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Dressing down the rabbit hole – how to become Alice in Wonderland

Kiera Vaclavik, Queen Mary University of London

The blue dress, the blonde hair, the white apron and the sense of adventure: Alice in Wonderland has certainly leapt free of Lewis Carroll’s pages into our imaginations, onto our screens and stages and beyond. These days, it’s a fairly common occurrence to “be Alice”.

As a series of images and objects in the V&A Museum of Childhood’s upcoming exhibition, The Alice Look makes clear, people from across the world and all walks of life regularly dress as Alice for parties or Halloween, high-end photo shoots or even (their own) weddings.

Countless others wear garments adorned by Alice or associated with that unmistakable “Wonderland aesthetic” (think rabbits, playing cards, teacups, pocket watches). For the most part, this is a relatively superficial affair, lasting an evening or couple of days at most. But in some cases, a much more enduring and profound engagement with the character takes place.

Poster advertising ladies boots manufactured by T Elliot & Sons, 1960s.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I recently met four such women who, over a sustained period, have lived, breathed and worked to actually become Alice. Fiona Fullerton was there, star of the 1972 feature film directed by William Sterling. Then there was soprano Fflur Wyn, who is due to reprise her lead role in Opera Holland Park’s production this summer, and Royal Ballet principal dancer Lauren Cuthbertson, for whom Christopher Wheeldon created the role of Alice in 2011. Lastly, Lucy Farrett – who is one of the actresses in the immersive theatre extravaganza currently being performed in the Vaults under Waterloo station.

Demanding Alice

Sir John Tenniel illustration, 1886.

What quickly emerges in conversation with these women is the sheer physical strain of the role. There’s an impressive degree of multi-tasking involved: being Alice encompasses acting as well as dancing, puppetry and singing. Carroll himself was fully aware of the demands of the part, writing in an 1888 letter that it is “about as hard a one as a child ever took”, and observing with appropriately mathematical exactitude that it involved speaking no less that “215 times!”

Lauren Cuthbertson also quantified the gruelling nature of her version of the part: the terrible realisation that Act One involved dancing some 14 scenes back-to-back with no rest except a couple of rapid costume changes – and the 38 bruises which emerged in the aftermath of the first ever performance. In her open-air performance, Fflur Wyn endured the torments of multiple layers of costume under an unusually co-operative but fierce summer sun.

In the Vaults production, Alice is a deliberately fleeting presence, but the nature of the show still means that Farrett must deliver the same lines no less than 36 times… per evening! And if, for Fiona Fullerton, filming seems to have been a fun-filled series of interactions with British acting royalty, cycling merrily around Shepperton studios, it nevertheless involved three months away from home, trying to keep up with schoolwork whilst lodging in a provincial hotel filled to the rafters with elderly residents.

Navigating age

The demands of the role are such that it is highly unusual for children to play the role of Alice, who is just seven years old in the original text.

It seems certain that Carroll would have looked askance at the tendency to cast adults in the role. He once wrote of 30-year-old Ellen Terry (in a different production): “The gush of animal spirits of a light-hearted girl is beyond her now, poor thing! She can give a very clever imitation of it, but that is all.”

Many productions help bridge the gap between character and performer by making Alice older, frequently doubling her age or more. But a considerable age difference often still remains. Navigating between the pitfalls of excessive maturity and panto parody is surely one of the biggest challenges for performers and producers of Wonderland today. It’s perhaps made easier by the fact that performing freshness and innocence remains such a staple requirement for women on stage and screen – and beyond – today.

Fuzziness around the age issue is compounded in modern productions by the fact that the visual cues which enabled Victorian readers and audiences to immediately recognise Alice as a little girl (hair down, hem just below the knee, short sleeves) no longer pertain.

Alice in Wonderland cotton chintz, C F A Voysey, 1920s.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Blue and white

Tenniel’s original illustrations nevertheless serve as the model for countless Alice costumes including those of Fullerton and Wyn which, despite the 30 years separating them, differ from each other very little at all.

To set themselves apart, other productions deliberately eschew this classic Alice look of full-skirted blue dress and white pinafore. The Alice of the Vaults production, for example, wears a turquoise-green, neo-Victorian shabby-chic dress devoid of pinafore – although with key elements of Wonderland iconography such as a small gold pocket watch.

Similarly, in the Royal Ballet production, Cuthbertson wore, not blue, but lilac (perhaps in tribute to the first coloured Macmillan edition which adopted this colour). She also sported a short dark bob modelled not on Tenniel’s Alice but the real-life Alice (Liddell) for whom the book was initially produced.

Relatively minor modifications to colour and style notwithstanding, Alice’s appearance in each of these productions retains a distinct flavour of olde-worlde otherness and nostalgia. This is a point underlined by the fact that on the night we met, each of the Alices without exception appeared in a costume which has long dominated the female wardrobe but is still to make inroads into Alice’s look: namely, trousers.

