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Xanthe Gresham: Telling Tales from the Shahnama

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

London-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler for Nowruz on March 8.

Arash Moradi and I are delighted to be returning to the Freer|Sackler with tales from the Shahnama (the Persian Book of Kings) for family audiences. It’s always a joy to be part of the museums’ annual Nowruz celebration. Revisiting these stories is like the deepening of a longstanding friendship: Each time we discover something new.

An epic poem consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnama took its author, Firdawsi, more than thirty years to complete. It is the longest poem to have been written by a single person.

According to legend, Firdawsi was supposed to be paid his weight in gold on the poem’s completion. While he was writing, however, a new shah was enthroned, and the poet was only offered his weight in silver. When the new shah finally read the magnificent poem, he was so overwhelmed by its skill and beauty that he rushed to bestow Firdawsi with the riches he was due. The shah was too late and only met the great poet’s hearse.

A heady mixture of tragedy and romance, the Shahnama piles up exquisite images and striking moments of truth and humanity. We can only scratch at the surface of this remarkable narrative, but what a rich surface it is!

On Saturday, March 8, Arash and I will perform three sets of tales:

12 pm: the story of Creation and the Demons, followed by the stories of Jamshed and Zahak

2 pm: the stories of Sam, Zal, and Rustam

4 pm: the tale of Sohrab, Rustam, Bizan, and Manijer

We hope to see you there!

See the day’s schedule of events. Follow the conversation at hashtag #nowruz.

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“The Bad Sleep Well”: How “Hamlet” Is It?

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

“The Bad Sleep Well” by Akira Kurosawa

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.

Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.

Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.

For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.

Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.

The Bad Sleep Well will be shown on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
Throne of Blood will be shown on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

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And the Academy Award for Best Actor Goes To …

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, Edo period, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.122

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, 1822, The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.259

… the Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo, of course! Utaemon was a major star of the Osaka kabuki stage, but he also performed in Edo. His visits to both cities created great excitement and intensified his rivalries with other star actors, notably Arashi Kichisaburo in Osaka and Bando Mitsugoro III in Edo. Here, a close-up portrait by the Osaka artist Hokushu conveys Utaemon’s projection of strength and determination as the character Kato Masakiyo, also known as Kato Kiyomasa, a symbol of loyalty in the face of lethal treachery. The print commemorates a performance at the Kado Theater in Osaka in 1820. A poem, a common feature of Osaka prints, is inscribed above the actor’s head. It reads: Kiyomasa is the moon shining on the world at midday: an art of piercing insight. Translation of poem by Roger S. Keyes (Roger S. Keyes and Keiko Mizushima, The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973)

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