There are three topics that save literary editors from unemployment, or worse, demotion to the obituaries department:
a) running commentary on the freshest literary feuds
b) book reviews, and
c) febrile eulogies on the anniversaries of great, late writers
Recent years have witnessed a sad decline in the revered tradition of the literary spat and the public’s appetite for books is also waning. In consequence, we are often left with authors’ anniversaries. Writing about the dead is, of course, the province of the obituaries department. Editors’ worst fears have been indirectly realised. Perhaps the unending discussion about the 'death of the novel' is attributable to the essentially morbid nature of literary journalism.
2014 is, however, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I am not overly roused by literary retrospectives (as if round numbers bring great books to the boil!), and would not add to the ample press coverage of the bard’s festivities, if it were not of certain relevance to Taiwan.
Until a few months ago, I was employed as an assistant in the local representation of Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture in the UK. The duties of this post were so vague as to escape adequate definition, but it may suffice to note that mornings began with an office brew of Alishan tea and a leisurely hour or two browsing through the litany of criticism directed at the Minister of Culture, Long Ying-tai. On one such morning, my reading was prematurely interrupted by an email forwarded from the Globe in London.
“The Globe is a recreation of an early Jacobean theatre, seated on the banks of the Thames. Its open-air stalls and ‘in-the-round’ layout were designed to simulate the environment in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged.”
When I was fourteen I caught the flu after standing through their production of King Lear in the freezing winter rain. Preparations were now, apparently, underway to celebrate the anniversary by presenting a production of Hamlet in every country in the world. The tour was to last a heroic two years in length, and constitute an unprecedented feat in theatre history. The organisers, so the email concluded, were contacting our office to inquire about the best location for a performance in Taiwan.
Rinsing my mouth with another swill of Alishan, I reflected on the Globe’s talent for international promotion. Only a few years previously, they had staged thirty-seven plays in thirty-seven languages, all within the space of six weeks. A classmate of mine went to see Richard III in Mandarin, and spent the next few days chanting the memorable line 一匹馬，一匹馬，用我的王國換一匹馬 throughout the faculty. Taking Hamlet to over 200 countries, however, was an order of such magnitude that I was thrown into abstraction as to how they would celebrate the half millennium of Shakespeare’s birth in 2064; a production of Macbeth on the moon, perhaps?
Casting idle reveries aside, I cleared my desk for an uncommon burst of industry.
“The organizers had been clear that the venue, while accommodating a large audience, should also reflect Taiwanese history and culture, lending a degree of local flavour to the production.”
Most of the Taiwanese theatres that I knew of were unsuitable in this respect. Even the national theatre, which has the merit of a gabled roof, is not authentically historic. The island has many winning points, but a rich fund of ancient structures is not among them.
That evening, I read Hamlet for the first time in ten years. While recharging my vocabulary with potent archaisms, I also gleaned some ideas about potential stage settings. Battlements, in one form or other, would be needed for Hamlet to spot the ghost of his father on. A water feature for Ophelia to drown in would, of course, be an added bonus. With stone turrets in mind, I returned to my desk the next morning to conduct research on Taiwan’s historical defenses. To my pleasant surprise, my investigation yielded abundant fruit.
The first candidate was Fort Santo Domingo紅毛城, in Tam-sui. Built in 1628, this structure was not only nearly as old as Shakespeare, but served as the British trade consulate in Taiwan for over one hundred years. No location could be more representative of the historic ties between the UK and Taiwan. My only reservation was that, though equipped with the prerequisite battlements, it fell short on space for audience.
The second candidate was not chosen so much for the merits of its architecture, but for certain parallels between its history and the story of Hamlet. Fort Zeelandia 安平古堡 , built by the Dutch in 1624, is the oldest Fort in Taiwan. In 1661 it fell to the forces of Ming loyalist Zheng Cheng-gong. Shortly after, Zheng died, allegedly of malaria. There were suspicions, however, that he had been poisoned (just like Hamlets father). This, coupled with the incestuous relationship between Zheng’s son and his wet nurse (vis-à-vis the incest between Claudius and Gertrude), seemed to provide ample room for historical resonance.
The last location, the Eternal Golden Castle 億載金城, offered the best material conditions for staging the play. Built in 1874, it still had ample historical pedigree, while also boasting convincing battlements and plenty of audience space. Providence would have it that the ROC Representative in the London at the time, Shen Lyu-shun, is a direct descendant of the Qing official Shen Bao-zhen, who was responsible for the construction of the castle. In my lowly capacity as cultural assistant, I did not have much contact with the Representative, but every so often he would dictate speeches to me, correct my grammar and test my knowledge of Hollywood musicals. That evening, as I shimmered into his office with a document of minor importance, I considered asking his opinion on the staging of Hamlet, but the phone rang and his hand fluttered tremulously, sending me on my way.
The next day, I submitted the documents to my superior. There was news from the Minster that she wished the performance to take place in the new opera house in Taizhong. I’d long been perplexed as to why Taizhong would build an opera house when it had no opera company. Minister Long was clearly eager to fill seats that are destined to remain empty. Her zeal, however, was misplaced, as the futuristic design reveals nothing particular about Taiwan. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucratic organization will know that ideas, carefully conceived, have a strange way of disappearing in the mountains of paper that lie between a project and its execution. I never heard anything further from the Globe, though I see from their website that the time and location of the performance in Taiwan is still unconfirmed. Where will it take place? Will it happen at all? To be or not to be, that is the question!
本文收錄於英語島English Island 2015年1月號