This essay uses three productions to chart the progress of the integration of performers of African and Afro-Caribbean descent in professional British Shakespearean theatre. It argues that the three productions―from 1972, 1988 and 2012―each use cross-cultural casting in ways that illuminate the phases of inclusion for British performers of colour. Peter Coe’s 1972 The Black Macbeth was staged at a time when an implicit colour bar in Shakespeare was in place, but black performers were included in the production in ways that reinforced dominant racial stereotypes. Temba’s 1988 Romeo and Juliet used its Cuban setting to challenge stereotypes by presenting black actors in an environment that was meant to show them as “real human beings”. The RSC’s 2012 Julius Caesar was a black British staging of Shakespeare that allowed black actors to use their cultural heritages to claim Shakespeare, signalling the performers’ greater inclusion into British Shakespearean theatre.
This article considers how Shakespeare’s King Lear has become a Brexit play across a range of discourses and media, from theatre productions and journalism to social media. With its themes of division and disbursement, of cliff edges and tragic self-immolation, Lear is the Shakespearean play that has been turned to as metaphor and analogy for the UK’s decision following the 23 June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. Reading this presentist application of Shakespeare, the article attends to Shakespeare as itself a discourse through which cultural ideas, both real and imaginary, about Brexit and the EU are negotiated. It asks how can we might remap Lear in this present context―what other meanings and histories are to be derived from the play, especially in Lear’s exile and search for refuge, or in Cordelia’s departure for and return from France? Moving from a consideration of a Brexit Lear to an archipelagic and even European Lear, this article argues that Shakespeare is simultaneously a site of supranational connections and of a desire for values of empathy and refuge that reverberate with debates about migration in Europe.
In his Shakespearean productions Jan Klata tends to radically experiment with sets, texts, and contexts. He puts the plays in culturally and politically specific locations, experiments with bi- or multilingual productions, and incorporates other texts into the Shakespearean frame. In this way, he uses Shakespeare as a means to address contemporary problems and tensions that are vital for his geopolitical reality, exploring the issues of national identities, the cultural legacy of Europe and its nations, as well as past conflicts and present crises. Klata’s King Lear (Narodowy Teatr Stary, Kraków, 2014), set in the religious context of the Catholic Church and using mostly Polish language, with only decorative additions in foreign languages, does not engage in European politics with the same directness and force as his earlier productions. And yet, as I wish to argue, this performance is also strongly concerned with European identity, and may, therefore, be seen as a valid voice in the discussion on how Shakespearean productions help to understand our current-day reality.
Recent Shakespearean productions, just like current European crises, have highlighted the exclusionary nature of European identity. In defining the scope of this special issue, the aim of this introduction is to shift the study of Shakespeare in/and Europe away from the ideological field of “unity within diversity” and its attendant politics of negotiation and mediation. Instead, it investigates whether re-situating Shakespearean analysis within regimes of exclusionary politics and group conflict attitudes helps to generate dynamic cultural and social understandings. To what effect is Shakespeare’s work invoked in relation with the tensions inherent in European societies? Can such invocations encourage reflections on Europe as a social, political and/or cultural entity? Is it possible to conceptualize Shakespearean drama as offering an effective instrument that connects―or not―the voices of the people of Europe?
This essay investigates the ways in which Shakespearean production speaks to France and wider European crises in 2015 and 2016. The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet were directed by Jérôme Hankins and Eric Ruf respectively in December 2015 and reflected significant contemporaneous issues, including: (1) two Paris terrorist attacks which sent shock waves throughout France and Europe; (2) the belief that shared identities were under threat; (3) concerns over shifting power dynamics in Europe. The portrayal of these issues and their reception bring into question the extent to which cultural productions can help to promote social change or shape perceptions of national and pan-European events. This essay focuses on whether the plays successfully complicate binary narratives around cultural politics in a context of crises by creating alternative representations of difference and mobilities. It concludes that appropriating Shakespeare’s cultural authority encourages some degree of public debate. However, the function of Shakespeare’s drama remains strongly connected to its value as an agent of cultural, political and commercial mobility, ultimately making it difficult radically to challenge ideologies.
This article picks up on a tendency of recent criticism to look to Shakespeare for insights into contemporary politics, and extends it backwards to the period of German history known as the “Vormärz”―the period between 1815 and 1848. It establishes parallels between that period and the current debates about Brexit, and shows how equivalent issues are reflected in the accounts of King John given by three leading German critics of the “Vormärz” period―which also successively demonstrate the deleterious rise of German nationalism. These issues include: the weaknesses, mistakes and crimes of the powerful, and their effect both on the nation directly afflicted with them, and on others; the issue of national sovereignty and its relationship to the fellowship of nations; the struggle against arguably alien ways of thinking; the dividing line between necessary compromise and rank betrayal; the dilemma of choice; and the poisoned chalice of democratic freedom. And the parallels they establish between Shakespeare, the “Vormärz” and us are as instructive as they are unsettling.
In this interview acclaimed director Declan Donnellan, co-founder of the company Cheek by Jowl, discusses his experience of performing Shakespeare in Europe and the attendant themes of cultural difference, language and translation. Donnellan evokes his company’s commitment to connecting with audiences globally. He keeps returning to Shakespeare, as his theatre enables the sharing of our common humanity. It allows a flesh-and-blood carnal interchange between the actors and the audience which directly affects individuals. This interchange has significant consequences in terms of translation and direction.
Taking as its cue the 2016 quatercentenaries of the deaths of both Shakespeare and Cervantes, the essay offers some insights into the “transversal connections” between both events as celebrated in Spain and the UK. The questions it raises and attempts to resolve are fourfold: (1) What are the reasons and also the benefits of yoking together two such apparently disparate authors, whose strongest link is, arguably, the fact they both passed away in 1616? (2) What work is being done to restore these writers to life, especially in schools where, for a variety of reasons, literature has lost its core-curricular status, and in general society where the classics seem to have less and less import? (3) What might Shakespeare or Cervantes be said to stand for in their respective cultures, both in terms of the genres they wrote in (it is often forgotten, for instance, that Cervantes was also a poet and a dramatist) and the extra-literary values they are said to transmit? (4) What is the role of the State in the safeguarding and promotion of the nation’s cultural heritage?