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Rich and strange

Just across the water from Victoria, in Seattle/Bellevue, I enjoyed two experiences of the vigor and vitality of non-Western culture as spinoffs from the recent meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. On one afternoon I ran away to the Seattle Art Museum, and at the conference itself I watched a performance of Bond, a Chinese opera based on The Merchant of Venice, from the Taiwan BangZi Company.

Shylock in 'Bond'
Shylock (Hai-ling Wang) in the Taiwanese BangZi Opera’s “Bond”

Bond was performed in the traditional BangZi style – the BangZi is a percussion instrument, a wood block, that is used throughout the spoken part of the performance to punctuate and emphasize moments in the dialog. The effect is akin to the less subtle drum-roll or cymbal clash used by some MCs.

The plot of the opera remained very close to The Merchant. The setting was a medieval Chinese prefecture, with Shylock standing out as an elaborately and richly dressed Saracen. Our local Victoria-based Pacific Opera, uses the now-common “surtitles” above the stage to translate the sung language for the audience; in the Grand Ballroom at the Bellevue Hiatt, the dialog was projected onto two large screens at the side of the stage, set up for PowerPoint presentations at the conference. It was a bit like watching a tennis match as the eye moved from the screen to the vivid white of the costumes on stage – except for Shylock, of course, whose elaborate dress proclaimed his difference.

I found it fascinating to watch the plot removed from the disturbing and complex intertext of Shylock’s Jewishness. I have little cultural background to inform me on possible responses to Saracens. I have most recently been encountering them through background research on King John, since John’s more attractive older brother, Richard Lionheart, achieved fame through his wars on Saladin and his Saracen army as part of his crusade. Richard committed the usual atrocities justified by the name of god, but it was all a long time ago and a long way from home. (John was pretty good at atrocities himself, though he limited himself principally to his own subjects.)

Was this something closer to the experience of an Elizabethan audience? I don’t know any Saracens today, and few, if any of the original audience for The Merchant would have known any Jews. The Shylock of Bond seemed to me to be a generally comic figure, though the comedy may have been in part the effect on my ears unaccustomed to the interspersed comments from the BangZi wooden block. The distancing that came from unfamiliar language, setting, the operatic medium with its arias, and the unusual “side-titles” meant that the plot spoke more loudly to me as a structure, rather than as a frame for character and debate. When Bond’s Shylock is forced to convert, the side-titles instructed him (if I remember accurately) to stop wearing “silly clothes,” emphasizing the exterior rather than the religious. The moment was moving, but far from the often shattering effect we experience from a more familiar Shakespearean Shylock.

The unfamiliar was definitely in the air at SAM, the Seattle Art Museum. They have a remarkable collection of art from indigenous peoples from the Pacific North-West, Australia, and Africa. I’ve seen a lot of aboriginal art, but was surprised by the richness of their collection, and moved by several of the pieces. Check out “Gathering Storm” by Lin Onus (the image is very small on their website, but several blogs post larger images – for this one you have to scroll well down to find it) and the extraordinary work of Gloria Petyarre in her series on leaves, clearly owing much to the long tradition of aboriginal dot paintings.. Just around the corner you find the collection of Pacific North-West and in a room further on a collection of African masks that I admire but would not like to see staring at me from my wall. After all this arresting strangeness, the early American and European collections, though admirable, seem pale and unadventurous.

Never fear. A feature of SAM on my visit was the collection of Nick Cave’s “sound-suits,” full-body costumes that express the strangeness of the human body and the paraphernalia we collect for uses other than clothing. The juxtaposition of the human figure and all the marvelous things Cave has picked up at garage sales is strange and rich indeed. I especially liked the suit decorated with all kinds of ornamental birds (on the right of the picture below). Unless you looked closely you would miss the face on the suit behind the birds – that of a large tabby cat.

Nick Cave exhibition, Seattle Museum of Art
Nick Cave exhibition, Seattle Museum of Art

It’s exciting to see so much experimentation that is both surprising and beautiful, jolting us as we see the familiar made unfamiliar, at the same time revealing it more fully. This, after all, is what metaphor does, and what Shakespeare continues to do as we re-read and re-interpret him.

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 05:28:28 pm. Categories: Postings  

 
 

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