Monday, 29 July 2013

An Enchanting Day at the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, 2013

I had the privilege to spend a long day (13th July, 2013) at the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, Hungary. It was an enchanting day due to three absolutely great programmes I could attend: a mini-conference focusing on Shakespeare’s monologues in general and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in particular; Steven Berkoff’s solo performance about Shakespeare’s villains; and lastly a Measure for Measure in the Castle Theatre. All these programmes proved to be special in their kind, giving inspiration and food for thought since then.

The most interesting aspect of the mini-conference was what may be called its multidisciplinary approach, as the participant came from a variety of walks of (intellectual) life. The eight people who gave a talk at the conference included an actor, Steven Berkoff, directors, Csaba Kiss, Yuriy Butusov, Emil Boroghina, and from the academia Maria Shevtsova, Ádám Nádasdy, Gabriella Reuss and myself. I am not claiming that there was much communication between the disciplines and approaches, but at least many representatives of the fields of Shakespeare’s reception were together and could listen to each others’ talks and hopefully learned from each other—I learned a lot at least.

After the conference and some rest we could watch Steven Berkoff’s performance, representation and interpretation of Shakespeare’s most notable villains. The list included Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet (yes, Hamlet was also included, for being “a serial killer”). Although the villains were in the thematic focus of the performance, yet through and with them we saw the stage and the screen of Shakespearean performances, great actors with Berkoff’s eyes. Or more precisely the focus was on MAN, and indeed with capital letters: the mediocre, the fallible, the fallen, the happy, the frustrated and jealous MAN, who is there everywhere, over there and in here. It was professional skillfulness, self-indulgence and self-irony that made this performance memorable and enchanting.

The greatest surprise of the day was Measure for Measure by the Vahtangov Theatre, Russia. The performance cannot be unknown to the English audience, as it was staged during the 2012 London Globe World Festival. This very performance at Gyula really made my day, as this production was one of the very few theatrical performances that was composed and directed in an innovative and creative way, where from the large picture to every little movement was worked out and measured with a coffee spoon. The stage was located within the walls of the Castle, which created a special atmosphere for the production. The stage was surrounded by the high solemn brick walls of the Castle. These walls towering above the stage created the atmosphere of a suffocating area, a prison from where there is no escape. Or if there was some room for escape that was only upwards, as the stage was not roofed, which circumstance made Isabella’s prayers all the more powerful, credible and even moving.

I found the repetitions and doubling fantastic, when complete scenes were repeated during the performance. The most powerful repetitions were those of the opening and closing scenes where the same characters and the same litter filled the stage including the Duke’s immovable eternity, Mistress Overdone’s eroticism, the chaos of the Viennese people, the painful loneliness of the characters with the exception of Claudio and Juliet who represented through their dance some unity and harmony. Also the seduction scenes imitated each other with the long row of tables to separate Isabella and Angelo for the first time and Isabella and the Duke for the second. The initial separation was in both cases overcome by the aggression of chasing and catching and pinning Isabella to a table. Doubling was also really thought-provoking.

Besides the general features of the performance I was also enchanted by the skill and refinement of the actors, especially those of Evgeniya Kregzde (Isabella) and Sergey Epishev (Duke/Angelo). Evgeniya Kregzde’s Isabella was the most innocent, incredibly unhappy Isabella I have ever seen. In this production the question was not whether she is to be raped or not, but here the rape was an unavoidable fact, the question was rather who would rape her, when and where and how many times. Under these painful circumstances Kregzde could remain innocent with her adolescent eagerness to find her place in Vienna, looking for and accepting love. Especially her scene with her brother in the prison was most natural, the playful chasing of each other, the long brotherly embraces made us believe that they were really a loving brother and sister. Her small teenage stature was played upon really thoughtfully when during her first encounter with Angelo she was blown by the provost and Lucio, and she was running up and down like a feather, a butterfly energized and influenced by the male characters. Even here, she could avoid being seen as a lightweight woman, a butterfly of the night, the frail woman, but remained with her dance-like tiptoeing back and forth a woman who was both reluctant and eager to plead, who intends to remain herself even under the pressure of the unwelcoming circumstances. Kregzhde could represent through her refined and thought-over acting style the mystery of a woman, the irresistible attraction that does not emanate from hot eroticism but from charismatic innocence.

In her presence both Angelo and the Duke lost control, which was acted out with utmost precision by Sergey Epishev. What Epishev’s acting pointed out was that Angelo and the Duke were both dangerous men, dangerous but in different ways. Angelo seemed to be dangerous because of his repressed frustration that surfaced in his mania for order in the smallest details. This display of repression appeared when meeting Isabella, in his uncontrollable shaking which turned into an iconic long and mute shriek that he kept until he staggered backwards throughout the whole stage. The danger in his Duke was rather the danger of the cunning, indifferent man of power for example when dressed as a monk, he played with heads as if they did not belong to living human beings, when he did nothing in the midst of chaos, aggression and filth of his dukedom, when he arranged the tables in the same way as Angelo had done and chased Isabella and nailed her down like Angelo. Epishev with his superb skills brought out form his characters what was the most frightening in them with incredible subtlety.

