The Sheilah Winn Shakespeare festival is a popular event, with more than 120,000 high school students from more than half the country’s secondary schools having participated in the festival since it began some thirty years one. One former participant is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. But Creative NZ have decided not to continue funding the festival because Shakespeare's work has been judged to be a 'canon of imperialism'.
IT'S UNLIKELY that the present inhabitants of Creative New Zealand would have approved any funding for The Maori Merchant of Venice. Released in 2002, directed by Don Selwyn and based on a Maori translation produced by Pei Te Hurinui Jones in 1945, it would have probably received the same cold shoulder that the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare festival has received. It too would have had any application of funding rejected on the grounds that it was a propaganda vehicle for 'imperialism' and would have been have been questioned for how ' a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond.'
But in 2002, of course, cancel culture and identity politics were yet to stake their claims on the minds of middle class liberals like those who inhabit Creative NZ. In 2022 however the Commissars of Culture, some of them on salaries of more than $100,000, think it is entirely appropiate for them to tell us, who remain 'unlightened', what our culture is or isn't. That raises all kind of interesting questions. Is Shortland Street part of our culture? What about Fboy Island?
Back in the days of cuddly old Uncle Joe Stalin, the national culture of the Soviet Union was enforced on the basis that the arts should serve the political and social ideals of the Stalinist state. It was also a means to suppress alternative views. It became known as Socialist Realism.
While we are a long way from having an officially approved national culture we're not that so far away if a political environment has been encouraged by the Labour Government that allows Creative NZ to think it's entitled to defund a thirty year old high school Shakespeare festival because it doesn't measure up to what it considers to be part of our so-called 'emerging culture'. Of course, Creative NZ has also decided what that 'emerging culture' is as well.
The absurdity of this view is such that it actively seeks to delegitimise the work of the man widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. In the bizarre view of Creative NZ, Shakespeare's body of work, which includes some of the greatest plays ever written, is nothing more than than a 'canon of imperialism'. This, in itself, is a nonsensical argument because imperialism, as a feature of the emerging global capitalism, didn't appear until the late nineteenth century. So Creative NZ's view of Shakespeare's work is also lacking in historical context and perspective.
As one critic has observed the future of New Zealand performing arts is in danger of becoming 'narrow, inward looking and myopic. We risk reverting to being a cultural backwater.'
What would Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern think of Creative's NZ's philistine behaviour? As a high school student in the late 1990s she participated in the Shakespeare festival, playing Bottom in a scene from A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Let's hope she would agree that Shakespeare's canon of work has passed the test of time because it speaks powerfully to the human condition. As Nelson Mandela once observed : 'Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us'.