Cultural Imperialism and Intercultural Encounter in Merchant Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah

By Venning, Dan | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Cultural Imperialism and Intercultural Encounter in Merchant Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah


Venning, Dan, Asian Theatre Journal


Asian artists' engagements with Shakespeare have created interactions that range from instances of cultural imperialism to genuine intercultural encounters. Since international tours of Shakespearean productions of Suzuki Tadashi and Ninagawa Yukio in the 1980s and 1990s, scholarly attention on Shakespeare in Asian languages or within the framework of Asian theatrical traditions has developed and critics have debated whether such productions can be considered fully intercultural. As an example of such, Ninagawa's The Tempest that toured to the Edinburgh Festival in 1988 borrowed from nd/kydgen technique and deftly blended no creator Zeami's banishment to Sado Island with Prospero's tale of exile; critical consensus labeled the production as "among the most moving of the multitude of stagings of Shakespeare's play" (Sasayama, Mulryne, and Shewring 1999: 1).

In this article, after discussion of some issues of interculturalism as they are displayed in theatre scholarship, I examine a filmed representation of a Shakespeare theatre troupe attempting intercultural performance: Shakespeare Wallah (1965), an early work of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. This film deals with a British-led Shakespeare troupe struggling to perform in post-independence India, and I argue that in some ways the film also documents aspects of an actual company, the Shakespeareana Players. I will address whether the film engages in genuine, postcolonial intercultural exchange, by which I mean respectful balancing of cultures in the encounter and challenging Western hegemony, or is a work that, using Shakespeare as a tool, perpetuates cultural imperialism, serving colonialist ideology although produced in a postcolonial era.

Cultural Imperialism or Intercultural Encounter?

Arguing against intercultural Shakespeares, diverse theorists and practitioners claim that encounters between Shakespeare and Asia necessarily entail an unequal power dynamic in which the Western critic or practitioner tries to exert influence over Asia. Richard Schechner argues that Asian artists are encouraged to perform Shakespeare while no real attention is given to Asian dramatic literature in the West: "That's a residue of colonialism; the native can 'step up,' but the Western developed person ought not to 'step down.' It's a kind of reverse patriarchalism" (quoted in Sasayama, Mulryne, and Shewring 1999: 10). Rustom Bharucha claims that the West foists Shakespeare onto a foreign society "as a way of extending the information retrieval on an arguably burned-out Bard," or encourages the Asian artist to present Shakespeare as an attempt to "pass" in the Western cultural scene (Bharucha 2004: 4). (1) Similarly, Yeeyon Im, analyzing Lee Yountaek's 1996 production of Hamlet , argues that so-called intercultural performances without postcolonial content are in fact only mirages of interculturalism, performing "complicit postcoloniality" (Im 2008: 273).

Other scholars, such as Diane Daugherty, using the example of an Indian-French-Australian adaptation of Kathakali King Lear, argue more optimistically that genuine intercultural encounters between Shakespeare and Asian forms indeed occur and can be "intercultural theatre at its best" (Daugherty 2005: 65). Within this optimistic viewpoint, scholars such as Min Tian and Yong Li Lan have attempted to map out what intercultural productions of Shakespeare are able to do. Tian, giving a wonderful overview of Shakespearean performances in Asia, argues that because there are "fundamental differences between Elizabethan and Asian conditions and styles" of performance, Asian intercultural productions must, in effect, reinvent Shakespearean performance from scratch, and in so doing can recover, or invent, a vital spirit of "authentic Shakespeare" (Tian 1998: 275). Yong, examining Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen's adaptation of Othello into the avant-garde Desdemona, finds that precisely because Ong's staging is messy, ugly, and full of apparent failures of communication, it becomes a productive intercultural engagement (Yong 2004). …

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