BLOG # 1
January 10, 2023
Latinx Shakespeares in the United Kingdom
Latinx describes people living in the United States who are descended from Spanish colonization. Comprising more than 18% of the U.S. population, the representation onstage and inclusion backstage and offstage in US media, theatre, and film is disproportionately low to the demography. I argue in Latinx Shakespeares that Latinx-themed Shakespeare productions (such as West Side Story) began at the same time as the nascent ethnic category of Hispanic/Latinx came into the cultural lexicon and consciousness and decades earlier to Hispanic/Latinx becoming an official category of identity by the government (it only becomes so in 1980).
I have never expected that the United Kingdom, a country that is only about 0.03% Latin American (185,000 out of 68 million), to stage Latinx or Latin American-themed Shakespearean productions. Of that population, most Latin Americans in the UK live in London, which is estimated to be about 1.6% Latin American (140,000 out of 9.5 million). These numbers are likely understated, as the UK Census does not have Latin American, Latinx, or Hispanic as an ethnic group. The Latin American population is fast-growing, with those from Brazil (which is Portuguese-dominant) as the largest national group. This means that a theatricalization of Latinx or Latin American cultures would most likely not include, or be instigated by, those who are of, or familiar with, these cultures.
The RSC, The National, and other large theaters have staged Spanish Golden Age and Spanish Golden Age-inspired (see the RSC’s 2011 Cardenio and their 2016 Don Quixote) plays consistently from the 1980s through the last decade, often with a British/Shakespearean dramaturgy. Their earliest was Laurence Boswell’s 1983 staging of Lope de Vega’s Justice Without Revenge, followed by four more Golden Age plays through 2001 and later Boswell’s 2004-05 Spanish Golden Age season. The RSC has staged only one play by a Latin American in its more than sixty-year history, their 1967 production of The Criminals by Cuban playwright and poet José Triana (dir. Terry Hands). It was translated by Pablo Armando Fernandez and Michael Kustow and adapted by Adrian Mitchell. It was also the first play by a Cuban playwright performed in the UK.
As for Latinx Shakespeares, in 2006, Marianne Elliott directed a Much Ado About Nothing set in 1950 pre-revolutionary Cuba for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Edward Hall’s all-male company, Propeller, staged a production of The Comedy of Errors in 2011 at theaters through the UK that later toured to the United States at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). It had a tourist-Mexican setting with mariachi medleys and actors in sombreros. While British critics wrote about the Madonna music played at the interval, it was only when it toured to New York and it was reviewed by American critics did the south-of-the-border concept setting, and its problematic tropes, get a mention in the mainstream press.
Also in 2011, Sonia Friedman Productions produced a Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London that reset the action in Gibraltar, with the West Side Story effect of creating division between the servants (Margaret, Ursula, and Balthazar) as Spanish and the rest of the characters as British.
The 2012 Globe-To-Globe Festival (G2G) and World Shakespeare Festival WSF) saw Latin Americans on The Globe and RSC stages. Henry IV, Part I was performed by Mexican company la Compañia Nacional de Teatro in Mexican Spanish. It was translated by Alfredo Michel Modenessi, adapted by Hugo Arrevillaga, and directed by José Ramón Enríquez. Henry IV, Part II was performed by Argentine company Elkafka Espacio Teatral. It was translated and adapted by Lautaro Vilo and directed by Rubén Szuchmacher. Henry VIII was performed by Rakatá / Fundación de Siglo de Oro in Castilian Spanish, adapted by Jose Padilla, Ernesto Arias, Rafael Díez Labín and directed by Arias.
During the summer of 2012, I saw the WSF production of West Side Story at the Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, on the Fourth of July. Director Will Tuckett wanted to remove the specificity of the setting, which worked against the premise of the show. The final shot that kills Tony was made by a percussion instrument, which caused several audience members to laugh, some actors were hard to hear due to microphone challenges, and the actor playing Action had lost his voice, so he danced and performed onstage while an actor offstage spoke his lines. Despite these acoustic challenges, the Sage Gateshead, which had opened less than eight years earlier, is home of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the sound of the internationally famous score played by the symphony was the clearest and most moving version I have ever heard.
That same summer, I saw A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs by Luis Mario Moncada (translation by Gary Owen, from a literal translation by Simon Scarfield), a co-production between the Compañia Nacional de Teatro de México and the RSC. Part of the WSF, actors from both companies performed multiples roles in this 14th/15th century history play that spanned more than one hundred years and was inspired by the Henry VI triology. Most notable were the detailed and colorful Indigenous costumes and the live musicians.
Also part of the WSF were Two Roses for Richard III performed in Portuguese by Brazilian company, la Companhia BufoMecánica, and Companhia BufoMecánica performer, Renato Rocha, directed The Dark Side of Love with a teen cast as a Roundhouse/LIFT production.
The 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe in London was set during the Mexican Revolution, and much like Propeller’s dramaturgy six years earlier, director Matthew Dunster incorporated tropes, sombreros, bright clothing, and mariachi music, without attention to how they produce and reinforce stereotypes. For a thorough analysis, see Alfredo Michel Modenessi’s essay here.
CARLA DELLA GATTA