Book review: Going East with the Bard

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JANUARY IS traditionally the time for the annual family outing to see some Shakespeare. For anyone who has ever wondered why such trips often turn into fiascos of boredom and disappointment guaranteed to put children off the Bard for life, John Russell Brown's new book is a must.

Arguing that most British versions of his work "occupy only a part of the spectrum of what theatre can be", Russell Brown thinks that we have become used to viewing Shakespeare "though this distorting filter". To explore other ways of staging the Boring Bard, and to see what different theatrical traditions might offer, he goes East in search of enlightenment.

In Puri, south west of Calcutta, he sees a Jatra (touring) theatre; its performances start around midnight and end at 6.30am. In Bali, the exotic dance dramas that lit up Antonin Artaud's fevered mind in the Thirties leave him cold, but he is captivated by a funeral procession and cremation ceremony. In China, he parlays with thesps; in Japan, he witnesses today's dramatists and directors using traditions without growing stale.

Russell Brown sounds as if he had a good time. In one Indian district, he comes across a group of three actors who give all-night shows lasting 12 hours. With only three actors? Not problem, comes the reply, because as many as 40 audience members come on stage and improvise parts. But how can you keep an audience's interest for 12 hours? Well, try this apple wine and smoke the "leaves of a locally grown herb". School trips to the local rep were never this much fun.

Once, a power failure cut off electric lights for a show in Kerala, southern India, leaving the stage lit only by a low-level lamp. The result was an unexpected optical illusion in which the actors seemed to float in the dark, evoking a "dream-like state". Bye-bye naturalism, hello visionary theatre.

But is this just another case of cultural imperialism? One bored former associate director of the National Theatre roams the world, picking up tasty hints from faraway cultures, and brings them home to spice up the West's jaded palate? Definitely not. Russell Brown does not want to plunder Third World theatre and import its gems. He prefers to learn from it and see what its methods might do for our stage.

For example, India's Kutiyattam theatre, which is both highly contrived and extensively improvised, provokes thoughts about how today's Shakespeare tends to be rehearsed to death. While, in the Thirties, Stratford productions had a two- or three-week rehearsal period, today's rehearsals stretch over as many as eight weeks. Lack of rehearsal makes actors improvise more and take greater risks, with the result that their acting is more alive. Long rehearsals mean careful, subtle and original interpretations that may put audiences to sleep.

Nor is unprepared acting alien to the British tradition. In 1922, Harley Granville-Barker (the actor, director and dramatist) argued against carefully prepared, long-running productions. The art of acting "may profit a little by failure, but what it cannot endure is the numbing monotony of success". Highly polished performances are related to good acting, he said, as reproductions are to an original Rembrandt.

Let's imagine such ideas applied to today's Royal Shakespeare Company. Instead of the director-led, long-rehearsal institution, we would have 10 smaller companies working as actors' collectives. Actors would quickly learn their words and improvise on stage. There would be a different show every night. All the pricey scenery would go on the scrap heap; all the costumes to the Theatre Museum. Everyday clothes and common props would be used; audiences would be encouraged to cheer on the action.

Not only does Russell Brown want to change actors; he also wants to change audiences. Drawing on his experience of open-air theatre in India, he shows how spectators there treat actors like sporting heroes, calling out encouragement, advice and praise. Even in Kabuki, with its extraordinary artifice, star actors are greeted by name when they first arrive on stage. The best way to kill such lively audiences is to put them indoors in darkened halls.

The last part of New Sites for Shakespeare argues for complete reform of the way the British bard is performed. Neatly written and jargon-free, Russell Brown's polemic is one of the best books about Shakespeare because it dares to ask a basic question: what's the point of drama? Even if you don't agree with his opinions about the reconstructed Globe Theatre, or think his views on today's touring companies are a bit outdated, his passion, energy and longing for excitement command attention. But beware: this book may encourage you to abandon your yearly outing to the theatre, and go abroad instead.

Aleks Sierz