In Defense of Inter-Cultural/National Criticism
*This article is a revision and expansion of my speech for the first symposium of the IATC Asian Group in Beijing in 2007.
I am a man on the border between my Asian heritage and my Western theatre studies. I did my Ph.D. in the United States, with a dissertation on contemporary American dramatic literature, minoring in Shakespeare studies. Commuting between my received heritage and my chosen studies, I have developed over time a unique identity that belongs neither to the West nor the East exclusively, but is instead just in-between. Some are now calling this “midentity”—a newly-created term to describe the demographic of people in today’s world who are cultural, ethnic and geopolitical “mixed bloods.” I would call my case cultural midentity. Sometimes, my midentity makes me quite open to intercultural theatre, because I can empathize easily with both cultures. More often, however, it gives me difficulty and makes me very particular about this mixed theatre, because I feel myself to be an expert on both cultures whose theatrical aesthetics or methodologies are being employed by the other culture. When this happens, I see a Western theatre that uses the production aesthetics of Asian theatre, and become conscious of its lack of authenticity. Western directors tend to employ their own perception of Asian theatrical signs in ways I cannot agree with, creating discrepancies between the signifier and the signified. Likewise, when I see Asian stage productions of Western texts, I frequently get annoyed by the distance between the texts and their Asian interpretations or adaptations. In both cases I rarely feel satisfied.
At the same time, I hear from Western critics pretty often of their enthusiastic response to Asian stage productions of Western classical texts. Singaporean director Ong Ken Sen is a huge star in Germany with his intercultural Shakespearean productions. Japanese directors such as Ninagawa Yukio and Suzuki Tadashi are well-liked in Europe with their adaptations of Greek, Chekhovian and Shakespearean plays. A young Korean director, Yang Jeong Woong, won the grand prize at the Gdansk Shakespeare festival with his adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2006. This list of success stories could go on and on. What could be the difference between my response and that of the Western critics to intercultural theatre? Is it the difference between midentity and identity? Or is it simply that critics have different attitudes toward new, unknown theatre practices?
Among the fabulous offerings of the 2004 Vilnius International Theatre Festival SIRENOS, one particular show disturbed my enchanted euphoria: The Merchant of Venice. This is directed by Jonas Vaitkus, “the” mentor-director of Lithuania. The show locates its relevance in the director’s recognition of contemporary society at its “full dominance of hypocrisy.” To show this, all the Christians in Venice wear wolf-like costumes and Casanova-like wigs; Shylock and Jessica wear plain clothes and no wigs; lastly, Portia and Nerissa, the characters of Belmont, wear Japanese white clothes and white makeup. The director reads the characters based on their religions: Christians are hypocritical; Jews are open and courageous; and the Japanese-looking Belmont residents represent a different culture, “the modest and aesthetic world of beauty.” The interesting production concept, however, turns redundant and sterile immediately after the three character groups are all introduced onto the stage. During the intermission, by my rough count almost one third of the spectators left the theatre. But I, a responsible, faithful, patient, and unfortunate critic, stayed through the full two hours and forty minutes. What was particularly annoying were the portrayals of Portia and Nerissa—both played by men—using some superficial version of the Japanese Butoh dance, with slow hand movements. Now, Butoh can represent a different culture, but can it stand for the “modest and aesthetic world of beauty” which the director wants to realize? Butoh can be ascetic, but not modest. Its aesthetic is rather for the ugly than for the beautiful. In my experience, Butoh is apocalyptic rather than Edenic, hellish rather than heavenly, grotesque rather than extraordinary, at least for me. Through distorted and almost impossible body postures and movements, it gives us the existential agony of the zeitgeist rather than complacent pleasure. But here, Butoh was employed for the wrong reasons at the wrong time by the wrong hand through the poor dancers in this Lithuanian Merchant of Venice. My understanding of Butoh may be too limited to enjoy its deviations. But I could not help feeling that a very unique Asian art form was being exploited and wantonly abused.