It’s obvious that despite being widely hailed by critics and pundits in this anniversary year as a feisty, go-getting feminist icon, Alice has nevertheless remained – not unlike Lansley’s Alice trapped behind the looking-glass – in a considerably constrained conception of femininity.

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Celebrity twat or man of the people? Russell Brand is both in The Emperor’s New Clothes

William Brown, University of Roehampton

A few moments from the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the new documentary made by the prolific Michael Winterbottom in collaboration with Russell Brand, the celebrity anarchist pretends to receive a phone call as he puts forward a proposal that the top 1% of the UK’s population should be more greatly taxed.

Yes, the top 1% would include him, Brand says, as if repeating the words of some invisible agent at the other end of the line. He then turns to the camera/audience and jests that perhaps this is one policy that might not be rushed into.

The moment, I assume, is a joke – although I am not apprised of Brand’s earnings such that I could know whether he is in the top 1% of UK earners or not. Either way, the moment for me deflated much of what had preceded it. Suddenly, I was faced with the possibility that the whole of the film is equally a joke – and that Brand, who had been riffing for the previous 90+ minutes about the institutionalised theft that is the contemporary banking system and about the need for citizens to take control of their lives by getting involved in politics, did not mean any of it.

In some senses, this is an interesting editorial trick for Winterbottom to pull off. It is a sleight of hand that finally distances him somewhat from Brand, who otherwise is the mouthpiece of the film.

Celebrity twats

Winterbottom’s penchant for looking at length at celebrity twats is well known, as is made clear by one of the posters for his film 24 Hour Party People, in which Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is described using precisely that term. And so that Winterbottom would work with Brand, who is perceived as just such a celebrity twat by various circles of genteel (bourgeois) British society, is perhaps unsurprising.

It’s also unsurprising that in Winterbottom’s hands, Brand actually comes across very well, much as Wilson becomes a heroic – if comic – figure in 24 Hour Party People and much as the equally troubled Steve Coogan acquits himself beautifully in A Cock And Bull Story and The Trip.

This isn’t to say that Brand will be to everyone’s tastes as he marches into HSBC demanding a meeting with chief executive Stuart Gulliver in order to explain his salary, or as he manipulatively asks a bunch of eight-year olds whether it’s fair that one person gets paid dozens of times more money than someone else.

Indeed, these sub-Michael Moore stunts come across both as a bit laboured and a bit borrowed. Equally an issue is the sound of Brand’s voice as he gets excited – he knows he is about to say something clever, funny (or a combination of the two) but telegraphs it through a quickening of tempo and a slight raising of tone, which in turn undermines the power of what he is about to say.

However, Brand is also clearly a popular man. It’s fascinating to watch him wander around his hometown of Grays in Essex, explaining how it has gone from being quite an interesting place to a bookie-filled crap town overrun with pound shops. People approach him and chat, take selfies and basically love him.

On the campaign trail.

Man of the people?

In other words, Brand clearly has what I guess is called the common touch – and it’s admirable to behold. What’s more, it surely is a worthy tool for getting people engaged in the political fate of this country. You have to organise and you have to protest, he tells us. Coming from anyone too clever, this might just seem insincere.

Coming from Brand, one wonders that people might well be mobilised to vote on May 7 in greater numbers, and more generally become engaged in political debate than would were this film not in existence – despite Brand’s own widely publicised calls for people to register their protest by not voting. And if we are to believe the rumours of Brand endorsing Ed Miliband after the Labour leader was spotted leaving his house, perhaps this is all to change.

The Emperor’s New Clothes bombards us with archive footage (often framed within glitch art-style graphics to convey that this is the age of YouTube), with stunts, with interviews (such as with Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason) and with direct address. In this way it involves a panoply of techniques that aims to recall the political cinema of something like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s masterpiece, the Latin American 1960s activist film The Hour of the Furnaces.

As such, it’s a timely and vibrant film, with a fantastic sequence about the history of the Cadbury factory in Bourneville. It’s also funny at times, with a hilarious final montage-rap by Cassetteboy.

But Winterbottom, his cards as ever close to his chest, just finally nudges some distance between himself and Brand with the 1% joke. Is it Brand who stands naked before us, in addition to the banks that have fuelled his ire for the duration of the film? It’s a very Winterbottom trait to float this as a final possibility, thereby folding the viewer’s thought in on itself.

This film won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, says Brand at the film’s outset. True. But then it’s always good to keep mulling over what we believe we know, including about the film’s star. It’s only in reconsidering and ever-more-deeply comprehending (rather than blindly accepting) that we might find ourselves drawn into action.

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Detroit, 1932: when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo came to town

Henry Adams, Case Western Reserve University

The Detroit of 1932 had many parallels to the Detroit of today.

