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Globe to Globe: World Shakespeare festival at London's Globe theatre and other UK venues

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Globe to Globe: World Shakespeare festival at London's Globe theatre and other UK venues Empty Globe to Globe: World Shakespeare festival at London's Globe theatre and other UK venues

Post  eddie Tue Apr 24, 2012 4:38 pm

World Shakespeare festival: around the Globe in 37 plays

The World Shakespeare festival, with performances from across the globe in nearly 50 languages, begins this weekend. Andrew Dickson travelled to India to watch rehearsals for a Bollywood version of Twelfth Night and an All's Well about the opium trade in Mumbai

Andrew Dickson, Friday 20 April 2012 13.15 BST

Globe to Globe: World Shakespeare festival at London's Globe theatre and other UK venues Miranda-Emily-Taaffe-kiss-008
Isle be damned … Miranda (Emily Taaffe) kisses Ferdinand (Solomon Israel) in the RSC's World Shakespeare festival production of The Tempest. Photograph: RSC

This weekend, a curious ritual will overtake the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon. Just after 10.30am on Saturday, a procession led by the band of the Royal Engineers will commence a march-past of the Town Hall, before unfurling flags at the top of Bridge Street. Boys from King Edward VI grammar school will lay oblations inside Holy Trinity church, while the Coventry Corps of Drums prepares to lead a "people's parade" towards Bancroft Gardens, where the River Avon widens, and where – if you're lucky – you might see a swan or two cruise by. After a gala Celebration Luncheon addressed by, among others, the high commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda, the Royal Engineers will raise their instruments one last time and solemnly beat the retreat.

World Shakespeare festival
by William Shakespeare
Various venues
Starts 23 April 20112
Until 8 September 2012

Despite its internationalist trappings, this grand day out is an earnestly, perhaps anxiously, English confection: part military display, part politico-religious rite, part post-Blairite tourist attraction. Were you to breeze into town with no idea of the date, you would probably hazard that it had something to do with the diamond jubilee, or possibly the Olympics.

That is, of course, to ignore the importance of William Shakespeare to the town and the country that spawned him. In Stratford there has long been only one resident deity, and experts calculate this to be both the date he arrived on this earth and, 52 years later, departed it. The eagle-eyed will note that Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated on the 23rd, St George's Day (a nice piece of patriotic legerdemain); but in 2012 the 23rd falls on a Monday. And you can't have a people's parade without people.

This year, however, England's national poet is not quite his usual self. This weekend also marks the beginning of the World Shakespeare festival – a sprawling, summer-long celebration of the kind of Shakespeare that isn't generally seen in Stratford, and all too rarely in the UK. Though led by the RSC, it involves over 50 companies from across the world and will be blossoming in many different corners of Britain, from the Royal Shakespeare theatre to a film studio in Bridgend, as well as taking over TV and radio, courtesy of the BBC.

One of the most interesting strands of the WSF will be housed in Shakespeare's old haunt (albeit reconstructed), the Globe. The theatre's contribution is simple but ambitious: performances of nearly every play in the canon by companies from 35 countries working in 37 languages. It is a motley collection – an Armenian King John, Henry IV Part Two in Argentine Spanish, Coriolanus in Japanese, the Henry VIs done as a "Balkan trilogy" by companies from Serbia, Albania and Macedonia.

The project hasn't been straightforward: as well as the logistical hassle of getting companies across, and preparing them to perform on an Elizabethan-style stage with no scenery and few props, in the open air, diplomatic relationships have sometimes been strained. There are whisperings of behind-scenes power struggles with the main organisers (even now, the Globe doesn't deign to link to anyone else's Shakespeare projects on its website); more seriously, a bitter dispute about whether an Israeli company should be allowed to perform erupted on the letter pages of this newspaper, because it has performed in the Occupied Territories.

But even these disputes prove that Shakespeare reflects the world around us, its conflicts as well as its shared values – and the World Shakespeare festival, this "great feast of languages" (to borrow from Love's Labour's Lost), reminds us that Shakespeare is no longer ours alone. Everyone knows the line from As You Like It, "all the world's a stage". This summer, if all goes to plan, the metaphor will be vividly recast: the Globe's stage will itself become a world.