So if I say I was enchanted that very day in Gyula, there is not much exaggeration in this. The conference, the two performances opened worlds to me that I still fight to digest. And for this enchantment I owe many thanks to the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, the conference speakers, the actors and directors of the performances and ultimate organizer of the Festival, József Gedeon. So, I can hardly wait for the enchantment that is to come next year! Are you going to join me?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Happy Birthday, Will Shakespeare!

It was a beautiful and hot afternoon in June, 2012 when the idea of re-establishing the Hungarian Shakespeare Society was conceived. The narrative about the conception and what has followed from it is the topic of this blog post, which in turn is my contribution to the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday (#hbws) in the blogosphere.

On that beautiful and hot afternoon I was writing a paper in my office, and as always Twitter messages kept popping up—a peaceful afternoon indeed. I was just about to fall asleep, a post-lunch biorhythmic problem so to say, when a Direct Message from Stanley Wells woke me up. Kindly he asked if we were going to meet in Gyula, Hungary at the annual Shakespeare Festival where he was an invited guest. As the office happened to be in the US, at the University of Notre Dame, where I was fortunate enough to act as a visiting fellow, I had to respond that it was rather unlikely that I could make it.

Having agreed on this, he—by the way—asked which one of his books I think should be translated into Hungarian, as the organizers of the Festival could have it translated. I was about to respond with a book title when it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to practice what I preach, i.e. the power of collaboration. So instead of sending the DM immediately, I sent a circular out to a dozen Hungarian colleagues to enquire about their opinion. I thought that a day-or-two delay would cause no problem. To my greatest surprise after two hours emails started pouring in, and five hours later my fellow Shakespeareans from all over Hungary voted for a book, so my task lay in channelling the winner back to Stanley Wells.

Now, four considerations followed from this chain of events. First, there exists a sense of belonging to each other among Hungarian Shakespeare scholars. Second, it is worth asking about the opinions of others, because together we are cleverer and wiser—the title I sent over to Prof. Wells was not the one I voted for. Three, modern technology can be deployed to overcome distance: inspiration came via Twitter and the rest could be solved through email. Four, all of us proved to be enthusiastic about forming general opinion, or, in other words, shape Shakespeare’s Hungarian cult, as the choice was made with an eye on what the reading public may need.

These four considerations formed the premises for a conclusion: this collaboration and belonging together may well be institutionalized. Not pondering too much, when letting my colleagues know about the winner of the poll, I also asked a further question about re-establishing the Hungarian Shakespeare Society. Actually, I was not really surprised at the fast and enthusiastic responses. The idea, thus, was in the air before asking it, but somebody had to phrase the timely question.

This way there began the meditation about organizing the Society, which took some time. We pondered about what the aim of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society should be, what kind of an institutional structure would foster this aim. Many emails were sent around, many Google spreadsheets were filled, analyzed by the time the new Hungarian Shakespeare Society could elect a president and a steering committee, could decide on what the Society should do, who should be involved and why. This time of thinking, brainstorming and discussions proved not only fruitful but joyful as well, scholarly friendships came into being and old ones got stronger, so this phase was really beneficial. As a result, eight months later, on 26 January, 2013 during the biannual conference of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English we could announce the (re)establishment of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society.

The identity of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society was fashioned with an eye on the previous ones, as there had already been three. The first HSS came into being in 1860 as a project committee overseeing the translation of Shakespeare’s works into Hungarian. This committee worked within the Kisfaludy Society, and the head of the committee was János Arany, poet and Shakespeare translator. When the committee ran out of money, it slowly dissolved. The next Hungarian Shakespeare Society came into being at the beginning of the 20th century to help the study of Shakespeare, e.g. a Shakespeare Library section was founded in the University Library at Budapest. After decades of silence HSS no. 3 was founded by Tibor Fabiny and late István Géher. The objective then was the inclusion of the theatre and fostering foreign cooperation. The years of political changes in the 1990’s, however, brought an end to this Hungarian Shakespeare Society.

The new, i.e. no. 4 Hungarian Shakespeare Society learned from the previous ones and took four steps forward. The present HSS keeps the objectives of its predecessors insofar as it fosters research, communication among scholars, theatre people and translators. In contrast, however, with the previous ones the present Hungarian Shakespeare Society has opened its gates to another stakeholder in the Hungarian Shakespeare reception, namely secondary schools. Also we have tried to balance Budapest centeredness, and have made use of digital technology, such as mailing lists, a website and a Facebook page were created. We organize public lectures twice a term, the first was by Prof. György Endre Szőnyi about filmic versions of Henry V, the second is due on 10 May and József Gedeon will talk about the history of Gyula Shakespeare Festival that he organizes with great success. We have also announced a blog post writing competition. Furthermore we have plans about books to be written and creating a database for the Hungarian translations of Shakespeare’s plays to help theatre people and translators.

