Shakespeare Institute's Asian Tour

Between 24 November and 4 December 2016, Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, undertook his final overseas engagements of what has been an exceptionally busy anniversary year for all the scholars of the Shakespeare Institute

Professor Michael Dobson in China

During a rapid tour to three Asian countries with strong and distinctive traditions of Shakespearean performance, translation and scholarship – China, Japan, and India – Professor Dobson marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death at a series of events which break new ground in the University of Birmingham’s relations with alumni, overseas partner institutions, and neighbours.

 The Shakespeare Centre, China – a groundbreaking collaboration between Nanjing University, Phoenix Media, and the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute – was formally inaugurated in Nanjing on 25 November, within very few hours and a very rapid bullet-train ride of Professor Dobson’s arrival in the PRC on an overnight flight to Shanghai.  At a grand ceremony attended by the Centre’s triumvirate of co-directors (Professor Cong Cong, of Nanjing University, Dr Nan Yuan, senior literature editor of Phoenix Media, and Professor Dobson) a brass plaque was unveiled, and the Centre’s work got under way. Proceedings included a lecture on Hamlet from Professor Dobson, and a workshop, including both academics and theatre practitioners, about the intercultural performance Shakespeare’s Handan Dream (a hybrid production incorporating extracts from Shakespeare and extracts from Qun opera, performed in both Britain and China earlier in the year).

Nanjing University has long been a beacon in Shakespeare studies in China: in Mao’s time, for instance, it was the only Chinese university to mount a Shakespeare festival to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death in 1964, an event about which Professor Cong Cong herself has published a poignant and important essay. Since China’s former capital has also been a major theatrical centre for several dynasties, its combination of academic expertise and performance tradition makes it a natural partner with Stratford-upon-Avon, where at the Shakespeare Institute both faculty members and PhD students have been increasingly interested in the Chinese reception of Shakespeare in recent years. Discussions are in progress about further collaborative research events; about how the Institute can advise Phoenix – China’s leading quality publisher of academic and popular books on Shakespeare – on Anglophone primary and secondary materials worthy of translation into Mandarin; and about purpose-designed residential courses in Stratford for Nanjing students.

Stratford-upon-Avon’s interest in China is not confined to the Shakespeare Institute: the Institute’s neighbours and collaborators the Royal Shakespeare Company took Gregory Doran’s productions of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V on tour to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong earlier in the year, and they are now well-embarked on their project to commission new, actor-friendly translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays. (Members of their translation team, including the eminent Professor Zhang Chong, who came as a visiting scholar for July and August, have become familiar faces in the Institute library during 2016).  The first fruit of this project, a Mandarin translation of Henry V based on Doran’s production’s cuts to the text, was staged by Doran’s assistant director Owen Horsley, working with a talented young Chinese cast, at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in November.  On 27 November Greg Doran and Michael Dobson were members of a filmed public panel discussion on Shakespeare in general and the RSC’s Chinese project in particular hosted by the Shanghai Writers’ Association, before attending a performance of the Mandarin Henry V in the evening. ‘Don’t tell Greg,’ Professor Dobson remarked later, ‘but I’m not sure I didn’t even prefer this Chinese reincarnation of his production  – with its extensive cross-gender casting, vivid ensemble work and eclectic modern dress costuming – to his own original English version in Stratford.’  The RSC’s continuing activities in China are something to which the Shakespeare Centre, China will continue to pay close and expert attention.

From Shanghai, Professor Dobson travelled to Wuzhen for an all-day board meeting of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive, an online database of filmed Asian productions of Shakespeare around which he and one of the project’s leading lights, Professor Li-Lan Yong of the National University of Singapore, are designing an online Masters-level course. The following morning he flew to Japan, where on 30 November his public lecture in Tokyo, ‘Shakespeare, Rome, and temporality, from Burbage to Ninagawa,’ constituted act one, scene one of the Shakespearean component in the University of Birmingham’s new partnership with Waseda University.  Among much else, Waseda is the home of Japan’s most important theatre history archive, the Tsubouchi Memorial Museum: this remarkable institution was founded by Shoyo Tsubouchi, Japan’s first faithful translator of Shakespeare, who stipulated that its building should actually be a replica of a Jacobean theatre.  During his time on the Waseda campus Professor Dobson was able to admire the Tsubouchi’s current exhibition ‘Shakespeare Renaissance – from Shoyo to Ninagawa’, to the accompanying brochure of which he had contributed an essay. Waseda has long been distinguished in Shakespeare studies, sending significant numbers of MA and PhD students to study at the Shakespeare Institute over the years and employing some of its alumni as faculty.  In January 2017 the next event in the Birmingham-Waseda collaboration will be a conference on Shakespeare and Asian cinema, ‘Shakespeare. Film. East. West,’ featuring, from the Birmingham end of the collaboration, papers by Dr Erin Sullivan of the Shakespeare Institute, Professor Graham Saunders of the Drama Department, and Birmingham’s greatest authority on the Shakespearean screen, Professor Emeritus Russell Jackson. Projected future activities include shared online provision, a workshop on notions of authenticity in performance in Shakespeare and in kabuki, and tailor-made short residential courses: an interview with Professor Dobson on the subject, filmed at Waseda, will shortly be available online. A card sent from the Shakespeare Institute to Waseda to mark the beginning of their partnership – featuring a pop-up origami galleon in honour of The Tempest – has now been added as the culminating object in the Tsubouchi museum’s Shakespeare exhibition.

View of city from a window

While in Tokyo Professor Dobson was also able to provide a site-specific PhD supervision to his AHRC-funded student Rosalind Fielding, currently carrying out fieldwork about the nature and status of current Japanese Shakespeares, and to further his research into the place of the Shakespeare canon in the repertories of national theatres worldwide by visiting the New National Theatre to see its current production of Henry IV part 2. Waseda very generously took both Fielding and Dobson to dinner at a restaurant which usefully previewed the topic of January’s conference, namely Kurosawa’s, run by the family of the late director of Ran and Throne of Blood and decorated with props and posters from his films.

Conference banner

The last leg of Professor Dobson’s whistle-stop tour of the East found him giving, on 3 December, the final plenary lecture of the Asian Shakespeare Association’s conference, ‘All the World is his Stage: Shakespeare Today.’  This second of the ASA’s biennial gatherings took place in New Delhi, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and was hosted by one of the most eminent and distinguished scholars of Indian Shakespeare, Professor Poonam Trivedi, herself an alumna of the Shakespeare Institute. The three-day event included a fine local production of Hamlet, in Hindi, directed by K. Madavane; a practical workshop on Shakespearean manga by the star manga artist Harumo Sanazaki (who presented Professor Dobson with a signed portrait, sketched in manga style); a pre-release film screening of the star Keralan director Jayaraj’s lavish new Macbeth film Veeram; and an unanticipated raid on one al fresco conference tea-break by a local monkey, which got away with several delegates’ samosas.

Professor Michael Dobson in India

Professor Dobson flew back to the United Kingdom on Monday 5 December, feeling, he said, ‘like Shakespearean scholarship’s answer to Henry Kissinger, possibly the wrong answer,’ and vowing that despite the richness and value of 2016’s various anniversary events – from the Garrick Ode, the Poet Laureate’s Shakespeare Masque and the RSC’s live televised gala in Stratford in April, through the co-hosted World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford and London in August - the Shakespeare Institute’s own Christmas party on Thursday 8 December would be the very last.