Perhaps it's about time we caught up. Were Shakespeare suddenly to reappear in Stratford like Banquo's ghost – unsportingly interrupting, say, the salmon and caper starter of the Birthday Luncheon – he would find bewildering the notion that there is anything intrinsically English about his writing. Although he was certainly fascinated by debates about nationalism – the arcing theme of his English histories – he was more engaged by the spectacle of nations breaking down, of countries at war with themselves: it makes for better drama, apart from anything else.

Only one of the plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is set in anything resembling the Britain he knew; although myriad glimpses creep in elsewhere, what is striking is how diffuse and remote they are, optical puzzles seen at a distance: beery hints of Elizabethan drinking holes in the Henry IV plays; whiffs of the Jacobean stews in the problem comedies; the odd moment that winks at life in Stratford, but never too directly (my favourite is in his early poem "Venus and Adonis", which with its primrose banks and "timorous flying hare" testifies that the poet's rural youth wasn't entirely misspent).

Were you to plot them on an atlas, too, Shakespeare's locations would give most Hollywood accountants a breakdown. With the exception of the histories and the odd drama set in ancient Britain, the plays are set either on the European continent (Venice, Verona, Rome, Athens, Vienna) or further afield in Asia (Egypt, the Levant). He has a fixation with islands (Cyprus, Sicily, The Tempest's nameless "isle"). Occasionally he makes geography itself impossible – the Bohemian seacoast in A Winter's Tale, or the lion that saunters through Arden in As You Like It – but even these, it might be argued, are testament to the boundlessness of his imagination.

For although Shakespeare seems to have regarded physical travel with suspicion – the furthest any biographer can place him is Lancashire, and even that's doubtful – his curiosity ranged restlessly. He lodged for a time in London with a family of French Huguenot refugees; a number of the plays, from Love's Labour's Lost to Othello, are drawn from French or Italian sources, quite apart from their author's numerous imaginative grand tours through the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. And he was fascinated not only by classical texts but by the travel literature that became a minor publishing industry in his era, from Hakluyt's stirring accounts of naval derring-do to eyewitness reports of a Bermudan shipwreck.

What Shakespeare didn't get from books, he could see in the London that surrounded him, particularly after James I ascended the throne in 1603: the cosmopolitan throng of merchants clustered around the Royal Exchange; the Jews, Spanish "blackamoors" and other religious refugees living nearby; the dockyards, echoing with voices from Europe and much further overseas; the ambassadors and tourists who came to pay court (and see drama) at Whitehall; the stock-market buzz about companies setting out to explore new worlds, east and west. Some tourists even caught Shakespeare's plays themselves. A Swiss doctor named Thomas Platter made various theatre excursions, notably to a performance of Julius Caesar in September 1599: "the English," he observed, "for the most part do not travel much, but prefer to learn foreign matters and take their pleasures at home."

It has been suggested that Shakespeare's lifelong concern with themes of exile and separation, from the shipwreck that splits open The Comedy of Errors to the relentless journeying that propels the final romances, is a sign of his remarkable powers of empathy, even, as the critic Northrop Frye repeatedly argued, a mythic image of our voyage through life. The truth might be simpler, and closer to home: it was simply a reflection of the fast-globalising world he observed.

But what of the world Shakespeare inhabits now? The simple answer is that you would have to go to the ends of the earth to escape him – and even there it's hard (in 2003 a life-size replica of the Globe sculpted from ice opened in Swedish Lapland).

Within his lifetime, the plays were spreading beyond Britain: by the 1600s adaptations were being acted by English companies on the trade routes through the German principalities and into what is now Poland; in Gdánsk on the Baltic, these hardy touring actors even built a playhouse. By the end of the 17th century Shakespeare's name was known in Italy; by the mid-18th the plays had surfaced in America, soon after in France. When Japan was finally opened to western influence by Colonel Perry in 1854, Shakespeare's works – via Lamb's Tales – followed closely behind.

Nearly 400 years after his death, the plays have been performed in hundreds of countries and translated into nearly every language. Even Stratford, amusingly, now has twins: Stratford, Connecticut, the site of a once-legendary Shakespeare theatre (currently being rebuilt); and Stratford, Ontario, home of Canada's largest Shakespeare festival.

