete variations on the plot.
BURNETT: Yes, complete variations of the plot and complete variations on the genre. This is still a tragedy, but it's not an archetypal Shakespearean revenge tragedy. It's a sort of sad story, or a family romance with tragic elements. And the thrust of the film, the narrative thrust of the film, is towards families being brought together, rather than families being torn apart.
GRANT: You know, a theme that just keeps coming up in our conversation is how directors in all of these different places are taking the sort of fundamentals of Shakespeare's drama and language, and reshaping it to resonate in their particular cultures, which, of course, makes total sense.
BURNETT: Yes, I think so, and Prince of the Himalayas is a very good example of that. Of course, Buddhist philosophy is all about karma. It's about things going around, coming around. But it's philosophy, it's also centered upon love. And, even in the soundscape for this film and in the extract you've just heard, there are versions of Buddhist chants sounding in the background, stressing the idea of harmony, of familial harmony, that this film underscores. And I think there's another dimension to that localizing procedure as well, particularly with this example. The notion of things coming together, and of forgiveness, and of a holistic universe, is not just philosophical; it's also political. And,one has to bear in mind the very vexed situation of contemporary Tibetan-Chinese relations.
GRANT: I want to move on to India, which, of course, was a British colony, and therefore, it should be no surprise that the country, in addition to its big history of Bollywood films, would have generated quite a bit of Shakespeare adaptations as well. And, many of them, perhaps if not all of them, in the Bollywood tradition, in the Bollywood style.
BURNETT: Exactly. I think in the West we are familiar with Bollywood as a genre of filmmaking from India, but, of course, that's only part of the story. The history of film in India is very rich and varied. And there is a variety of regional film industries around the country. We may know about Bollywood. I'm not sure if we know about Tollywood, which is the film industry in the Telugu language. I'm not sure if we really know about Mollywood, which is the film industry in India in the Kannada language. Many of these more localized film industries are also producing Shakespeare. Shakespeare exists in India in as many as the 32 languages that currently obtain in the country.
GRANT: In your book, you talk about two prominent Indian directors in particular, both of whom produced notable adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Could you talk about them?
BURNETT: Yes, well, Vishal Bhardwaj is probably the best known. He's a Bollywood director. He's produced three Shakespeare adaptations, so, he's really right up there in terms of productivity. These films are Maqbool, an adaptation of Macbeth, Omkara, an adaptation of Othello, and Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet.
But, as I've been suggesting, this is only one part of the picture. There are other directors equally propelled toward Shakespeare adaptation. A director hailing from Kerala, in the south of the country, is an example, Jayaraaj, as he's sometimes or usually known. His full name is Jayaraaj Rajasekharan Nair. But he's produced two adaptations, one of Antony and Cleopatra, Kannaki, and the other also of Othello, Kaliyattam. They're both coming at Shakespeare from very different regional points of view.
GRANT: I'm glad you mention Antony and Cleopatra, because I'm wondering if that... You would think that because this adaptation is set in the southern state of Kerala in India, the Antony and Cleopatra of Shakespeare's time are a totally different Antony and Cleopatra in this setting. They're probably an Indian king and queen or something.
BURNETT: No, on the contrary, it's far more vernacular and demotic than that. The Antony character becomes a cockfighter par excellence. That's the way in which he achieves his local authority. The Cleopatra figure becomes a folkloric medicine woman, associated primarily with snakes, and of course Shakespeare's very much echoing in the background there, not least via Cleopatra's association with the asp, and the means of her own death.
[CLIP from Kannaki]
BURNETT: It very closely follows the Shakespeare play, both in design and plot and also in language, anumber of speeches that really are word for word, following the Shakespearean original. And, I think the other thing that's distinctive about this film is the way in which it focuses on a particular reference in the play, in order to give the whole narrative a central idea. There's a tiny little allusion, near the start of the play, where Caesar compares himself with Antony. And, there's this very contestatory, masculinist, rivalrous implication to his mark. But he talks about how in a cockfight, his cocks were defeated by Antony's. So, the idea of the cockfight is the one that Jayaraaj takes as his governing principle of interpretation.
GRANT: In what language was this adaptation produced? And, are they speaking in verse, or something that sounds older?
BURNETT: They are speaking in a dialect of the Kannada language, which is particular to Kerala. It is a modern vernacular form, but is one that has an antique flavor in terms of vocabulary, so as to bring Shakespeare's original to mind.
GRANT: And if we were to see this, and perhaps some of the other Indian films we've been talking about, would they look like Bollywood films to us with that sort of lush production style? A lot of dancing, and that sort of color palette that we're familiar with?
BURNETT: Yes, I mean, despite some regional variations between the different parts of India, there are certain tropes that recur across Indian film. Color is an obvious instance, but they also combine the narratives with song and dance numbers.
[CLIP from Kannaki]
BURNETT: And, I think in the West, we tend to be not quite sure what to do with the song and dance number that we might experience in a typical Indian film. But, in fact, they form composite parts of the whole. And, very often, although they might appear like distractions, they're actually propelling the narrative forwards and enriching the character in all kinds of sophisticated ways. I think Kannaki is an obvious instance here. There's a song and dance number towards the start, where the Antony and the Caesar character are jumping about hayricks and playing in the fields, and it's a seeming diversion from the central concern with cockfighting. But, actually the rivalry between them and the masculinist competition is simply being rephrased, through a different order of sound and movement.
