In Review: Shakespeare and East Asia

Alexa Alice Joubin. Shakespeare and East Asia. Oxford University Press, 2021. 272pp.

Reviewed by Adele Lee

Volume 8, Issue 4 (Fall 2021)

Astutely charting shared and unique patterns in post-1950s East Asian adaptations and interpretations of Shakespeare across a range of contexts, genres and media—theatrical and cinematic—Alexa Alice Joubin eschews the prevailing (and potentially harmful) approach to “Global Shakespeare” that anchors performances in their perceived cultural roots and values them more for their political rather than their aesthetic qualities. Joubin also pushes back against the utilization of “Asian Shakespeares” for the purposes of diversifying scholarship and curricula in the Anglo-American academy, as well as the exoticization of these adaptations, in particular, the tendency to over-emphasize how much they deviate from Anglophone practices. Both trends, she argues, have resulted in critical blind-spots in our understanding of the meaning and significance of “Asian Shakespeares,” and the overlooking of the multifarious structural and thematic connections between productions from diverse locales. In response, Joubin boldly deterritorializes stage and film versions of Shakespeare, situating them in a postnational space of exchange and focuses on their aesthetic and social (as opposed to political) functions. This is a radical and refreshing move, and Joubin casts new light on familiar, now-canonical works such as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth (1980) and Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (2006) through placing them in dialogue with Western favorites like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) and examining them in respect to style and technique, the concept of polyphony, gender and cross-gender identities and other Asian and global concerns.

Organizing her cutting-edge book thematically—rather than chronologically or geopolitically—Joubin identifies four themes in particular that distinguish East Asian Shakespeares in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: 1) formalistic innovations in sound and spectacle, 2) the remedial uses of Shakespeare’s plays, 3) conflicting and polity-driven production and reception and 4) multilingualism in diasporic adaptations. These four themes, she argues, produce a series of “concentric circles of analysis” that move from form to ideology, local to global contexts, and from production to reception. Thus, she offers a multitude of approaches of Shakespeare in China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong and encourages readers—set free from the limitations of realpolitik and national traditions—to explore connections between works across different temporal-spatial boundaries and modes of representation. There is something truly liberating about this fluid and holistic approach, an approach that “lead us away from an overdetermined concept of the canon” (21). Highlights of the book include Joubin’s discussion of Shakespeare’s (limited) reparative function in East Asia and East Asia’s reparative role in Anglophone Shakespeares (chapter 2); her examination of feminism, gender identities and cross-gender performance practices in East Asian adaptations of Hamlet and King Lear (chapter 3); and her survey of intercultural and polyphonic productions created for the global festival circuit that refuse to fit into the postcolonial model (chapter 4).

On the downside, and through absolutely no fault of Joubin, most of the writers and directors featured in Shakespeare in East Asia are male, which, as she says herself in a thoughtful caveat lector, “has long been a function of the setup of Asian theatre and film industries, particularly when it comes to adaptations of Shakespeare” (19). The inequality is especially striking in the theatre industry, though there are some prominent female artists, such as the avant-garde Japanese playwright Kishida Rio, who collaborated with Ong Keng-sen on both Lear (1997) and Desdemona (2000), and the Chinese American Tisa Chang, director of a bilingual Mandarin-English A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1983). Wherever possible, Joubin makes a concerted effort to draw attention to these and other women and gender minorities, such as Komaki Kurihara’s iconic turn as Lady Macbeth (Lady Asaji) in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (chapter 1) and Lee Joon-gi’s embodiment of Gong-gil, a transgender Ophelia character in the film The King and the Clown (2005)(chapter 3). She also includes discussion of ethnic minorities within East Asia (every region has its order, complete with its center and margins, after all) as well as offers a critique of class privilege and other forms of social inequality. One of the many other strengths of Shakespeare in East Asia is its reflections on the politics of multilingualism, the diasporic condition and intercultural performance which, Joubin suggests, serves important sociocultural and aesthetic functions. In particular, instead of viewing such (usually touring) productions as pandering to Western fantasies of an exotic East or as reflecting colonial/postcolonial power configurations, Joubin posits that intercultural productions such as Ong Keng Sen and David Tse Ka-shing’s acclaimed versions of King Lear (1997 and 2006, respectively) produce an alienating effect that “help[s] us move from narratives driven by political geographies to histories informed by theatrical localitiesthe varied locations embodied by touring performances” (134-35).

In this respect and others, Alexa Alice Joubin’s book ushers in and lays the theoretical groundwork for the next phase of scholarship on “Asian Shakespeares,” a subject area she has spearheaded since the publication of her now-seminal monograph, Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Columbia University Press, 2009). And even though many of the films and stage adaptations she explores have (to varying degrees) received critical attention elsewhere, her critical approach and methodology is innovative and exciting and, moreover, offers others in the field directives for future research. The glossary, detailed suggestions for further reading, and annotated chronology of Shakespeare and East Asia will definitely be tremendously useful to scholars in this specialist yet burgeoning field of study, a field that, like the theatre and film artists Joubin focuses on, challenges fixed notions of tradition and narrow definitions of cultural authenticity. As the author puts it herself, “Asian Shakespeares” are much more than “curiosities or colonial remnants,” but matter to Western readers because of their impact on American and European performance cultures and their significance to global culture studies (6).

Adele Lee is Associate Professor in Early Modern Literature at Emerson College, USA, specialising in “Global Shakespeare” and Renaissance travel writing. She is author of The English Renaissance and the Far East (2017), editor of Shakespeare and Accentism (2020) and co-author of Shakespeare in East Asian Education (2021) as well as of numerous critical essays and book chapters. She completed her PhD at the Queen’s University, Belfast, and prior to joining Emerson in 2016, she was a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich, London.

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