“A few years back, when I was just about to start work on a new book project, I was chatting about it with a journalist friend. When I explained it was about global Shakespeare, she cocked an eyebrow. ‘So, Shakespeare … and all of civilisation,’ she said. ‘Manageable topics both, then.’
Over the last two-and-a-half years, around 20,000 miles and more tonnes of CO2 than I have the nerve to calculate, her words have intermittently returned to haunt me. Adding to the mountain of books about Shakespeare in the first place seems like dangerous folly; writing about him in the context of being the world’s most translated and performed writer is more like lunacy (sometimes, believe me, it has felt like that too).
In my defence, I’m not trying to write about Shakespeare and the whole world; instead I’ve been trying to plot a course through Shakespeare in five countries – the United States of America, India, Germany, South Africa and China – visiting a variety of locations that have some connection with his work and looking at different translations, performances, adaptations, retellings, reworkings and (sometimes) misunderstandings. The histories of Shakespeare in pre-Independence India, or Nazi Germany, or under the apartheid regime in South Africa, have been separately and extensively chronicled, particularly inside the academy. I wanted to see what would happen if I joined the dots, and made a journey around some of the places Shakespeare’s work now calls home. The working title I settled on is Worlds Elsewhere: a half-nod to Coriolanus, but also a reflection of the book’s argument, that the kind of Shakespeare we often experience in Britain is only a tiny part of the picture.
As the cliche goes, it has been a voyage of discovery. I’ve debated the comedies in Mumbai film studios over cups of richly scented chai, and the history plays while glugging bison-grass vodka in a theatre converted from a shop in northern Poland. I spent several days roaming around the seemingly endless vaults of the world’s largest Shakespeare library in Washington, DC; and the best part of a week on the other coast of America, searching for traces of Shakespeare in the ghost towns of the Gold Rush. I’ve been given a private performance in a crumbling palace in Kolkata of a bharatnatyam dance piece inspired by As You Like It; and was mugged in Durban, on the way back from interviewing a man who read the plays alongside Mandela on Robben. I once spent most of an afternoon skulking in a Bollywood actress’s garden to try and secure an interview. (She eventually relented, and invited me in for tea.)
Along the way, it’s been fascinating and often chastening to see how richly – and differently – Shakespeare’s plays inspire theatremakers, film directors, scholars, playgoers and enthusiasts worldwide. I’ve seen performances in Hindustani, Mandarin, Polish, and a combination of several South African languages, not to mention a German King Lear at the Munich Kammerspiele starring live pigs (they turned out to be terrible show-stealers, especially in the hovel scene). I’ve watched a Hindi spin on Romeo and Juliet that splices its plot with The Taming of the Shrew – entirely without crediting Shakespeare – and a post-punk American version of Lucrece inspired by The Killers and the choreography of Merce Cunningham.
In many of these places I’ve sensed a kind of freedom, the willingness to experiment, to re-evaluate the works in ways that might disconcert some keepers of the Bardic flame here in the UK. In contrast to British anxieties about tradition and text (“yet another Hamlet? why?”), in other countries and cultures the relationship with Shakespeare is different, and differently expressed: sometimes filtered through a colonial and postcolonial inheritance, elsewhere inextricably tied to local politics. Undoubtedly the need to translate the texts into other languages plays a part in keeping Shakespeare fresh in these places; I also wonder if there’s something about being further away from the cultural lodestones of Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Perhaps the sense of Shakespearian gravity is lighter. As I discovered while talking to man attempting to persuade me that the Bard was Bengali, though, the relationship can be equally intense.
Puck famously undertook in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to “put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes”. Even with 21st-century air and rail travel, it’s taken me somewhat longer, and I’m not done yet. In the spring, I’m returning to China to do interviews and research for my final chapter, in which I hope to explore the hidden history of the plays during the Cultural Revolution, and probe Shakespeare’s relationship with communism and censorship. I’ll spend the rest of the year writing up a first draft of my book, with the aim of delivering it for publication in 2016.
In the meantime, I’m delighted to be a project fellow for Shakespeare on the Road at Warwick [http://www.shakespeareontheroad.com], and through February will be delivering four talks, one on each of the first four countries I’m writing about it in my book (the US, India, Germany and South Africa), drawing on my research and early drafts. I’m still in the process of pulling my material together, so they’ll be informal and partly off-the-cuff; less straightforward lectures, I hope, than notes and snapshots from the road, tracking a number of the topics I’m writing about. Some questions I’ll leave open. Others, perhaps, might never have answers.. But I hope they’ll contain a few surprises. And that people in Warwick and Stratford will join me on this bit of the journey.”
• Andrew Dickson is a Guardian journalist. He is blogging about the book at worldselsewhere.com
Dates and Venues for Andrew’s forthcoming lecture series are as follows:
Worlds Elsewhere lectures
Looking for Richard: Shakespeare in the Wild West
Wednesday 5 February
Wolfson Hall, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6-7.30pm.
Shakespeare, screenwriter: hunting the Bard in Bollywood
Wednesday 12 February
SO.18, Social Science Building, University of Warwick, 1.30-3pm
‘Deutschland ist Hamlet’: Germany’s Shakespeare
Tuesday 18 February
H5,45, Humanities Building, University of Warwick, 3.30pm
Sol Plaatje: South Africa’s forgotten Shakespearian hero
Tuesday 25 February
Wolfson Hall, Shakespeare Centre, 6-7.30pm