The city was teetering toward bankruptcy. People were out of work. The city was so pressed for funds that it seriously considered closing its art museum and selling off its collection – just as it did when Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

Labor and industry clashed in 1930s Detroit.
Bits of News

And social unrest was in the air. On March 7 1932, the Ford Hunger March took place, during which laid-off factory workers clashed with anti-union enforcers hired by Henry Ford. Four marchers were killed, while 60,000 people took part in the funeral procession.

It was in this atmosphere of financial depression and social unrest that the burly Mexican muralist Diego Rivera – an avowed communist, fresh off a visit to the Soviet Union – came to Detroit to execute a massive mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). With him, he brought his petite new bride, Frida Kahlo.

Eighty-two years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts is celebrating the works of Rivera and Kahlo with an exhibition that will run until July 12.

What the two artists produced during their year in Detroit marked the high point of each artist’s respective career.

For Rivera it was a mural – Detroit Industry – which he regarded as his masterpiece: the single most complete, powerful expression of his social and artistic ideals.

For Kahlo it was a series of self-portraits and harrowing narrative paintings that deal with themes like childbirth, abortion and suicide.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Wikimedia Commons

Yet how did a city that epitomized the nation’s industrial prowess come to commission a mural by an avowed communist? And why was he bankrolled by the heir to an auto empire that had revolutionized mass production and consumption? (During the height of the Red Scare, the Detroit Industry murals would be accompanied by a banner that began, “Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable…”)

It’s a peculiar story, one that features larger-than-life personalities and awe-inspiring works of art. Like the best characters, all involved were conflicted, flawed and not quite what they seemed.

The commission

In 1932, Rivera and Kahlo arrived at the beckoning of the DIA’s museum director, Wilhelm Valentiner.

Valentiner was educated and trained in Germany. Over the course of his career, he created several great American art museums, spent most of his life in elite social circles and gave little indication of his political views, although he was briefly involved in political reform movements as a young man.

Ostensibly married, he seems to have been homosexual. Perhaps because of this, he kept his private life and inner feelings closely guarded.

And while he was the key figure in conceiving the commission, his motives for doing so aren’t clear.

Diego Rivera’s tight-lipped Wilhelm Valentiner (in the blue suit) appears on the mural’s south wall.
Detroit Industry, south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts

Was it simply because Rivera was a star of the art world, or did Valentiner have some deeper political or social agenda?

Rivera’s portrait of Valentiner – another highlight of the exhibition – presents a figure who seems at once tight-lipped and tremulously sensitive.

Valentiner managed to execute the project through the financial support of Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel Bryant Ford, whose relationship with his father was conflicted, to say the least.

While nominally the head of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel had little actual control: his father, Henry, continued to manage the family business with an iron fist. Henry regarded Edsel as unmanly, a bit of a sissy who was much too interested in art.

Somehow, father and son skirted open conflict; but they worked in separate spheres, often in direct opposition to each other.

Edsel Ford (left) had a tenuous relationship with his father, Henry (right).
Wikimedia Commons

Henry Ford, for example, refused to hire Jews; his son quietly donated money to Jewish causes. Henry ran the day-to-day operations of the business, Edsel retreated to the design studio, where his extraordinary genius for graceful, functional design helped rescue the Ford Motor Company from near bankruptcy.

Though the family business survived the stock market crash, the Great Depression had devastated the city’s working class. Wages were slashed, thousands lost their jobs and unemployment insurance didn’t exist.

Perhaps harboring complex feelings of privilege and guilt, Edsel seems to have sensed that a mural by Rivera could act as a healing force, reducing tensions between the owner and his workers.

And so he wrote a $20,000 check to cover Rivera’s fee – the equivalent of $320,000 today.

Detroit Industry

Upon arriving in Detroit, Diego Rivera – the avowed communist – was mesmerized by the efficiency of the city’s factories, which fulfilled his romantic notions of a productive, modern industrial state.

Rivera was spellbound by The Ford Motor Company, the capitalist engine that powered Detroit.
Don Harrison/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Somewhat surprisingly, he was also completely captivated by young Edsel Ford, a figure of considerable elegance and charm, who – save for his avowed reverence for capitalism – personified Rivera’s ideals of the enlightened modern leader.

With precise attention to detail, Rivera studied every process of the Ford factory complex at River Rouge, before compressing them into a single composition, spread over two large panels. He then inserted scenes of science and industry, accompanied by vast, nude, female allegorical figures, which symbolize the four directions and the different races of mankind.

The result was Detroit Industry: 27 panels that work in unison, highlighted by the two large panels of the River Rouge factories. Together, they line the DIA’s Rivera Court.

The large panel on the north wall depicts engine and transmission production.
Detroit Industry, north wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

If we go through the laborious process of decoding the different scenes, we find that Rivera often organized them using contrasts, like the manufacturing of poison gas juxtaposed with the healing vaccines of modern medicine and science.

