Haluk Bilginer as a Shakespearean Actor

Haluk Bilginer (born in 1954), an alumnus of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, is an internationally reclaimed Turkish actor who won the Best Actor award at the 47th International Emmy Award in 2019. After his appearance in EastEnders (1985-1989) as “the terrible Turk,” Bilginer has been widely acclaimed for his roles in international and national TV series and movies.

More significantly, however, Bilginer has fashioned himself as a Turkish Shakespearean actor with his performances in Oyun Atölyesi (Play Workshop), established by Bilginer and Zuhal Olcay in İstanbul in 1999. His private theatre company has been frequently performing Shakespeare’s plays in which Bilginer has played several leading roles. More than his acting, Bilginer has also translated Shakespeare’s works and become an art director of Shakespeare’s play for the performances by this theatre company. In the Turkish context, I argue that being a Shakespearean actor requires an effort to contribute to the representation of Shakespeare in Turkey in different veins. And Bilginer’s career is just a case in point.

In effect, Bilginer’s journey as a Shakespearean actor started with his appearance in Macbeth during his stay in the United Kingdom from 1980 to 1993. However, the details about this first role in Shakespeare’s play are not publicly known. Then, for 2004-2005 season in Oyun Atölyesi, Bilginer worked as the art director of Othello. In this performance, different from the original text, a narrator was used to describe the events on stage, and the traditional Turkish public storytelling (meddahlık) was the source of inspiration as recorded in the rehearsal notes of the play (https://www.oyunatolyesi.com/othello-2004-2005).

Image from Oyun Atölyesi

As for his acting, Bilginer’s career cannot be fitted into the traditional Shakespearean acting with the experience of a rite of passage in Hamlet’s performance. He acted Timon in Atinalı Timon/Timon of Athens (2005-2006), Antony in Antonius ile Kleopatra/Antony and Cleopatra (2012-2013) and Lear in Kral Lear/ King Lear (2018-2022). Each play dominantly deals with the themes of betrayal, ambition, corruption and love in the personal and public relations by bringing the political context into focus. Considering Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Bilginer took part in challenging plays in the sense that the works would not appeal to the Turkish audience as they were usually familiar with popular comedies and tragedies. However, Bilginer and Kemal Aydoğan and Muharrem Özcan’s  –   the directors of these performances – interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays made each play quite interesting for the audience. Their revision of Shakespearean language and the adaptation of plays into Turkish culture and context successfully connected the play with the audience. Among these plays, undoubtedly, the performance of Antony and Cleopatra in the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival made Bilginer gain worldwide attention.

Image from Oyun Atölyesi

Image from The Guardian

Image from Tiyatrolar.com.tr

Moreover, Bilginer’s engagement with Shakespeare’s texts is not limited to the localisation of language for the contemporary audience through colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions on stage. He first translated Macbeth for the performance of the play in 2010-2011 season. As can be observed in the rehearsal notes of the play, Bilginer worked in collaboration with Kemal Aydoğan, Selçuk Aydoğan and the cast of Macbeth from 26 July 2010 to 6 August 2010 for the translation. After the text was translated, rehearsals started up. In 2018, Oyun Atölyesi chose King Lear as the upcoming season’s Shakespeare play. Unlike the process in the previous play, the translation was completed by Bilginer this time before the first meeting of the cast. Both of his translations consisted of a lucid language and clear expressions which enabled the audience to easily get into the text. Therefore, Bilginer’s translations can be regarded functional because they operate to overcome the Turkish audience’s “Shakesfear” based on the prejudice that it is hard to understand Shakespeare’s sophisticated language.

More interestingly, Bilginer got a role in Shakespearean adaptations. It appears that 7 Şekspir Müzikali/7 Shakespeareas Musical (2009-2011), a collection of Shakespeare’s several plays and sonnets, is the significant work that turns transnational attention to Bilginer as a Shakespearean actor in his career trajectory. Drawing on Jaques’s seven-ages-of-man speech in As You Like It, the musical illustrates the growth of man by quoting from various Shakespearean texts. Bilginer’s one-man show of acting, singing, and dancing met with critical acclaim and success. Later on, in 2015, Bilginer played in Onur Ünlü’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The movie entitled Kırık Kalpler Bankası/The Bank of Broken Hearts (2015) is based on the intrigue of Enis and Osman, two members of an amateur football team, who plan to rob a bank and save their team facing a relegation battle. In the final match against the opposing team, Osman desperately falls in love with Aslım, and the movie adapts Romeo and Juliet’s plot in Osman’s love story. In this interesting version of Shakespeare’s play, Bilginer performs the role of Yusuf Yağmur, the imam who is the coach of Osman’s team. 

7 Shakespeareas Musical

The Bank of Broken Hearts

Throughout his career, Bilginer has grown into a figure who contributes to the representation of Shakespeare in Turkey in diverse ways. The fact that Bilginer acts in Shakespeare’s plays, translates his plays, becomes an artistic director, and gets a role in Shakespearean adaptations indicates an idea about the career paths of a Turkish Shakespearean actor. Therefore, to explore Bilginer’s career as an actor, adapter and interpreter of Shakespeare’s plays is to shed light on the cult of Shakespeare in Turkey and the reception of his plays by the Turkish audience.

How to cite:

Vural Özbey, Kübra. “Haluk Bilginer as a Shakespearean Actor.” Turkish Shakespeares. 2022.

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