World Shakespeare Festival 2012

Yukio Ninagawa's 'Coriolanus' Yukio Ninagawa's 'Coriolanus'
Posted: Mon Oct 3 2011

Time Out gets set for the Shakespeare Olympics

This week, one million tickets go on sale for the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. Next week, thousands more hit the box office at Shakespeare's Globe, which will present all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in 37 different languages over six weeks next spring. With companies from all over the actual globe performing plays in London and across the UK, it's an unprecedented international celebration of a single author.

Britain's stash of sporting medals may look paltry next to the USA or Russia. But in the cultural arena and on the curriculum, a 447-year old bloke from Stratford-upon-Avon is still our biggest world champion.

But let's step away from the irresistible patriotic boasting and the routine but inaccurate trumpeting of Shakespeare as the only literary global mega-brand (those plays are brilliant plays, not just a swoosh symbol for GB PLC). The real drama lies elsewhere.

Shakespeare 2012 is a mouth-watering opportunity to see and hear these remarkably enduring plays at home and abroad. Next spring at the Roundhouse, the RSC shows a cycle of Shakespeare's shipwreck plays ('The Tempest', 'The Comedy of Errors', 'Twelfth Night' and 'Pericles'). Simon Russell Beale will play the title role in 'Timon of Athens' at the National.

The Iraqi Theatre company brings 'Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad' to Lift at the Riverside in June, a music-filled exploration of love across the sectarian Sunni/Shia divide. (Lift also presents a very political Tunisian 'Macbeth' in July).

In May, world-class Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa brings 'Cymbeline' to the Barbican, where Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Rokia Traore also collaborate in 'Desdemona', a new conversation between Othello's murdered wife and her African nurse, Barbary. And the velvet-voiced Neil MacGregor has programmed a major exhibition at the British Museum running July-November, called 'Shakespeare: Staging the World', a history of The Bard's London told through more than a hundred objects.

It's exciting stuff, but the crown of the festival is to be found at Shakespeare's Globe, where a multilingual marathon - without the safety net of subtitles - awaits the Shakespeare nerd with £100 to spare.

'I've spent my life talking to theatres abroad,' says Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole, 'and, after “World Peace” and “Princess Diana”, Shakespeare is always the third toast.'

He is buzzing about their 37-play festival, which includes a 'Troilus and Cressida' performed by 'big scary Maori guys with tattoos'. Ng Kau Toa will perform a haka which will open the festival. 'You think you've seen the haka? You haven't.'

And the National Theatre of China make their first trip to the UK, with 'Richard III'. 'China was my biggest surprise,' says Dromgoole, who went on a worldwide scouting mission with his festival director Tom Bird. 'In terms of fucking about with my stupid stereotypes - which were completely overturned. That company's work has a heart-on-sleeve openness that really took me by surprise.'

Most newsworthy is a submission from the world's newest country, South Sudan. Their 'Cymbeline' was included after they sent in an unsolicited 20-page pitch complete with a personal plea from the new presidential cultural adviser who, says Tom Bird, wrote about 'how he used to lie in the bush under the stars, thinking about Shakespeare's plays and trying not to think about the killing in the morning.'

Conflict Shakespeare is very much on the bill: the great Wars of the Roses plays, the 'Henry VI' trilogy, will be performed in one day by the national theatres of Serbia, Albania and Macedonia. But Shakespeare's comedies also have a track record of slipping a serious punch under the nose of the censor: the Afghan company who, says Dromgoole, 'did a hugely daring “Love's Labour's Lost” in a bombed out old garden in Kabul, where men and women acted together and held hands', will also visit this spring.

The multilingual party starts on the old Stratfordian's birthday in April, with a performance of Shakespeare's comic, erotic narrative poem 'Venus and Adonis' by the much-loved Isango Ensemble from South Africa.

It should be quite some party, despite one star absence: Shakespeare's original language, which many academics, Bardolators and Eng Lit-lovers would says was the plays' finest attribute. But it's fitting that the writer who noted that 'all the world's a stage' should stage the world. Shakespeare brought Venice, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Denmark, Rome, Greece, Spain, Vienna, Troy, Bohemia and the New World into the original Globe: rich settings, hauled in by a newly fleet English language whose Renaissance came out of the ports of new world trade and old world literature as well as the playhouse.

Shakespeare's plays aren't a brand. But, as this festival hopes to show anew, they are great plays, in any language.