So, Will Shakespeare, on behalf of the new Hungarian Shakespeare Society let me wish you a happy birthday! And if your followers come to Hungary, tell them that the Hungarian Shakespeare Society will be happy to provide the opportunity for them to give a talk to your Hungarian followers.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The materiality of a digital edition

In what sense can one talk about the materiality of a digital edition? This question sounds rather odd, as a digital edition, a digital text does not have, is not constituted by matter in the straightforward and simple manner. A digital text is processed through electronic, digital signs, i.e. signs that can hardly have tangible physical qualities. And if they had, to what extant would they be relevant for the reading of a text? In this sense, thus, the question addressing the materiality of the digital text sounds erroneous. Hopefully, there is more to this question, however, than mere refusal.

In a more pragmatic context the question may well make sense. Materiality can be conceptualized not only as an ontological category but rather as a category that is deployed for the sake of exploring layers of meaning constituted by the container and carrier of the linguistic aspect of a text or an edition. This seems to be a viable solution, as when the materiality of a printed text is referred to in the context of literary studies most of the time it is used in a pragmatic manner. Materiality in this pragmatic context denotes the sum of those qualities of a book that influence the reading process and thus the construction of meaning beyond the linguistic aspect of a work. Without believing that the forthcoming list may be comprehensive, these qualities include the size of the book, the binding, the quality and size of the paper, the letter size and typeset, the width of the margins, decoration, marginalia. This pragmatic concept of materiality, i.e. an exploration of a list of qualities and features that influence the reading process can be applied directly and indirectly to a digital edition as well.

In the case of a digital edition there is clearly a visual aspect that influences the reading process in a more flexible way than in the case of a printed book. In a digital edition the text is made up of letters that have visual qualities that can be anchored in size and type, these letters fill the “page” so even here one may meditate about space between the letters, lines, about the width of margins. Nevertheless, in some cases, depending on the encoding of the edition and on the file format these qualities can be changed by the customer, or reader: the type, the size can be open to modification, one can zoom in or out in certain cases, one can read the text on the screen of a laptop, a tablet pc or on a smartphone qualifying the physical, visual aspect of the edition. All these are there for the sake of influencing the reading process, as much as in the case of a printed book, although in a different manner. But what seems relevant is that it is only the manner that has changed and not the extralinguistic means: they are present but in a different way.

Another aspect that influences the reading process is the way the digital edition can be “read.”A digital edition can be read as a book, i.e. in a linear manner. Also a digital edition can be read in two nonlinear ways. First, as a hypertext through clicking in diverse directions enriching the reading experience in a way that the sequence of the parts of the reading material is created during the act of reading itself. Second, digital reading involves machine reading, that is making sense through queries, exploring algorithmic patterns and a variety of visualizing techniques. Furthermore, it is also relevant in the case of a digital edition what kind of colours, shapes and frames surround the text itself, what kind of note-taking techniques can be applied, how one may share these findings, notes, observations if it is a web-based edition. All these possibilities, opportunities, tools and methods influence the act of making sense of a digital edition beyond the strictly speaking linguistic aspect of a digital text. And thus all these contribute to the process of the construction of meaning, the signifying process of a say literary work.

A further aspect of the change from print to digital that contributes to the understanding of digital materiality concerns the shift from the fixed to what Hayes terms as procedural. A printed text through its materiality is present for anybody almost objectively. This material fixity is constituted by the technology of printing: if a work is published the result is there for a long time, and in a way that was constructed by the publisher, printer. Along with this every modification to the book—pages torn out, damaged, written on it—will be seen as either contribution to the signifying process or as corruption. In the case of a digital edition, however, what matters is the ever-changing quality of the visual appearance of the work.  What lies behind what is perceived is a series--complicated though—of digits. This series then is translated with certain software into different signs that are interpreted by further programmes; the results are further made readable for other programmes until the desired effect is reached. Because of the great number of translations, and the number of programmes that make these translations there is a heightened effect of fluidity in the case of these digital editions.

This fluidity is further complicated by the fact that the process of translations takes place not only once and for all but every time the digital edition is opened. To account for the fluid aspect of a digital edition it is also to be added that the hardware that underlies these procedures also influences the reading process, insofar as the speed and resolution of the visual effect are concerned. In this respect what counts are the quality of the processor, of the hard drive, the graphic card, maybe the internet connection and the quality of the monitor. All these result in such a diversity of the possibilities of difference that instead of the discourse of fixity and corruption it is only the procedural quality that one can meditate about. This lack of fixity is part of the material aspect of a digital edition.

Thus, it seems to me that exploring the materiality of a particular digital text is not entirely futile. In this respect it is not the traditional physical quality that is at stake but rather whatever there is from coding to hardware that influences the reading process besides the linguistic aspect of a text.