In the same year I watched a Japanese production of Euripides’s Medea in Tokyo at the Cocoon Theatre. Among the three great Greek tragedians, Euripides has been by far the most frequently produced in Europe recently; his emphasis on character rather than on plot is much more contemporary than the other two, being that our postmodern era has sought to liberate the theatre from its textual confines. Euripides’s tragic heroines usually inhabit the realm of psychotic frenzy, and European directors like to use this to present/represent modern men in existential boundary situations. This I confirmed when I saw Trojan Women in Seoul in 1997, directed by Andrei Serban, the Romanian-born American director, and Electra in Sibiu in 2004, directed by Mihai Maniutiu.
When I visited London in 2001, the Abbey Theatre of Ireland was playing Medea, directed by Deborah Warner with the title role played by Fiona Shaw. It is a pity that I could not see this show, due to my short stay and a time conflict; instead I had to satisfy my curiosity by hearing and reading the critics’ responses, including that of Ian Herbert. All the great performances of these heroines in these productions had one thing in common: “homicidal hysteria.” Fiona Shaw was said to be particularly so in her role of Medea.
Ninagawa’s Medea was quite different from my experience of Euripides in those European stage productions. First and foremost, the stage looked like a variation of the famous Japanese garden, with abundant water and lots of lotus flowers, and in which characters even rode on horses across the river. Oh, those beautiful marionette horses! They were both elaborate and elegantly made, and manipulated perfectly to carry out all the horses’ movements in minute detail, in the style of Super-Kabuki. This visual pleasure was enormously entertaining and pleasant, but could it be the proper environment for the unpleasant, cruel, psychotic dramatic action of the play? Under Ninagawa’s direction, Shinobu Otake’s Medea was so adorable and coquettish that although I could sympathize with her feelings of despair, frustration, forsakenness and motherly love, I could not feel her anger, or her “revenge-bent will” at all. The production was very pretty and enjoyable, but I felt it had nothing, or very little, to do with Euripides, in spite of the fact that Ninagawa had respected the text and not omitted or adapted any of the lines. I wished at that time that I could have seen Ninagawa’s first production of the play two decades earlier with an all- male cast, in which Hira Mikijiro played Medea “in the manner of the onnagata of Kabuki.” I presume that that first production would have been much more disturbing, cruel, and psychotic.
I hope you do not get me wrong from these cynical remarks, or think that I am always condescending toward intercultural theatre, which would simply not be true. As a critic, I try very hard to stay open to any kind of theatre, exploiting the benefits and merits of my being a man of midentity. I am saying what I am saying to provoke our thinking with regard to intercultural theatre. In this postdramatic era and in the framework of globalization, intercultural theatre has surely become more frequent and stronger. Critics are readers, not dictators. We are asked to read, not to dictate, the relevance, the significance of this ever-increasing phenomenon of intercultural theatre.
Looking again and again over my intercultural experience, I find myself much more enjoying intra-intercultural theatre, that is, intercultural-theatre-within-a-culture. My cultural midentity is not bothered at all by this variation. It is only that stark deviation from the original culture that annoys me. Let me give you the list of such theatre productions I have really loved in recent years: the productions by Belgian director Luk Perceval of Othello, Uncle Vanya, Death of a Salesman; the Lithuanian Oskaras Korsunova’s direction of Romeo and Juliet, Polish director Krystian Lupa’s production of An Unfinished Piece for an Actor, which combines Chekhov’s The Seagull and French playwright Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play. Add to these: Hungarian director Árpád Schilling’s The Seagull, Romanian director Silviu Pucarete’s Twelfth Night, Korean director Sohn Jin-Chaek’s San-Gua-Zhi, a Korean adaptation of a Chinese story from its ancient history, etc. Among these, Uncle Vanya and An Unfinished Piece for an Actor gave me the greatest joy as a theatre spectator, and won my life-long admiration for their more-contemporary-than-tomorrow production aesthetics and thought-provoking philosophical approaches, which are rarely found in today’s theatre.
The most recent example of this intra-intercultural theatre for me is Leaving, written by Vaclav Havel, directed by David Radok, which I first saw in Prague in 2008, and later invited to Seoul in March, 2010.
Leaving, Vaclav Havel’s new play, eagerly awaited these twenty years, hovers between absurdism and realism—that is, it is too absurdist to be realistic, and too realistic to be absurdist. The play deals with the losses, or sense of loss, of a womanizing ex-Chancellor after his retirement from power. The dramatist borrows from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard its structure of leaving, and from Shakespeare’s King Lear its theme of loss, and with these creates his own tragicomic work of art. Alternating tragic and comic strokes, Havel masterfully caricatures the absurdities of political life and the individual’s existence.