[CLIP from Kannaki]
GRANT: I'd like to move on to one final example, and really a curious one, and also quite interesting to watch. And I watched a fair amount of this because it was in English. It's called the Chicken Rice War.
GRANT: It has Chinese subtitles, and it was produced in Singapore, and it's an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. But you wouldn't necessarily know that, if you were to just sort of come in in the middle. It's a really interesting film. Talk a bit about it.
BURNETT: Yes. One of the plays that are most often adapted in the world imaginary, I think we probably all instance Hamlet as right up there at number one. But, a very close second is Romeo and Juliet. And, yes, you're right. Chicken Rice War from Singapore, directed by Chee Kong Cheah in 2000, is a fascinating instance of how a city state can take Shakespeare's tragedy of the star-crossed lovers and make it resonant and contemporary. It's a satirical comedy. Let's get that clear right at the start. It's not a tragedy. And the comedic aspect of it inheres in the way in which the central feud between the characters is repurposed here as a long-standing fight between two rival chicken rice stores that have accidentally been placed together on the same street.
GRANT: These are tiny little restaurants, family-run restaurants.
GRANT: What's fascinating about the language in this play is, it is very contemporary sounding. And there are open references to sex, and it feels like something very much of... It feels very contemporary.
BURNETT: Well, it is very contemporary, and I think the language is part of that. You're right to identify English. English is the sort of lingua franca of many of the characters. But, of course, Singapore, as in many of the parts of the world that I discuss in my work, is complicated linguistically. And, as much as we hear English, sometimes for the more classic Shakespeare scenes, we also hear Singlish, which is a demotic, local form of English. And we also hear varieties of Asian languages, in particular, Cantonese.
[CLIP from Chicken Rice War]
GRANT: Tell us a bit about the clip we just heard.
BURNETT: We've just heard a clip from the very start of the film. It's the familiar Shakespearean prologue about the star-crossed lovers. And we hear the prologue as done by a TV presenter, who is speaking to us in a cut-glass English accent. But he's then interrupted by a production assistant, who asks him to speak in another kind of English, in Singlish, which is the demotic form of English often used in Singapore. And so, immediately what the film is alerting us to, is the way in which language in Singapore is socially coded. English is seen as the global standard to be attained by the educated in Singapore, whereas Singlish is often vilified as a kind of tongue of the uncultured.
GRANT: We should mention, though, that the star-crossed lovers in this adaptation are themselves playing Romeo and Juliet in a play that they're putting on within the wider context of the plot. Right? So, it's a play within a play, in essence.
BURNETT: Yes. There are two Romeo and Juliets in this film. There's the play within the play; there's the performance that is being put on by the high school. But, there's also Chicken Rice War, which is Romeo and Juliet as well, because it's concerned with a feud between two rival chicken rice stores. So, while this is a satirical comedy, it's a very multileveled and sophisticated comedy, telling us something about language use and the constitution of identity, and also telling us something about art, telling us about the relationship between drama and film, and reflecting upon the mediatized way in which Shakespeare works in global modernity.
GRANT: As we move further away from Shakespeare's birthplace, do we find producers in different countries almost feeling like they have more liberty to turn a play on its head, or, as in this case, to turn a tragedy into a comedy?
BURNETT: Oh, yes, very much so. Chicken Rice War is one example of that, the Romeo and Juliet play, associated with high seriousness and gravitas, turned into a satirical critique of modern day Singapore. There are many examples. And I think it's precisely Shakespeare's association with high culture that invites that demystifying and demythologizing engagement.
One instance might be a Finnish film from 1987, Aki Kaurismäki, called Hamlet Goes Business. And this transforms the play into a rather dingy modern-day small-scale corporate world, namely a rubber duck factory. And it uses all kinds of film noir techniques, but comically so, so that the Hamlet figure becomes a rather overweight slacker, who's anything but the robust hero we might imagine him to be in Shakespeare's own incarnation.
GRANT: You know, I've been thinking, as we've been talking, that you must watch Shakespeare so differently now as a result of having seen these adaptations from so many other parts of the world.
BURNETT: Yes, I am, but I'm also continually struck by the novelty and the newness in doing so. And I think there's something in there about the value and the usefulness of Shakespeare in other languages, and also the value of Shakespeare being translated. Because there's never an occasion when I see a film, that I'm not reminded of the original play in some fresh way. There's never a viewing that I experience, where I'm not taken back to Hamlet or Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, and learn to appreciate it differently through another culture's engagement with it.
GRANT: This has been so interesting. Thank you so much for joining me today.
BURNETT: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.
GRANT: Mark Thornton Burnett is a professor of English at Queen's University Belfast. He was interviewed by Neva Grant.
"Every Tongue Brings in a Several Tale" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Craig Jackson and the Queen's University Sonic Arts Research Center in Belfast.
As Mark suggested in the interviews, some of the films he and Neva talked about are harder to find than others. If you're interested in watching any of them, we have a list online at folger.edu/worldcinema. [You can also see the list on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.]
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.