It is a sense of this world that the World Shakespeare festival seeks to capture and bring back to these shores. A genuine voyage around global Shakespeare would take Puck-like speed (not to mention organisational ability), but the Globe is keen to give me a flavour of what's on offer, so I pull out a map. Afghanistan looks fascinating, until it turns out that rehearsals have been abruptly relocated because of security concerns. The combination of The Tempest and Bangladesh, one of the most waterlogged countries in the world, looks intriguing, but there might not be time to sort a visa.

I linger over India – a country with a rich and fascinating Shakespearean history – not least because two companies are being dispatched to the Globe from the subcontinent: the Company Theatre and a sister troupe, Arpana, both from Mumbai. It's an attractive pairing: each doing an early Jacobean comedy, Twelfth Night and All's Well respectively, performing in rival Indian languages (Hindi and Gujarati). The pairing seems too good to resist. India it will be.

When Shakespeare thought of the subcontinent – egged on by semi-mythic reports of European travellers – it was an orientalist fantasy of shimmering beauty, untold riches, exotic people, embodied in the strange but beguiling figure of the "lovely boy" stolen by Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Swamped by the evening heat and stagnant stench of diesel of a Delhi traffic jam, the kids listlessly hawking flowers on the asphalt, I feel that fantasy slipping away.

However Atul Kumar, Company Theatre's artistic director – a sleek, buoyant figure, his fingernails bright pink from the Holi festival, which finished the previous day – proves invigorating company. Whatever audiences are expecting, they had better get used to the idea of Shakespeare being defamiliarised many times over. While the Globe's homegrown production of Twelfth Night this summer will feature Mark Rylance in an original-practices interpretation first seen in 2002 – farthingale skirts, ruffs and the rest – Company Theatre is looking in an entirely different direction. "Right from the beginning," Kumar explains, "we felt there had to be a lot of singing and dancing and music. The play is full of sex and love, fights, high passion and high drama, so we have to respond to that … We've come up with a kind of musical. Almost like Bollywood."

Though the idea of transplanting Bollywood to the timbers of the Globe might raise eyebrows, it's not as perverse as it appears: Indian cinema has a long and sometimes dishonourable tradition of adapting Shakespeare's plays. What is thought to be the first ever talkie Shakespeare anywhere in the world, a 1935 version of Hamlet, is Indian; and one of the most popular Bollywood comedies of all time, Angoor (1982), is based knowingly on The Comedy of Errors – and there are countless more. While Indian cinema has occasionally paid lip service to the west, most often it has cheerfully gone its own way: ransacking Shakespearean plot and characters, but remaking them for audiences who see no reason to care whether William Shakespeare was the world's greatest poet or an uncredited hack scriptwriter.

Some of the same buccaneering spirit is at work in Company Theatre. Kumar is still experimenting when I visit, but this Twelfth Night will be short, just 100 minutes long with 15 songs, and have a cast of nine, drawing on folk traditions and Kathakali dance, but hybridising them with commedia dell'arte and western performance. It will be, he says, "sing-song, funny, a bit slapstick".

He clearly isn't troubled by notions of authenticity. A previous Shakespeare, Hamlet the Clown Prince (2008), rattled through the text in a breakneck 90 minutes, recasting it for a troupe of six clowns with Kumar as Hamlet himself. It perplexed British critics when it toured here last year, not only because it mingled English with Spanish, French and what sounded alarmingly like gibberish, but because it approached this most familiar of tragedies with a disarming lack of reverence. "Who has not at some point," confessed one critic, "felt the need to gag Polonius with a roll of duct tape?"

Is his approach unusual in India? "Not really. That's the reality of today's contemporary Indian theatre – influences from all sorts of places, traditional as well as modern, and now internationally too." Significantly, the one thing that is making him worry is the Globe's stipulation that no English should be used – something that takes little account of how in India language itself has become globalised, along with so much else.