From the north wall of Detroit Industry: the manufacturing of poisonous gas.
Detroit Industry, north wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

Yet despite the often heavy-handed use of didactic messages, the overall emotional effect is oddly ambiguous. Is the mural a celebration of the modern age? Or is it a nightmarish portrayal of soul-crushing industry? (Ironically, while Rivera claimed to be a communist, he grossly underpaid his workers for their help executing the mural.)

A couple that quarreled and inspired

Rivera and Kahlo were far from a model couple. They argued constantly. They divorced and remarried. He had an affair with a number of other women, including Kahlo’s sister. She had multiple affairs as well, with both men and women.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
© 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yet despite the turmoil, they clearly possessed a profound artistic bond. While he could often be brutish and chauvinistic, it was Rivera who encouraged his wife to unleash, on canvas, her pain and anger towards men, to enter uncharted realms of subject matter and feeling.

Compared to Rivera’s huge murals, Kahlo’s paintings are initially a bit of a let-down: they’re surprisingly small in scale and not particularly impressive at the technical level.

Nonetheless, they’re surely landmarks because they dealt with subjects that had never been treated in the entire history of art: birth and abortion. The more one studies and deciphers the stories these images tell, the more arresting, haunting and unforgettable they become.

Sadly, the organizers couldn’t obtain the most impressive of Kahlo’s paintings: My Birth, 1932, which belongs to the pop star Madonna.

Frida Kahlo’s The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.
© 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But the show does include Henry Ford Hospital, which depicts Kahlo’s abortion, along with A Few Small Nips – a rendering of a man with a dripping knife standing beside the bloody corpse of the woman he’s just murdered. There’s also the enigmatic Suicide of Dorothy Hale, a painting of a New York socialite jumping out of a tall building.

As with Rivera’s work, there’s an odd internal ambivalence to Kahlo’s work. Many of her paintings portray women as victims, either to the brutality of men or to the cruelty of natural processes, such as birth. Yet as a whole, they seem to simultaneously celebrate the strength of women.

In Kahlo’s world, the suffering and accomplishments of women are the dominant threads of human history, a story in which men play a secondary role.

Such an intensely feminist viewpoint had never before been expressed in art. And while Kahlo herself declared that she was a greater artist than Rivera, she was largely overlooked at the time. Now, however, Kahlo’s reputation and popular appeal – particularly among women – has come to overshadow that of Rivera.

Yet both should be lauded for finding inspiration in the struggles of daily life, for pinpointing issues that still concern and confound us today.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit will be exhibited until July 12 2015.

The everyday worker inspired Diego Rivera.
Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

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Game of Thrones and the fluid world of medieval gender

Juanita Feros Ruys, University of Sydney

With Games of Thrones back on our screens, the question of the gender roles it depicts and promotes continues to be hotly debated.

Some commentators excuse what they see as the blatant misogyny of the series by noting that author George RR Martin could hardly have written female characters otherwise while being true to the historical context of the “Middle Ages” (at least as it is popularly envisioned).

Others are happy to compile lists of powerful female figures on the series and applaud the way they “destabilise” traditional gender roles.

Yet there is not a female figure on Game of Thrones who does not have a medieval counterpart, whether an actual historical person or a character from a literary text that enthralled audiences for centuries. So let’s look at these:

Strong female leaders?

Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones has Daenerys Targaryen, the only surviving child of King Aerys II Targaryen; the Middle Ages also had female rulers, some hugely successful (Elizabeth I of England), others less so (Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed at the behest of Elizabeth, her first cousin once removed).

At one point, the power structures of Western European countries were perceived as so female-centric that it led Calvinist Scotsman John Knox to pen the virulent anti-feminist pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558).

Power-hungry incestuous sisters?

Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones gives us Cersei Lannister, the widow of King Robert Baratheon and Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. The Arthurian legends gives us Morgan Le Fay, who sleeps with her brother King Arthur and bears from the union Mordred who will eventually be Arthur’s doom.

Women who dress as knights and fight men in battle?

Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490).
Wikimedia Commons

Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth are two of the most popular female characters on Game of Thrones, but they have a long way to go before they can rival the enduring fame and admiration excited by the historical Joan of Arc (1412-1431) who led French armies against the English towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War and was executed by the English in 1431.

Records show that the Inquisitors who interrogated Joan were as much concerned with her transvestitism as with her claims to hear angelic voices and devoted a great deal of effort into convincing Joan to give up her masculine attire, a step with which she never complied.

Yet Game of Thrones never even approaches the slippery and surprising world of gender manipulation and redefinition that are a feature of medieval spirituality.

Indeed, Game of Thrones, for all its quasi-medievalism, is completely lacking in a major segment of the medieval world:

The monastic

Game of Thrones notes the existence of religion, and of religious leaders – some even female (Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light) – but it does not represent the massive proportion of the medieval population that devoted their lives to religious service.

Melisandre, Game of Thrones.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

Medieval Western Christianity proved adept at multiplying gender positions, rendering them fluid, and refiguring gendered embodiment in ways that made an identification with one sex and its “properly” aligned gender difficult, if not redundant.

