In 1940 the Russian actor Boris Livanov, who was rehearsing with Stanislavsky, was approached at a plush reception by a man who asked, “What is the Moscow Art Theatre working on these days?”
He replied: “Hamlet.”
“But Hamlet is weak.”
And after those five words Ivanov knew the production would never open. For he was talking to Stalin.
Stalin detested this play. He saw Hamlet as the epitome of both indecision and dissent and no doubt recognised himself in the avuncular murderer Claudius: “Denmark’s a prison.” Ivanov knew perfectly what Stalin’s smile concealed: a year earlier the great director Meyerhold, who was planning to stage Hamlet as the summation of his life’s work, was arrested and executed on invented charges and his actress wife was brutally murdered in their home. In a totalitarian climate of terror, five words were sufficient to silence a play.
So the tragedy disappeared from Soviet stages for decades. When Stalin died, Hamlets sprang up everywhere – Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who starred in the great Russian film version (1964), had been a prisoner in the Gulag – but soon paranoia reasserted itself.
1968, the year when theatre censorship ended in the UK, was of course also the year of student protests from Paris to Chicago. Here were young people united – however diverse the local issues that lit the fire – by their refusal to accept the logic of the divided Cold War world. And in Warsaw, as it happens, they marched to defend a play.
In January ’68 a production of the nineteenth-century Polish classic Dziady (Forefathers Eve) was closed down by order of the Communist government because the play’s passionate condemnation of Tsarist tyranny seemed dangerously up to date. When the curtain fell on the last night, the packed audience processed from the National Theatre towards the statue of the author, Adam Mickiewicz – “Banning Mickiewicz in Poland is like banning Shakespeare in Britain”, one of the student leaders recalled recently: it was “the intellectuals’ revolt against the dictatorship.” They were attacked and beaten by the riot police. Protests continued across the whole country, outdone by increasingly brutal repression. In that time and place, theatre mattered.
If Denmark’s a prison, Hamlet is a political prism. A few months later, a production in the Polish provincial city Lublin restaged the ’68 events via Shakespeare. Now Hamlet in jeans and a black sweater was beaten up after his play by the paramilitaries of a medieval police state. He struggled in a culture of spies to establish whom to trust, but he would not keep silent.
And theatres in Eastern Europe would continue to use Shakespeare to smuggle protest under the radar for the next twenty-one years.
In country after country visual codes, symbols, allegories and allusions evolved and subtle nuances of translation were finessed so that the plays’ subversive potential was difficult to pinpoint but impossible to squash. When the Romanian actor Ion Caramitru tried to stage Hamlet, the censors blocked it because the translation was too “modern” and the project provocative. But Caramitru appealed against the decision: “You can’t stop Shakespeare,” he argued, “or at least you can’t be seen to. The whole world will laugh at you.” The tactic worked, the myth of Shakespeare has become so massive and so global that his plays are – almost – censor-proof. In 1989, when the revolution began in Romania, protestors asked Caramitru to lead them to the television station. It was the man who played Hamlet who broadcast the message, ‘Join us’ to the nation.
Is a regime’s best solution, then, to ban not slippery texts but flesh and blood actors?
Back to 1968. After Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to suppress ‘Socialism with a human face’, thousands of citizens were forced to denounce their own beliefs. Because the eminent actress Vera Chramostova refused to do, so she disappeared from theatre and t.v.. But in the little Prague flat where she now lived by making lampshades, she and her husband created the now-legendary “Living-room Theatre’, where small groups met to attend performances – or, as the State called them, ‘unauthorized assemblies‘ – until the police arrived. And so in 1978 five people – two once-professional actors, a cleaner, a singer, and the playwright Pavel Kohout – performed Macbeth to audiences of two dozen at a time. As the indispensable Index on Censorship reported, this clandestine enactment of Macbeth’s seizure of power urged one spectator to redefine the meaning of theatre: “It is an arena where we go to assert our freedom”. Or as Vera Chramostova herself put it modestly, theatre is “a cripple’s crutch, enabling him to walk.”
History teaches that a truly determined censorship must ban the play, imprison or exile the performers, criminalise the spectators – and undermine language itself.
All this happened in the case of the Belarus Free Theatre, whose criticism of life under Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator”, made life impossible for them in Belarus. When they were invited to play King Lear in London as part of the Globe to Globe festival in the Olympic year 2012, they accepted because they would be representing the country from which they were excluded and speaking Shakespeare in Belarussian, the language stigmatized by the regime. The Arts Desk rightly called it “One of the greatest productions of King Lear London has ever seen”; and much more significantly, perhaps, it was seen by people in Belarus itself in 2013, live-streamed from the Globe.
With the aid of technology, drama can cross borders as never before, reach beyond time and place. Even though fewer than four hundred people ever saw that living-room Macbeth in Prague (there were just seventeen performances), it was secretly filmed, televised in Western Europe, and discussed around the world. And today we have social media – it needn’t all be fake news. Hamlet says theatre is a mirror up to nature, showing the “form and pressure” of the time; well, history shows us that international opinion can apply “pressure” too.
But we must not be naïve.
In 2012 Shakespeare Must Die, a film adaptation of Macbeth by Ing Kanjanavanit, was banned by the Thai Government. Allegedly its portrait of political corruption and crushed student protest “causes disunity among the people of the nation”. Thanks to social media, I was able to show Shakespeare Must Die in England and wrote at the time that this case “proves, ironically, that in the internet age there is no better way of bringing a State into disrepute than by attempting to imprison art.” Last year, Thai courts upheld the ban.
It’s a matter of time.
Professor Tony Howard (University of Warwick) has written three drama-documentaries on the history of multicultural Shakespearean acting in Britain and America. Howard’s Ira Aldridge documentary was given a reading in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2017. On 5 July 2018, he will be on the panel of Shakespeare Under the Radar.