That's not to say, though, that this Twelfth Night won't be Indian through and through. "The whole play seems very Indian to me. For a start, it's about family and loving people from other communities, hidden desire, and how challenging that is. It's about class and caste, the idea of upstairs-downstairs romance, and that's a big Indian concern." He laughs heartily. "It's even got twins!" That's an especially Indian motif? "Oh, we have a lot of folklore that involves identical twins. They get separated, grow up, one of them becomes a cop and the other a thief, they meet again … They both have a mole in the same place, which is how they know."

Packing blearily for the red-eye flight to Bangalore, where Arpana are performing, it occurs to me that there is a glorious freedom in this kind of Shakespearean reinvention. Discreet pruning is as close as most British directors get to meddling with the sacred text; in other traditions, however, where the works are continually translated and retranslated, Shakespeare is (as the Polish critic Jan Kott once claimed) genuinely a contemporary author. More than that, in a world as borderless as ours, where culture travels at the speed of YouTube clips and Facebook links, the plays seem to have entirely kept up.

This is not to say that performing Shakespeare is an act innocent of the past, or of politics – something that is unavoidably true in India, with its own complex colonial and postcolonial history. While previous generations of scholars seemed happy to settle for the theory that Shakespeare's universal genius is what made him so exportable (the splendidly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Oxford's first professor of English, wrote in 1916 that this "English man of letters" had "steadily advanced to the conquest of the world"), since the 1980s academics have begun to explore the tangled web of power relationships that surround global Shakespeare.

In India, at least, it's hard to dispute the outlines of the case. Shakespeare's arrival in the subcontinent was undeniably a colonial byproduct: the plays were first performed in English, in the entrepots of Kolkota and Mumbai, for employees of the East India Company, the mighty military-industrial complex (regarded by some as the world's first true multinational) that would eventually become the Raj.

There are records of performances by expats in the 1770s, and also of actors visiting from England – a tradition that continued to the dying days of British rule, when Geoffrey Kendal and his troupe roamed the subcontinent playing everything from boarding schools to maharajas' palaces (an odyssey recorded in the semi-autobiographical film Shakepeare-Wallah).

The British also employed Shakespeare as a form of cultural colonialism. A notorious paper written in 1835 by Thomas Macaulay, commenting coolly that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia", called for all printing in Sanskrit and Arabic to be banned, and Hindu and Muslim religious schools outlawed. Although the British government did not go quite that far, as late as 1884 the governor-general passed a resolution promoting Indian civil servants who had expertise in European literature – Shakespeare included.

Yet during the 19th century, the plays were also being translated into many Indian languages by different companies performing in major cities – Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali and local dialects. One scholar counts no fewer than six different versions of The Comedy of Errors performed from the 1860s to 1912, each wildly different; another estimates seven Othellos from 1857 to 1919.

As with cinema later, many of these versions were freely, even crazily inventive – an Urdu Hamlet interspersed with songs and a comic subplot where the prince murders a rival for Ophelia's hand; a version of Measure for Measure with Isabella cast as a Muslim avenger, and Angelo as a drunkard. At exactly the same moment as Shakespeare was supposedly a servant of the Raj, in other words, he was also working for the opposition: hobnobbing with myriad local cultures, changing beyond all recognition.

Political tensions have found their way into the work of Arpana. Founded in 1985 by director Sunil Shanbag, the company has focused on texts with political bite: Cotton 56, Polyester 84, about the textile workers of Mumbai struggling to find a place in a metropolis hurriedly reinventing itself; Sex, Morality and Censorship (2009), which examined the work of Maharashtra's theatre censors – the only Indian state still to employ them.

Though the show they are performing in Bangalore is undeniably a crowd-pleaser – a series of musical playlets called Stories in a Song – even here there are hints of how India's complicated past informs its present. One piece I watch in the packed theatre is based on a classic piece of north Indian folk theatre, poking fun at a clownish British redcoat who attempts to have his wicked way with a local girl. Another portrays an English memsahib haplessly attempting to transcribe a traditional song; in a pointed metaphor for colonial rule, the music will not obey the iron-clad barlines of western notation, to the Englishwoman's frustration and the audience's delight. As the singer traces the delicate filigree of her song, elderly men in spotless white dhotis sway their heads in fierce concentration, and even the children cease to fidget.