The most emphatic scene of this two-hour piece comes after our hero recognizes the final end to his power, having received notice to leave the government villa. With his assistant leaving him for the new power, Irena moving to her new work and his daughters deserting him, the stage remains empty for quite a long time, after which we hear Havel’s voice in a fairly extended contemplation on theatre, both as it originates and deviates from Peter Brook’s insights regarding “empty space.” With this interruption, Havel blocks the spectators from hypnotic effect on the one hand and encourages critical empathy on the other hand.
Despite exceptions, I will take the risk of generalizing that intra-intercultural theatre is more readily accepted by the audience and critics than intercultural theatre, because intra-intercultural theatre can easily be taken as variations on the original texts. This can be true even when the variations turn out to be radical, as in the case of Oskaras Korsunova’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which he based on the concept of the murderous rivalry between the two most flourishing pizzerias in the United States, instead of the two feuding Italian families of great power.
By comparison, inter-cultural theatre productions are more susceptible to being read as deviations from the original texts, especially by midentity critics like me, and I think this is quite true of most knowledgeable theatregoers. And intercultural theatre artists are often questioned as to why they practice that kind of theatre when they want to say things so different from the original texts. This, however, does not happen when the deviations are radical as in the cases of Korean director Yang Jeong Woong’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Japanese director Suzuki Tadashi’s King Lear. Both shows adapt Shakespeare’s plays to create political, societal, cultural self-portraits of their countries. Only the barest structures of Shakespeare’s great plays are retained, and the greater part of each play is newly created. Both plays have worked very well for both domestic and international audiences. Therefore, I make yet another bold generalization when I state: intercultural theatre works much better when directors use the original texts only as excuses to create their own plays.
Thanks to IATC, more than one third of the performances I watch each year are the ones shown in the frame of international or national showcase theatre festivals around the world, mostly in Europe. To my own astonishment, I have written more reviews of international theatre than of national theatre in recent years, for both professional journals and daily newspapers. How has this international theatre impacted my theatrical view-points? What are the justifications for this special practice of theatre criticism? These are the questions I have to raise and answer myself in order to properly function as a theatre critic.
My one-and-half-decade long exposure to international theatre has helped me enormously to be more open-minded toward different cultures, new styles and forms of theatre. This is the greatest impact that this international, intercultural experience has exerted on me. On the other hand, as you may already know, I have become more and more sympathetic towards deviations of the intercultural theatre and variations of the intra-intercultural theatre. This may be another form of that diehard closed-ness of my critical thinking, but I cannot not have personal taste in the end. No matter how hard I may try not to. Can you not? To have personal taste is just human. I have stated so many times at the IATC seminars and symposia that theatre criticism should be more scientific, analytical and fair rather than impressionistic, judgmental, prejudiced. However, I still believe that after doing our best to analyze theatre performances scientifically, we can be free to show our personal taste in reading them. This being-personal-based-on-scientific-analysis could make our criticism more interesting for our times, which have no norms whatsoever.
What might be the justifications for practicing international criticism for local readers who have not seen, nor will see, the performances that you are reviewing? Fortunately for me, there are so many readers in Korea who are curious about what is happening outside the country. Even the three big national daily newspapers, Chosun Ilbo, Donga Ilbo and Joongang Ilbo, publish my international reviews in their most prominent cultural spaces. More importantly, however, in today’s globalized world, things are not happening in isolation. Rather they are happening in tight relations. Consequently, there are so many themes of the theatre that can be shared globally, such as corruption, desire, greed, loneliness, etc. So it should be very interesting for general readers to know about different perceptions of our lives, and diverse aesthetic approaches to those perceptions. I strongly believe that this intercultural, international criticism will promote understanding between cultures and countries in this time of division and violence.
 Yun-Cheol Kim is President of IATC; recipient of the Cultural Order of Korea; Dean and professor in the School of Drama, Korean National University of Arts; and editor of The Korean Theatre Journal, a quarterly. Two-time winner of the "Critic of the Year Award," he has published nine books so far, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews.