Theatrical knotweed: Margaret Drabble journeys around Shakespeare’s globe

It is hard to characterise Andrew Dickson’s Worlds Elsewhereit is a discursive, rambling, global volume.

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This is an extraordinarily exhilarating book. It is like no other Shakespeare criticism you have ever read, and it takes you into unimagined realms of speculation. Andrew Dickson, like Puck, has put a girdle round about the earth, and brought back performances of Richard III among the rattlesnakes in California, King Lear with live pigs in Munich, a putative Hamlet in 1607 in Sierra Leone by a ship’s crew aboard the Dragon, a Marxist interpretation of Timon in Beijing and a Cantonese performance of The Taming of the Shrew in Hong Kong, complete with Triad trilbies and vampish high heels. Most of the time our narrator-guide is having a great deal of fun, though his travels are not always comfortable, his accommodation is sometimes challenging, and he occasionally feels himself to be a lonely traveller, with only Shakespeare as his friend. But however bizarre his encounters, he is a serious scholar, and his cross-cultural insights into Shakespeare are remarkable.

Dickson’s project was in part inspired by the multilingual performances from nearly 50 countries that made up the World Shakespeare Festival in London in 2012, which ran parallel with the Olympics. Watching The Comedy of Errors played by Afghans, he wondered why the troupe had chosen this play, found good reasons (connected with exile, loss and separation) and in due course set out to travel in search of the multiple meanings of the world’s greatest playwright. It is a romantic, joyous, if at times (for him) exhausting exploration, and our hero (the picaresque vocabulary seems to come naturally) is an emotional witness, on a sentimental journey, easily moved to tears, particularly by the late plays.

He engages with all those he meets, from divas and directors to students and scholars, and has a light but expert hand with the travelogue aspect of his task, evoking landscapes and skyscapes as well as theatres and performances and libraries. The sprawling townships of the American Midwest, Cape Town’s Table Mountain and Robben Island, and the cultural citadel of Weimar (so sinisterly close to Buchenwald) are drawn with a painterly eye and much sociological curiosity. He’s very good on the topography and the place names of the desolate: Lady Bug Lane, Stagecoach Way, Nugget Lane, Black Bear Lane, Slave Girl Lane . . .

There is a fine pen portrait of snowy Gdansk, in Poland, with its skies the blue of raw silk, its bruisingly cold air, its teetering spires and towers and busy cranes, and its roofs, “toffee-coloured [with] a gleam of verdigris”. Here Dickson encounters another romantic, my old friend Jerzy Limon, whom I met long ago in the heady days of Solidarnosc. At that time, as a young scholar, he was dreaming of building a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe in honour of travelling players from England, forced from their native land by Puritanism and censorship. It seemed for decades a cloud-capped fantasy but the theatre is now built, not quite as originally planned, but prospering. The power of dreams has turned it into a magnificent edifice of menacing black brick, with a retractable roof, and galleries “finished in gleaming honey-coloured birch and beech”.

In his search for the reasons why so many countries have fallen under Shakespeare’s spell and made him their own – by a sometimes dangerous process that the Germans call “nostrification” – Dickson points out that the playwright, who as far as we know never left England, set a remarkable proportion of his dramas abroad. The Forest of Arden and Bosworth Field are represented, but so are Italy, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, ancient Rome and the newly discovered islands of the Indies: his world is much wider than that of the city-based Dekker and Middleton. Dickson notes that adaptations of The Merchant of Venice have been hugely popular in India and China despite the unfamiliarity of the religious and cultural backdrop – is this in some way connected, he wonders, with the racially mixed populations of the great trading ports of Kolkata and Shanghai? Do they see Venice as an image of their own cities? The Germans, of course, admired Hamlet, and thought they had ­written it themselves. The adoption of Othello by South Africa needs little explanation, although the play has caused endless difficulties there: there is a good account of Janet Suzman’s explosive 1987 production with Joanna Weinberg and the black star John Kani. But my favourite example of national favouritism is in the US chapter, “Buried Richards”, which takes us from the stifling atmosphere of the Folger Library and out on to the road. The Americans loved Richard III. Why? Because Dick Crookback was “the villainous victor, the ultimate go-getting, self-reliant, self-made man”. The booze-addicted actor Junius Brutus Booth, greatly admired by Walt Whitman, was often so carried away by this role on tour that he would refuse to die at Bosworth: Booth would, it is alleged, pursue his enemies off the stage and on to the street.

The ceaseless and often startling process of reinterpretation and reinvention, the “liquid modernity” of the Bard as a trans-national brand, the “rhizomatic” spread of “Shakespeare” as a living organism (or, less flatteringly, as the “Japanese knotweed” of culture), are contemporary critical concepts explored with panache. But the theories are illustrated by and interwoven with many human stories: particularly touching is the account of the dedicated life of Solomon Plaatje, journalist, linguist and political activist (1876-1932), who translated Shakespeare’s works into Setswana. He travelled widely in Europe and the US speaking about human rights, published an important account of the cruelty of the Natives Land Act 1913 and wrote a novel in English, but his deepest passion was for Shakespeare.

Dickson pursues Plaatje and his translations down many a dusty road and through acres of scrub-grass and gravel, visiting his museum and his grave, and empathising with his lonely position, stranded between two cultures, not wholly accepted by black or white. It dawns on Dickson “that perhaps another reason he had translated Shakespeare, often at sea, was as a way of evading loneliness. Shakespeare was . . . a companion on all those ocean voyages, when his wife and children were thousands of miles away and the cause of the black South Africans looked as impossibly remote as ever.”

It is hard to characterise this discursive, rambling, global volume: it has elements of David Lodge’s Small World, with a German professor casually pinpointed by his Alfa Romeo and his black leather jacket, and a cameo of an aged Indian scholar of film lying on his daybed with his steel crutches and his straggling white hair. It’s a tragicomedy of obsessions.

I share the obsession. Like Dickson, I see and hear Shakespeare everywhere. Dickson will undoubtedly have spotted the convicted (currently appealing) Marine Sergeant ­Alexander Blackman’s reference to “shuffling off this mortal coil” in Afghanistan. And I hope he, too, saw the interview on 24 June on Channel 4 News in which a refugee, a Syrian English teacher stranded on the Calais motorway, said that his favourite English writer was Shakespeare. Which play did he like best, his interrogator asked, perhaps expecting to trip him up. Antony and Cleopatra, replied the young man instantly. And I like to think that I remember a smile of fleeting happiness upon his face.

Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel is The Pure Gold Baby (Canongate)

Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Dickson is published by The Bodley Head (483pp, £20)

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy

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