Midsummer Madness

I must admit that I have a minor passion for seeing Shakespeare staged in foreign languages (you have probably already guessed at this fixation from my review of "Throne of Blood" - however, my real infatuation is for theatrical foreign Bard, not filmic). It is not a passion I get to take up often, and I probably could pursue it with more consistency and zeal. So far my repetoire is limited to:

-a testosterone-saturated avant-garde Polish "Hamlet" seen in Amsterdam. I had the hubris to believe it would be easy to follow along, although the surtitles were in Dutch, because I knew the play like the back of my hand, but unfortunately the order of the scenes had been juggled, and somes scenes even commingled, in a disorientingly cinematic effect. As far as I could tell, Hamlet was driven to madness by a masochistic sexual passion for his dead father, which leads him to rape Ophelia and ensnare the love of Rosencrantz (but not Guildenstern, although it may have been the other way around. Both Ros and Guil, by the way, were women in this production).

-a Kabuki "Comedy of Errors" performed, in a truly dizzying collapse of historical frames, in the wooden "O" of the reconstructed Globe on London's South Bank.

-and, a Lithuanian "Romeo and Juliet" set in rival pizza parlors. Who could imagine from that description how brilliant this production was? Further description will probably make it sound even more absurd, but the effect is actually quite macabre - not at all cheesy (for God's sake, excuse that abysmal pun). The duels were conducted with outraged flingings of flour, which hung in the air with a strange persistence. This gave the stage an otherworldly air, as if the entire world of the play were saturated with grave dust. When a character died s/he was covered in flour, pale with dusty death, and these floury ghosts showed the same persistence as the powder that hung in the air, lurking onstage and watching the events that followed their deaths.

From this latter production I observed one of the many curiosities of seeing (as an English speaker) Shakespeare's work, the most ubiquitous part of our literary canon, performed in a foreign language -- the text, the poetry, goes from the highest place of importance to the lowest. Lines which would be indispensable in English are often found to be superfluous and cut in translation. The interest of these adaptations often rests in different approaches to characterization and innovations of plot interpretation.

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Barbican Theatre to see the Yohangza Theatre Company from Korea perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Jung-Ung Yang. How did Yohangza innovate "Midsummer"? Well, for the most part they didn't. The decentering of language in favor of a gestural, physicalized characterization was there, but it is so often evident in the comedy of the original "Midsummer" as to make it both the natural and the obvious choice; it fits very well, but doesn't open up a lot of new possibilities.

Yohangza did make one interesting change to Shakespeare's plot, however, which speaks to a puzzling aspect of the original: here it is the Titania figure (Dot, the chief of the puckish Dokkebi) who lures her Oberon (the unrepetently womanizing Gabi) into a frenzy of misguided lust for a (literally) pigheaded old woman. This of course set me thinking about the problems of the original play's structure: why is it that Titania has to be disciplined (sexually and with practical jokery)? What has she done besides claiming her right to withold her ward from Oberon? Why, furthermore, is the plotline of the human lovers (Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius) all about domesticating the men in some sense, bringing them in line with who they should REALLY love rather than who they want to love (with the standard set by stronger, more completely characterized women), while the other two love-plotlines are about the domestication and even humiliation of wives (Theseus and his conquered Amazonian wife, Hippolyta, as well as Oberon and the magically misguided Titania)? What is the purpose of this almost chiasmic structure? I am sure there are interesting answers in the text, and I would be glad to hear any ideas....