How have touring productions of Shakespeare gone down with Japanese audiences? Do the plays work when reimagined as manga books? What can we learn from the style of underpants worn by actors playing Falstaff in previous Royal Shakespeare Company productions?
These were just some of the questions debated in Stratford-upon-Avon on Monday, as more than 800 scholars and enthusiasts from 48 countries gathered for one of the biggest academic conventions on Shakespeare to be held in Britain for decades.
The World Shakespeare Congress meets only once every five years, and has not been held in the UK since 1981. In the year of the playwright’s quadricentennial, however, there could be no more fitting place to kick off the congress than the town in which he was born, continuing later this week in London, the city where he made his name and fortune.
“Stratford is a place where people have been imagining Shakespeare in different ways for 400 years, it has the resonances of all these different performances that have happened here,” said Prof Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare institute at the University of Birmingham, which is co-hosting the event with the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and King’s College London. “Everyone who has been interested in and committed to Shakespeare sooner or later wants to visit Stratford, so it has traces of the huge long comet tail of ‘Shakespeare’ as well as his actual, mundane life.”
There was plenty of evidence of the writer’s enduring popularity on a grey Monday afternoon, with crocodiles of tracksuited Chinese teenagers battling for pavement space with guided German walking tours. But one could also hear snatches of conversations, on the lawn outside the riverside theatre and in the gift shop at the playwright’s half-timbered birthplace, about the staging of Measure for Measure and favourite productions of King Lear.
In a packed day’s schedule, delegates from countries as diverse as Mauritius, the UAE, Egypt and India could choose between sessions examining the “problem” with the Comedy of Errors, the role of chance in the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet, and the possibility that other writers may have collaborated with Shakespeare in his sonnets.
Tony Voss, who before his retirement was professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban in South Africa, said the value of attending the congress was that “it puts what you’re doing in perspective and prevents you from becoming provincial and narrow in your own work”.
Though he lived in Oxford at one point in his career, during which he frequently attended Shakespeare productions in the town, Voss said that returning to Stratford “reminds me that Shakespeare was, in the end, only one man. He isn’t really the huge story that has developed around him”. Later in the week, Voss will participate in a seminar on the meaning of the Comedy of Errors to South African audiences, and many other delegates spoke of the particular resonances of Shakespeare’s work in their own cultural contexts.
Yang Lingui, a professor at Donghua University, in Shanghai, said Chinese audiences had a particularly acute understanding of the immense cultural changes that were happening in Europe in the playwright’s lifetime. Until cultural restrictions were eased in the late 1970s, he said, “Chinese people’s experience of life was quite like the middle ages. Then their eyes were opened to the outside world – like the Reformation in Shakespeare’s time”.
Florence Espeut-Nickless, a student at the Guildford School of Acting who is due to play Juliet during a seminar on Friday, had taken up a seat at the back of a panel session examining “the themes of adaptation, transformation and curation in the playworld and compositional motifs of Romeo and Juliet”. She said: “As an actor I like to do as much research as possible to make the character as whole and complete as I can”, adding that she particularly loved playing Shakespearean characters.
Why? “The characters are just amazing. And it’s very physical and expressive, which is the kind of performing that I love doing. But in the end, the stories are universal, and the themes are still so relevant.”
Sipping coffee outside a plenary session hosted by the RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, was New Zealander Diana Robinson, who confessed rather sheepishly to being “not a typical delegate – I feel like a bit of an imposter”. Robinson is not an academic and does not work in Shakespeare studies – she is a psychologist working with trauma victims in Auckland. “But Shakespeare has always been a major passion of mine, so this is a huge treat for me.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson confessed to a particular affection for the dark psychological tragedies, particularly Hamlet. “I love the language, but also the way he captures humanity, in a way I don’t see in any other writer. It’s so complex, on so many levels.” Living in New Zealand, she said, “you spend a lifetime hungering for Shakespeare”. She plans to attend a different Shakespeare performance every night of her stay in Stratford and London. “I’m going to make the most of it.”