Although monasticism was a strictly sex-segregated undertaking, it was, paradoxically enough, also productive of some extraordinarily complex and fluid gender formulations. Nuns were exhorted by the men tasked with their pastoral care to be “virile” in their faith, and to surpass even men in the strength of their devotion.

Meanwhile, male monastics cultivated “female” virtues such as humility, aware that in the topsy-turvy economy of New Testament Christianity, based as it was on the willing sacrifice of Christ, being humble, gentle, and patient of suffering was also particularly manly.

We know from manuscript evidence (British Library, Cotton Julius E.vii) that nuns enjoyed stories of women who showed their devotion by undertaking male disguise and living undetected as monks for their whole lives.

Saint Wilgefortis in the diocesan museum of Graz, Austria.
Wikimedia Commons

The bearded female saint Wilgefortis proved popular in late medieval iconography: this young woman was martyred for her refusal to marry and her joyful acceptance from God of a full beard in order to avoid this fate.

While monastics deployed gender identities in innovative ways in regard to themselves, even the gender of the Christian Trinitarian God came under consideration with both male and female mystics contemplating the motherliness of Christ.

Male mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) saw themselves suckling at the breast of the Virgin, and feminist critics such as Karma Lochrie have commented on the vaginal imagery of the wound in Christ’s side to which male clerics were so devoted and to which they would envision themselves pressing their mouths.

The 14th-century female mystic Agnes Blannbekin claimed to have received the foreskin of Christ in her mouth in her celebration of the Eucharist and described its taste as sweet as honey.

The world of medieval spiritual gender was powerfully fluid and productive, with performativity the key. Game of Thrones might offer some interesting, and even compelling, female role models in its medievalist worldview, but perhaps contemporary viewers would be more shocked by the gender permutations at play in the “real” Middle Ages.

This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.

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Thou art translated! How Shakespeare went viral

Alexa Huang, George Washington University

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Peter Quince sees Bottom turned into an ass-headed figure, he cries in horror: “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated!”

Other characters in the play use the verb in similar ways to refer to a broad range of altered states. Helena hopes to be “translated” into Hermia, her childhood friend and rival, while a love potion transforms characters that come in contact with it.

Appropriately enough, translation has come to define Shakespeare’s legacy. Since the 16th century, his plays and sonnets have been translated and performed all over the world in an ever-growing number of languages, dialects and styles. One of the most translated secular authors in the world, more than four billion copies of his works have been sold.

Why did Shakespeare – and not his contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Kyd – “go viral?”

A closer look reveals that his narratives contain qualities that are easily adaptable to different cultures and eras, and have given his works broad appeal outside his native England. It helps explain why, even before mass communication, Shakespeare was a hit with readers ranging from Soviet communists, to German Romanticists like Goethe.

Plays depict a brave new world

Shakespeare’s global popularity is paralleled by the diverse settings of his plays.

As English audiences were becoming more attuned to the world beyond their own, Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and romances were often set in locales outside of England, Scotland and Wales – places like Athens, Elsinore (Denmark), Illyria, Troy, Cyprus, Cairo, Tunis, Bohemia, Verona and Venice. And many of his characters hail from various parts of the world, whether it’s The Merchant of Venice’s Prince of Morocco or the Indian pageboy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

While Shakespeare’s plays were initially performed in England and Europe, by the end of the playwright’s life they’d been transported to corners of the globe that would have seemed remote from the perspective of a 17th-century Englishman. In 1619, for example, Hamlet was performed in colonial Indonesia.

Shakespeare translated into Odia, a language spoken in India.
ramona klee/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Translations of Shakespeare’s Complete Works began emerging in the 18th century. With time, to have a Shakespearean play translated into a country’s native language became an honor. When his translation of Hamlet was published in 1877, Portugal’s King Luis I was widely praised for “giving to the Portuguese Nation their first translation of Shakespeare.”

Today, several editions of Shakespeare exist in hundreds of languages. And a number of the translators are prominent figures in the world of letters in and beyond their own cultures: August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Paul Celan (Germany), Voltaire (France), Tsubouchi Shōyō (Japan), Rabindranath Tagore (India) and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria).

Cultural appropriation

Literary translation can modernize the original text, making it culturally relevant to a specific time and place.

For this reason, Shakespeare in translation can appear as a contemporary of the German Romantics, a spokesperson for the proletarian heroes of the Soviet Union or required reading for communists.

New titles given to Shakespeare’s plays are suggestive of the preoccupations of the society that produced them. The 1710 German adaptation of Hamlet is titled Der besträfte Brudermord (The Condemned Fratricide), which suggests Germany’s interest in the legalistic and thriller aspects of the tragedy, rather than the prince’s moral dilemma. Meanwhile, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s 2004 Arabic adaption is called The Al-Hamlet Summit, which comments on terrorism and contemporary politics in the Middle East.

