Shakespeare in a different language

Shakespeare in a different language
William Shakespeare

Tucked behind a condominium in Yangon, obscured by a car park and a row of shopfronts, is an arts school. It is a Saturday and school is not in session.

But the tiny school hall is aflutter with action. Down on the main floor, a group of performers are cycling through a series of arm gestures, counting as they go along.

On stage, a rowdy discussion in a mix of Burmese and English is taking place around a circle of chairs, interrupted by the occasional burst of laughter.

While my understanding of the Burmese language is basic at best, I can feel my skin prickling with goosepimples of anticipation. It quickly becomes clear that these two groups of actors are rehearsing different scenes from the same play. The play in question is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, painstakingly translated into Burmese.

On June 20 (mid-summer's eve), this tale of fairies and lovers with mistaken identities will occupy Yangon's elegant Strand Hotel ballroom - brought to life by a mix of experienced performers and newcomers. British theatre practitioner Liam Shea is holding the reins to this joyful, celebratory production, one of the rare glimpses of contemporary theatre in Myanmar.

I have often wondered how the Bard might be interpreted in a different language, without its characteristic iambic pentameter and the rich cadences of carefully-chosen consonants and vowels.

Is Shakespeare still Shakespearean without the curling sinews of the English tongue? How might Hamlet's "To be, or not to be", for instance, find an equivalent in terms of weight and power in a language that might process and assign meaning completely differently?

Japanese theatre director and luminary Yukio Ninagawa is an avid adapter of Shakespeare. Ninagawa, who was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to theatre, has staged six different versions of Hamlet because he does not think he has gotten it right - yet.

Today, Shakespeare is almost always presented in adaptation, given the unique mutability of each play to fit a variety of circumstances. Whether Macbeth is reimagined as a drug lord struggling to control an underworld empire, or Julius Caesar as a powerful female inmate in a women's prison, Shakespeare has taken on endless guises, with theatre companies seeking to present his work in the most inventive and challenging of ways.

And very often, the process of adaptation is cultural as well. Shakespeare is one of, if not the greatest, of the United Kingdom's cultural exports, performed in almost every country across the globe - with various theatre groups reworking these Renaissance period pieces for both accessibility and impact.

Here in Singapore, Juliet's nurse has been decidedly Singaporean (Wild Rice's Romeo & Juliet, 2012) and Much Ado About Nothing got a makeover in a 1930s wealthy Peranakan household (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2009), just to name a few.

A Midsummer Night's Dream lends itself particularly well to Burmese local culture, given the proliferation of nats - guardian spirits with magical qualities, quite similar to fairies - as well as the universal draw of romance. The production also embraces the Burmese art of za' pwe, which weaves together music, dance and drama in marathon performances that can last for hours.

Traditional Burmese theatre, whether played by actors or marionnettes, often draws from historical texts such as the Ramayana and must be staged with very specific techniques that can take decades to hone.

When the Midsummer Night's Dream team approached za' pwe practitioners for advice, some of these veteran performers were puzzled and resistant to the use of their art form in a Shakespearean play, which they perceived as worlds away from their own.

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