Where is Shakespeare in all this – is he redcoat or rebel? Whose side is he on? Shanbag, a spry, watchful man in his mid-50s, smiles quietly when I ask. "These days, perhaps both. The ingredients of Shakespeare's plays – the universality, the passion, the love, the mixed identities – all of these Indians delight in, because we've been watching them in our folk theatre forever. But at the same time he is of course a writer who came to us via the British."

Some of those tensions will be visible – albeit subtly – in their new version of All's Well. It will be performed in a larger-than-life style known as Bhangwadi, which sprang up in the 19th century among the Gujarati-speaking labourers of Mumbai, many of them serving the darkest aspect of British interests, the opium trade ("bhang" is opium).

There will be laughs, Shanbag emphasises – but Arpana will not shirk the unsettling side of All's Well, one of Shakespeare's most discomfiting plays, the ostensibly comic plot of which (a woman pursues the man she wants so doggedly that she ends up tricking him into bed) is at odds with its riddling, uncertain tone. "I'm generalising, but the Gujarati audience is a fairly conservative one," Shanbag says. "I think they're going to feel that he is a victim, because he got pushed into this marriage. But hopefully they'll respond to her strength also: she's decided this is the man she loves, and she goes after it. Everything is going to be ambivalent."

We get on to the subject of British–Indian relations. Is there still a tension there, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare, that old colonial spear-carrier? Shanbag chuckles. "I was in Stratford a few years ago. We all went off to see the RSC, these British people and me. I was so excited, but they seemed surprised. 'You know this?' they asked; they were amazed that someone from India could be enthusiastic about Antony and Cleopatra." He looks at me imperturbably. "They didn't even know the play."

If the World Shakespeare festival brings anything home, surely it will be that while we in Britain like to imagine Shakespeare is ours alone, the reality is that he has long since slipped over the border, evaded our grasp, moved on elsewhere, to many places at once. As I stand in the corridor of the hotel in the still-warm evening, listening to one of the actors sing a song she's rehearsing for Twelfth Night – a yearning, aching rag – Shakespeare feels both present and distant, intimate and freshly unknowable.

"You know, I'm not interested in a limited idea of Shakespeare," Shanbag says. "We'll be performing in the spirit of the play, but we've made it our own. That's where your critics may be a bit surprised – how many people have made Shakespeare their own."

• Andrew Dickson is writing a book about global Shakespeares, to be published by Bodley Head.

Playing: the field

Venus and Adonis

Cape Town's carnivalesque Isango Ensemble kick off Globe to Globe with this most seductive of love poems.

Shakespeare's Globe, 21–22 April

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad

Monadhil Daood's Arabic version transposes the play into a conflict between Sunni and Shia, giving this timeless love story a powerful contemporary charge.

Stratford, 26 April–5 May

What Country, Friends, Is This?

The RSC's mini-season of three "shipwreck plays" – Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest – illuminates this most potent of Shakespearean themes.

Stratford, various dates until 7 October

Henry VI: A New Balkan Trilogy

Companies from Serbia, Albania and Macedonia do battle with the first Henriad.

Shakespeare's Globe, 11–13 May

King Lear

Belarus Free Theatre, forced to work in exile, address their country's politics with savage wit; hard to think they won't have something to say about Shakespeare's study of alienation and madness.

Shakespeare's Globe, 17–18 May

The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare's farcical, knockabout comedy is an intriguing choice for Afghanistan's Roy-e-Sabs company, who have rehearsed amid bombs and death threats.

Shakespeare's Globe, 30–31 May

I, Cinna

Tim Crouch's one-man reimaginings of the plays, intended for young audiences, are riotous. This spin on the lowly poet in Julius Caesar should be no different.

Stratford, 13 June – 6 July

West Side Story

Bernstein's musical is rechoreographed for a company mixing professionals and talented amateurs, by Will Tuckett.

Sage Gateshead, 4–7 July

Troilus and Cressida

Multimedia magician Elizabeth LeCompte from New York's the Wooster Group takes on this most problematic of problem comedies. Whatever they come up with, it'll be worth watching.

Stratford, 3–18 August


National Theatre Wales's site-specific version – from the creators of The Passion – promises to update Shakespeare's jagged portrayal of politics for the era of 24-hour, always-on digital culture.

Dragon Film Studios, Bridgend, 9–18 August
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