The elasticity of Shakespeare’s narratives allow them to act as a vehicle for discussion of taboo or difficult subjects, which vary depending on the audience they’re geared towards.

For example, Western directors, translators and critics of The Merchant of Venice tend to zero in on the character Shylock, the ethics of conversion and the play’s religious tension.

But in East Asia, the play wears a completely different mask: Portia is its central character, the female emancipation movement its main concern. Meanwhile, Asia’s nascent capitalism looms. Again, the titles reflect a shifting focus. In China, it’s commonly called A Pound of Flesh, while a 1885 Japanese adaptation was dubbed The Season of Cherry Blossoms, the World of Money. Meanwhile, a 1927 Chinese silent film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice was titled The Woman Lawyer.

Eternal evolution

Over the past century, stage, film and television adaptations of Shakespeare have emerged in every corner of the globe. Audiences, in turn, have become both an outsider and insider – exposed to shifting styles and interpretations, but familiar with certain aspects of Shakespeare.

In 2014, Shakespeare was performed at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. It was the first ever professional Shakespearean performance in a Major League Baseball ballpark.
Brian Synder/Reuters

Shakespearean motifs and characters are found in popular shows like Star Trek, while stage productions utilize a wide range of styles (for example, physical theater companies like Synetic Theater) and languages (such as Klingon!).

Even in Britain, homegrown and touring companies have staged Shakespearean performances that may seem foreign to the sensibilities and linguistic repertoire of local audiences. Acclaimed directors such as Claus Peymann (Germany), Robert Lepage (Quebec) and Peter Sellars (US) have presented Shakespeare in styles borrowed from international theatrical traditions. They have also used multi-national casts, some of whom will speak in foreign languages on stage.

In 2014, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced a $2.4 million initiative to commission a new Mandarin translation of the Complete Works, setting an unprecedented example of a major translation of Shakespeare supported by British funds and led by a major British organization. The new translation will be part of a “global folio” of Shakespeare translations timed for the 400th anniversary of the First Folio.

Clearly, Shakespeare’s popularity and global appeal is only growing. And like any virus that adapts and changes to its host environment, the works of Shakespeare will continue to evolve into 21st century.

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True Detective, Breaking Bad – the simple truth about complexity

Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron, Griffith University

Nothing is produced in a cultural or social vacuum. All forms of representation intersect and interact with our contemporary world, whether we like it or not. This includes recently acclaimed television programs such as True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.

The fantasy elements of Game of Thrones enhance its images of a brutal world driven by the will to control. This is highly relevant when conflicts in pursuit of power – often underpinned by violence – continue to take place across the globe.

Medieval costuming, settings and magic may seem distant. Yet even Julia Gillard, a fan of the series, linked Game of Thrones to her impending doom as prime minister and the Rudd sword that would eventually slay her.

It is surprising, then, that Jason Jacobs’s recent Conversation article on Game of Thrones claims that social and political context has little if any bearing on its success. Instead, the show is elevated for resisting what he calls the tendency to exhibit “boutique contemporary issues”.

Gender inequality is offered as one example of an issue commonly woven into cultural narratives in a didactic manner. Setting aside his unsettling broad-brush treatment of contemporary feminism it is unfortunate that Jacobs conceives of discrimination as a “boutique” matter.

On the contrary, such collective problems demand critical inspection in cultural settings. Social content is something neither authors nor viewers can avoid. In the words of Duke University academic Fredric Jameson, we are each “condemned to history” in the inherent sociability of our lives.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
Courtesy of FOXTEL

Jacobs goes on to argue that Game of Thrones is the best form of entertainment chiefly because it avoids complexity. Such complexity – lauded in an earlier Conversation piece by Jason Mittell – is instead seen as largely negative in the programs Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

But complexity is not the same as complication. Narrative power is produced through sophisticated storytelling. This enables many perspectives to emerge and audience pleasure to be heightened. Moreover, without complexity there is no simplicity: each relies on the other for meaning.

In the same way as other aesthetic forms such as literature and painting, a quality television series can ask important ethical questions. This involves making compromising and morally messy decisions, because the world we live in is difficult and complex. Television that responds to the urgent need for self-questioning cannot be so easily written off as convoluted.

The myth of the cultural divide

Well written and produced programs such as House of Cards and The Wire provide levels of meaning accessible to some, though not necessarily to all. That does not mean that they are less worthy. On the contrary, what is revealed is a wide assortment of narratives that respond to a diversity of viewers.

Audiences are not a uniform mass of receivers interpreting televisual texts in the same way. We are a varied lot, an unpredictable array of individual consumers. Appeals to “entertainment” value may seem to renew the division between purportedly complex cultural artifacts of limited audience reach, and the allegedly modest, accessible-to-all variety – the old “high versus popular” debate.

Bryan Cranston as Walter and Aaron Paul as Jesse in Breaking Bad.
Courtesy of FOXTEL.

