Sonia Massai, ed. World-wide Shakespeares: local appropriations in film and performance. London and New York, Routledge, 2005. xiv+202pp. ISBN 0 4153 2456 4.

Daniel Cadman
Sheffield Hallam University

Daniel Cadman. "Review of Sonia Massai, ed. World-wide Shakespeares: local appropriations in film and performance." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 7.1-6<URL:>.

  1. The focus of this collection of essays is a combination of two areas of Shakespeare studies which are proving to be of increasing interest and importance: postcolonial theory and performance studies. The latter of the two has been evolving to accommodate the numerous instances of the cinematic treatment of Shakespearean plays. In her introduction to this collection, Sonia Massai reiterates this point by stating that 'issues of authenticity, canonicity and appropriation are most profitably tackled through an interdisciplinary approach to film, performance and cultural studies' (8). The importance of film is exemplified by the fact that a number of essays in the collection focus upon cinematic adaptation.

  2. Along with the use of film as a means of literary appropriation, Massai's introduction also considers another important development of the twentieth century that has affected Shakespeare studies: globalisation. Massai comments that the 'steep rise in the number and variety of Shakespearean appropriations and their significant role in mass culture... as well as in more traditional sites of cultural production... suggest[s] that Shakespeare has effectively become a successful logo or brand name' (4). She goes on to reiterate arguments advanced by commentators such as Dennis Kennedy, Barbara Hodgdon, and Michael Bristol which state that technological advances and the increasing influence of mass media have made performances available to a world-wide market. Even the 'more traditional sites of cultural production' (4) have been affected. Here Massai refers to Dennis Kennedy's argument that commercial air travel has prompted theatre companies to travel to world-wide venues and has simultaneously allowed spectators to travel to international venues to witness performances, thus having a significant impact on the image of theatre as a 'local' medium. Such developments have therefore amplified the global resonance of Shakespeare and his works.

  3. This book has, as Massai points out, 'a genuinely international scope' (7). In addition to Massai's introduction and an afterword by Barbara Hodgdon, the collection contains seventeen short essays, the subjects of which range from a focus upon Asian, Latin American, and African appropriations (such as Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, and Indian adaptations of Macbeth) to the much more familiar territory of Olivier's film version of Henry V. The essays are divided into three sections, the first of which, 'Local Shakespeares for local audiences', contains five essays examining notable instances in which Shakespearean plays have been adapted in order to resonate with 'local' topical issues. The first essay in this section examines a text which itself explores the issue of appropriating Shakespeare, Derek Walcott's A Branch of the Blue Nile, which details the ill-fated attempt to stage a production of Antony and Cleopatra. Tobias Döring argues that the failure of the Shakespearean production, along with that of the traditional Trinidadian comedy with which it is replaced, indicates the 'limitations of both uncritical appropriation and absolute rejection of Shakespeare's global legacy' (21). This essay is accompanied in this section by examinations of 'Politcal Pericles', Chinese productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet, a Mexican production of The Merchant of Venice, and an essay by Poonam Trivedi scrutinising two Indian adaptations of Macbeth in which the play is deployed as a 'parable against violence' (48). All these productions proved of great significance to the audiences who witnessed them. Macbeth, for example, was used in India as part of a rehabilitation programme for prisoners serving life sentences for acts of violence. This is one of the ways in which the adaptations were created with an awareness of the specific attention of a carefully targeted audience in mind.

  4. The second, and longest, part of the book is entitled 'Local Shakespeares for national audiences.' This section examines local productions which aimed to reach a wider national audience rather than a smaller local one. This mood is summed up by Ton Hoenselaars's essay, 'Shooting the Hero: The cinematic career of Henry V from Laurence Olivier to Philip Purser' which offers an intriguing insight into one of the most famous of all Shakespearean film adaptations. It is placed firmly in its Second World War context by reading it alongside a 1990 spy novel, Friedrich Harris: Shooting the Hero, a fictional account of various attempts by an agent of the Nazi propaganda machine to sabotage the shooting of Olivier's film in Ireland, thereby inflicting a blow to the British propaganda efforts. According to Hoenslaars, the novel highlights 'the political irony implicit in Olivier's making of Henry V on Irish soil' (82-3). The notion of shooting a play in Ireland which, through the reference to the Earl of Essex's campaign, makes explicit comment about affairs in Ireland suggests that the project is focused not only upon Anglo-German relations, but also, albeit indirectly, upon Anglo-Irish relations, and therefore highlights 'some of the political complexities that Olivier ignores or unconsciously represses' (82). The Second World War also emerges in Sabine Schülting's essay, ''I am not bound to please thee with my answers': The Merchant of Venice on the post-war German stage', which examines the controversy surrounding the depiction of Shylock within a post-Holocaust context.

  5. The final section, 'Local Shakespeares for international audiences', provides a view of three adaptations aimed at a worldwide market. The section consists of a focus upon Robert Lepage's Elsinore, Akira Kurosawa's Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood) and Don Selwyn's Maori version of The Merchant of Venice. The latter of these essays views Selwyn's production within the context of the use of New Zealand in blockbuster movies such as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the use of New Zealand's landscape to double as Japan in The Last Samurai. As Mark Houlahan comments, 'Selwyn combines sustained attention to racial, colonial and religious issues in relation to local Maori history and traditions with his flair for international art-house conventions' (143). This combination of 'local' tradition and 'international' convention is similar to Kurosawa's approach, whose samurai movies are as much influenced by the genre of the American Western from the likes of John Ford as they are by the Japanese kabuki tradition, a fact immortalised by the Western remake of Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven.

  6. The sheer volume, scope, and diversity of the essays in this collection means that there is not nearly enough room in this review to lavish upon each individual essay the attention it deserves. The essays provide an encouraging glimpse into the afterlife of Shakespeare by indicating that his plays have continued to resonate beyond their historical moment and geographical location. The Merchant of Venice, for instance, consistently emerges to comment upon racial anxieties. Macbeth also appears to offer an indictment against violence perpetrated both by the state and the individual. The collection also offers insights into the realisations of Shakespearean plays by Kurosawa and Pier Paolo Pasolini, two of world cinema's most prolific literary adapters. With the exceptions of Olivier's Henry V and Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, both of which are easily available on DVD, the reader is unlikely to be aware of many, if indeed any, of these adaptations. This means it is often necessary for an essay to devote a great deal of its limited space informing the reader firstly of how each individual play was performed and secondly, by having to relate a substantial amount of information regarding cultural history and traditions in order to explain the significance of the appropriations. This however, does not prevent World-wide Shakespeares from remaining a fascinating and insightful study of the afterlife of the Bard, providing a spectacle of the cultural resonance of Shakespeare and his plays.

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).