A top Auckland University English Professor has written a highly-critical letter to the chief executive of a government agency that cut funding to a school Shakespeare festival on the basis it represents a "canon of imperialism".
The decision by Creative NZ to not renew funding for the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, an annual event where school students perform excerpts from the bard's plays, has sparked controversy both in New Zealand and abroad.
For the past decade, Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand has received about $30,000 per year for the festival from Creative NZ.
University of Auckland Emeritus Professor of English Michael Neill, of Mt Eden, wrote an open letter to Creative NZ describing the move as "highly questionable" and "ill-considered".
The decision by Creative NZ made headlines in major metropolitan English newspapers the Guardian and Daily Telegraph, along with the Irish Times.
In a funding assessment document, the Creative NZ board raised worries the festival "did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape".
It also said Shakespeare was "located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance".
An assessor is quoted in the document as saying the application forced them to "question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond".
Re News, a TVNZ youth-focused current affairs platform, quoted Victoria University of Wellington senior theatre lecturer Nicola Hyland as saying Shakespeare was overrepresented in New Zealand.
"It would be a massive, awesome act of decolonisation if we discovered our own stories first and discovered Shakespeare afterwards," Hyland told the outlet.
"Wouldn't it be great if young people could come home and say, 'Hey, Mum, Dad, I just found this story and it's really similar to Hinemoana and Tūtānekai. It's Romeo and Juliet'."
Neill said in his open letter to Creative NZ chief executive Stephen Wainwright there was a rich history of Māori involvement with Shakespeare.
"The great Maori leader and scholar Pei Te Hurinui Jones translated Othello, Julius Caesar, and the Merchant of Venice: the last of these was published in 1946, and supplied the script for Don Selwyn's 1990s stage production of the play, which was later transformed into his ground-breaking film Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weneti (2002)," he wrote.
"This, you must surely be aware, was the first feature film ever made entirely in Te Reo Māori."
Neill said while Shakespeare "may once have been expropriated as an instrument of colonisation", his work had become a "weapon of decolonisation".
He cited Merimeri Penfold's translation of Shakespeare's sonnets as well as Ngākau Toa's performance of Troilus and Cressida in Te Reo Māori, New Zealand's contribution to a Shakespeare festival at London's Globe Theatre in 2012.
"Creative New Zealand needs to recognise and honour the true history of Shakespeare in Aotearoa," he wrote.
"Reversing its ill-considered defunding of the Sheila Winn Shakespeare Festival would be a start."
Wainwright and Creative NZ were contacted for comment on Saturday.
Neill told the Herald the move represented a general decline in the teaching of English literature in New Zealand.
"The study of English in this country has been pared and pared away," he said.