That argument is long dead. When Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks of being influenced by the The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing The Luminaries (2013), this only helps confirm the waning of any boundary between high and low culture. Reception can also change over time, with “difficult” art evolving into popular.

Television, once considered by many as the exclusive location of mostly worthless diversion, is home to much that may be seen as important art. Jacobs reasonably calls for judgements of taste to be a part of the academic’s critical arsenal. Yet his evident distaste for all matters contextual (social and historical) risks reviving a culture war that is a relic of the 20th century.

Further, raising a single television program above “most other contemporary cultural output” takes the process of cultural evaluation to an unhealthy level of precision. The almost infinite vista of cultural forms available to audiences in the 21st century – in television, film, music, literature, and elsewhere – surely demands more cautious language on the part of scholars and critics.

Generic complexity

There is no such thing as generic or aesthetic purity. Breaking Bad’s sharp indictment of US health care does not prevent moments of experimental fantasy. A cinematographic style that might at first appear incongruous can in fact tap into questions fundamental to our existence.

True Detective, arguably the most literary series of all, depicts an astonishingly dark realm of violence and despair. Its film noir elements, including ghostly crime scenes, exposes audiences to nightmarish gothic moments where the divisions between reality and fantasy begin to blur.

Genres are almost always intertwined, which means that all kinds of narratives adopt different styles of storytelling. These can be both escapist but also strangely familiar. What makes these contemporary television programs particularly successful is their ability to skirt the boundaries between simplicity and complexity, fantasy and reality.

See also:
Breathtaking television: why Game of Thrones leaves the rest behind

The Conversation

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Meeting a god: the diverse career of David Lynch on show at GOMA

Nick Prescott, Flinders University

Meeting a god is a forbidding prospect. For such a meeting, you need to be circumspect. You need to maintain a degree of elegance in the face of utter star-strike. And you need to be prepared to be surprised in all manner of ways. Not least by the fact that the deity in question, rather than being a firebreathing diva, might turn out to be generous and memorably warm.

Filmmaker and artist David Lynch has occupied a place in my Pantheon of Creators since I first saw Blue Velvet as a keen 16-year-old. He has continued to astonish, exhilarate and confront me in the intervening 20-plus years. At Between Two Worlds, the remarkable retrospective of Lynch’s work currently on show at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, I came tantalisingly close to meeting one of my idols. I only got to ask him one question in the end, but it was worth the wait.

1991 was perhaps the point at which Lynch’s star rose to its public peak. Twin Peaks was enjoying staggering worldwide popularity and Lynch had won the film world’s most coveted award, the Palme d’Or, for Wild at Heart.

Blue Velvet (1986) trailer.

As a filmmaker, painter, photographer, sculptor, writer, campaigner, and – most surprisingly, perhaps – musician, Lynch has since carved a unique niche in the art world as the most idiosyncratic and renowned artistic talent ever to have filmed a cigarette commercial.

Between Two Worlds comprises an extensive selection of the artist’s painting, photography and lithographs, accompanied by an intriguing collection of lesser-known drawings, sketches and sculptures.

David Lynch’s Boy Lights Fire, 2010.

Evening screenings of Lynch’s films at the GOMA are being complemented by documentaries about the artist, musical performances inspired by his work, and a series of lectures and discussions set to illuminate what’s adorning the walls and screens (there’s even a Twin Peaks quiz night).

This is a comprehensive series of events indeed, featuring contributions from scholars and devotees, fellow artists and art historians. It is a major exhibition by any gallery’s standards and a significant moment for the city of Brisbane – many of whose walls, walkways and bus-stops are adorned with images from the exhibition.

Fanboys and girls will be delighted by all of this, of course, but there’s far more going on in the GOMA events than just the display of a series of works created by a cultural icon.

Curator José da Silva’s work with this exhibition finds perhaps its greatest triumph in its powerful explanation of the connections between all of the elements of Lynch’s artistic output.

It is in poring over the exhibition that we see the way in which tiny, elaborate sketches on match books and napkins inform the designs for the larger paintings, and the ways in which the paintings bleed into and out of the works for the cinema.

The importance of sound in Lynch’s oeuvre is also reinforced by a comprehensive collection of film scores and other musical works. Here, too, one sees a complexly inter-related series of compositions and collaborations that form a substantial element of the artist’s output.

There is a unity of vision on display here that confirms Lynch as indeed a major artist. His work maintains a series of thematic fascinations and stylistic trademarks that render it strikingly coherent, despite its oft-discussed “strangeness” and its frequent centralising of the abstract.

David Lynch’s Man Waking from Dream, 2008.

The notion of abstraction has indeed characterised the long discussion surrounding the works of this influential man. A notable element of Lynch’s address to his own work is his consistent refusal to be pinned down to any comfortable – or even consistent – notion of “meaning”.

There are numerous recorded examples of interviewers presenting the artist with “interpretations” of his work, only to – usually very politely – have these interpretations contradicted or juxtaposed with Lynch’s own alluringly ambiguous descriptions of process and intention.

