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Report from the KCC Artist Talk: Shakespeare interpretations in East Asia

Yohangza's production of Hamlet at the Peacock Theatre
Yohangza’s production of Hamlet at the Peacock Theatre on 12 July 2014 (image courtesy KCCUK)

I hadn’t been to any of the events for Seoul in the City, part of this year’s City of London festival. The symposium at London’s Korean Cultural Centre for Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary East Asian languages seemed particularly interesting to me. My previous experience of Shakespeare in East Asia was confined to Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s classic interpretation of Lear in feudal Japan. I attended the event on Monday, July 14.

The panellists of the symposium were Adele Lee, lecturer in English at London’s Greenwich University, Hyon-U Lee, Professor of English at South Korea’s Soochunhyang University, and Jung-Ung Yang, artistic director at the Yohangza Theatre Company. The panel and discussion were chaired by Vincent Dowd of the BBC World Service, and I had plenty of lively company on the floor of the discussion hall.

Stills of Shakespeare productions from the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive
Stills of Shakespeare productions from the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive

The panellists gave their contributions, and there was plenty of time for questions afterwards. Adele Lee, a Shakespeare specialist, began. She said that Shakespeare’s plays were meditations on themes such as love, death and war. “Shakespeare’s plays and characters are universal, and speak to humankind,” she said.

Ms Lee welcomed new interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. “Although Shakespeare will always be associated with Englishness, he increasingly is a playwright for all people. And adaptations shed a new light on the play.” She agreed that Shakespeare’s worldwide reputation was partly a consequence of the forces of colonialism and neo-colonialism, but stressed how contemporary China had chosen to embrace Shakespeare.

The second speaker, Professor Hyon-U Lee, described the modern Shakespeare boom in South Korea, and listed the 10 most popular Shakespeare plays there: the most popular three were Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, in that precise order.

Korean Shakespeare Productions 1990-2011
Title # of productions
Hamlet 100
Macbeth 51
Romeo and Juliet 49
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 36
King Lear 28
Othello 23
Twelfth Night 15
The Taming of the Shrew 14
The Merchant of Venice 9
The Tempest 8
Source: Hyon-U Lee’s presentation

Then he showed photographic images of Shakespeare being performed in different East Asian cultural settings, including a Chinese Hamlet, Chinese Richard III, a Japanese Macbeth and a Korean King Lear.

The third speaker was the director Jung-Ung Yang, who recently directed a Korean Hamlet at the Peacock Theatre. Speaking through a young interpreter, he explained Korean perspectives on Shakespeare. Hamlet’s inner anguish had particular resonance for Koreans, he said. “The Korean people have been through many wars, and been invaded by neighbouring countries. Then there was a civil war (1950-3). My Hamlet is someone who needs to have his Han (inner pain) released.” He suggested that Ophelia, rarely for a Shakespearean woman, is “demure”, perhaps making the character more familiar to a Korean audience than some of Shakespeare’s other women. Yang also noted the importance of shamanistic ritual in his version of Hamlet, which features three different gut.

Shamanistic ritual in Yohangza's Hamlet
Shamanistic ritual in Yohangza’s Hamlet (image courtesy KCCUK)

After the presentations Vincent Dowd asked Professor Lee: when did the Korean interest in Shakespeare date from? Professor Lee answered the interest dated from the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation. The initial interest grew rapidly from 1945, after Japanese occupation had ended. He then asked Adele Lee: “Is possible to capture the complexity and subtlety of Shakespeare’s dialogue in another language?” She replied: “When we try to translate Shakespeare, we can create a new art.”

I asked the panel what they thought of Shakespeare’s history plays, for example Richard III. Professor Lee replied: “Richard III is my favourite Shakespeare play, because of its art. However, I am not interested in British history.”

Much of the discussion centred on the Korean Hamlet performed at the Peacock Theatre. Jung-Ung Yang said of his Hamlet: “I wanted to express the violent, and unwrap into something beautiful.” It was noted that at one point of the production Hamlet is seen fully nude, symbolising his mental disintegration. This is a moment that has not yet been tried in a production in Korea. Members of the audience complemented Jang Ung-Yang on his artistic direction.

Speaking for myself, I hope that the event, which went very well, will be the beginning of a series of dialogues which will make Shakespeare even more universal and international than he is now.


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