During my yearned-for chance to pose a question to Lynch, I learned what it was like to have one’s carefully-composed proposition refuted.

I have long held that there are lucid connections between the profound affect Lynch’s works evoke in the viewer and the experience of dream. I asked him whether his work represented a way for him to share his dreams with an audience; the answer was no – though the gentle rebuttal was followed by a fascinating rumination on ideas of dream-logic, discontinuities, and the very sources of ideas, many of which Lynch claims to find through a kind of waking dreaming.

The response to my question was thus more intriguing than I had anticipated, even though it began with negation.

David Lynch remains, in every way, the genuine artefact: attentive and serious in response to questions, warm and generous in a brief meeting, and dedicated to an ongoing and expansive body of works.

Da Silva’s beautifully curated exhibition serves to reinforce these notions in the most memorable of ways.

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is hosting the exhibition David Lynch: Between Two Worlds until June 7. Details here.

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Already watched the first four GoT episodes? You’ve failed

Ruth Alexandra Liston, University of Melbourne

Game of Thrones returned to our screens on Monday, and faster than you could say Daenerys Targaryen, eager fans had either watched the first episode via their legitimate cable subscription, or taken to the illegal file-sharing sites to nab their copy. By 5pm, just under 150,000 downloads had been logged, making Australia the fourth biggest torrenting nation in the world for the show.

For the new season, however, the gods of Westeros had something a little extra in store for the nation’s pirating hordes. Illegal downloaders soon discovered that not one but four episodes were ready and waiting on torrent sites, the result of a leaked DVD “screener” which was sent to reviewers in advance.

No doubt this was a real kick in the wallet for legitimate cable subscribing fans, who must chose to either remain above the law and work hard to avoid spoilers for the next three weeks, or dabble in the dark arts of file sharing to keep up.

For many less scrupulous folks this release was no doubt akin to stumbling across a stash of unguarded Lannister gold. In an era of box sets and binge watching, the patience required to wait for a weekly instalment can often be overwhelming. The sweet relief of instant gratification – even if it means no new episodes for three weeks – may be too much to resist.

To others, though, the availability of these extra episodes presents a different kind of quandary. The serialised nature of the show means that for many Monday has become “Game of Thrones Night”, a ritual which brings families, flatmates, partners and friends together to experience the most thrilling, engaging and often shocking drama on television today.

Even more brilliantly, each new episode is preceded by days of mounting anticipation and followed up with analysis and in-jokes that engender a real sense of shared connection on social media and in offices, universities, cafes, shops and bars across the country.

Watching the first four episodes might be satisfying in the short-term, but the price is the temporary loss of that communal social experience.

The Marshmallow Test.

This dilemma – to consume immediately or to delay gratification for greater reward – brings to mind the famous oft-replicated marshmallow test. Beginning in the late 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel and his team gave pre-schoolers a fiendishly simple, yet enormously revealing, test of their self-control.

Children were seated at a table in a stimulus-free room and presented with marshmallows or other treats.

The deal was that the children could choose to eat one straight away, or wait until the researcher returned after up to 20 minutes and be rewarded with two marshmallows. The children would then be left alone with the marshmallows and a bell.

Ringing the bell would bring the researcher back and allow them to eat a single marshmallow, but waiting until the researcher returned of their own volition would mean double the reward.

While the tests had initially been designed to measure at what age the human ability for delayed gratification developed, years later the researchers discovered a much more important result: as adults, those children who could resist the temptation longer did better on their college admission SATs, had higher self-worth and lower drug use as adults, and were less likely to be overweight.

You’ve had your fun – there’s no point complaining now.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

Certainly a debate continued over what it was that led to greater willpower, with studies variously suggesting a relationship to parenting, beliefs about the reliability of the world around them, an ability to find ways to distract themselves in an empty room, or just pure grit. But the fact remains that however they managed to do it those skills or innate qualities led to more benefits in later life.

It would be a stretch to suggest that those who have already downloaded and watched the first four episodes of Game of Thrones would have failed the marshmallow test. And there are other factors at play here – the concern about spoilers being a not-inconsiderable one.

At the very least, the marshmallow test should remind us of the benefits of a developed ability to delay gratification, to postpone short-term satisfaction for richer reward.

In an era of Netflix, Spotify and their less legitimate counterparts, where we rarely have to wait too long to get our hands on the next big thing in entertainment, the pleasure of the increasingly rare shared social experience of the weekly instalment is worth the wait.

And there’s nothing to stop you from eating as many marshmallows as you like while you watch.

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Avengers battle Ultron for world peace

The lucrative Avengers franchise is back with the first of the season’s family block-busters. This time, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and the Black Widow love up to battle the evil Ultron and save the world. Joss Whedon returned as the writer and director, and says the characters are all fully-rounded: “Everything in this movie… Continue reading