Looking back at the World Shakespeare Festival: Part One

Now that the World Shakespeare Festival is pretty much over, the time has come to question the effects and implications of the shows chosen on Shakespeare studies, international conversations and theatre in general. At a symposium at the Shakespeare Institute last week, ran by Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan and attended by a host of Shakespearean academics (and myself), these questions were laid on the table and an attempt made to begin answering them. Most in the group had contributed to www.yearofshakespeare.com. Between us, we had – I think – seen every single production the WSF had organised. Looking back over my diary, I managed to see nineteen WSF shows (plus all of the BBC Shakespeare coverage), though regrettably none of them were outside Stratford or London (ten at the RSC, eight at the Globe and one at the National). Nonetheless, I managed to see a pretty diverse range of productions, so I’ll try to deconstruct some thoughts on the whole thing on a series of blog posts over the coming days.

As a framework, I’ll be using a series of seven questions presented to us last Thursday:

  1. What might the Year of Shakespeare productions and events suggest about current and emerging global performance trends, tropes and turns?
  2. What have we learned from the Year of Shakespeare productions about the performative qualities of Shakespeare’s plays? In what ways have these productions succeeded or failed in creating a shared frame of reference for spectators?
  3. What varieties of artistic collaboration emerged during this Year of Shakespeare and what kinds of artistic, civic, and/or ethical implications might they hold?
  4. How might the UK’s hosting of the Olympic Games have inflected our reading of Year of Shakespeare productions and events?
  5. What implications might the 2012 Year of Shakespeare festivities hold for upcoming Shakespeare celebrations in 2014/16?
  6. How might the Shakespeare productions or events this year influence the way we teach Shakespeare? What are the obstacles to productive change?
  7. What were the ‘moments of clarity’ for you during the 2012 Shakespeare festivities – i.e. when did particular interests, questions, or concerns come into focus?

As I go, I’ll use examples and discussions given at the event last week to try to give a little more depth to my limited knowledge of the festival. Anyway, here we go.


What might the Year of Shakespeare productions and events suggest about current and emerging global performance trends, tropes and turns?

Question One provides the longest answer, but it is perhaps the most straightforward. All we have to do is find current trends surrounding the 2012 theatrical landscape and then discover where in the dialogue about the WSF they are present. Some of the most interesting and passionate debates I’ve had about theatre over the past year have centred around these three broad topics:

  • Interpretation and adaptation
  • Collaboration
  • Criticism and reception

I’d like first to point out that this is in no way the only things which are being talked about nor even a comprehensive discussion of said trends; these are merely the conversations I’ve been having and their relation to the WSF.

Interpretation and Adaptation

This is a particularly thorny subject, especially with regard to the performance of Shakespeare and the classical canon. When does Shakespeare stop being Shakespeare? Is this distinction textual  (by editing the script, have you tampered with the original intention) or theatrical (some may argue that only Shakespeare plays performed in their original setting at the Globe is truly Shakespeare). The Globe to Globe performances could well be considered “not Shakespeare” due to the fact they’ve been translated and cut, meaning they’re Shakespeare twice removed.

These parameters, however, are slowly being disintegrated so that we accept Shakespeare however it is presented. It’s important to turn the question round here and see that when, for example, The Misanthrope is presented in London, though it may be “in a new version by Martin Crimp”, it is still well and truly Moliere’s play.

It’s also interesting to look at traditions of Shakespeare abroad. Many European practitioners are unafraid to tamper with the Bard’s works, subtracting and adding as they see fit. Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which I saw at the Deutsches Theater earlier this year, though far from perfect, played with Shakespeare’s play fast and loose. But though in a different language and recast for a different theatrical tradition, it was still unmistakably Shakespeare.

These questions had to continually be asked throughout the Globe to Globe season. Richard II, though set in Palestine and performed in Palestinian Arabic, still considered the same themes as the original and encapsulated the spirit of what the Bard was writing.

Interestingly, the most contentious WSF production, Troilus and Cressida, was one of the few to include a largely text. I don’t quite know what this suggests, but I do think the trend towards edited and adapted versions of the Canon has meant the limits of what Shakespeare ‘is‘ have been widened. We are now happy to accept more work as “by [or after] William Shakespeare”; as long as the “spirit” is Shakespeare is encapsulated, his name can be used.


This leads smoothly onto the trend for collaboration; I have no issue with works which bear little resemblance to the original taking its title or author due to the fact that theatre is an inherently collaborative form. Wanting to cut or play around with Shakespeare and his contemporaries does not mean we believe ourselves to be “better than Shakespeare”, merely that we acknowledge the four-hundred years since the play’s conception have added a great deal of textual resonance to the piece. We must also never forget the work of Jan Kott, treating old plays as if they were new works, with the creative license that the latter gives. We are not better than Shakespeare. We are collaborating with him.

As our world becomes smaller, it becomes easier to experience other lifestyles and cultures, meaning that international theatre collaborations are becoming ever more prevalent (I know cross-cultural productions have been staple for a good fifty years, but where the invention of flight began to chip away at the borders between nations, the internet took a wrecking ball to it). All the Globe to Globe productions were, by definition, collaborative; they had a British commissioner, native producer, a translator, director and dozens of other creatives. Nonetheless, the strict rules which Locoq placed on the season did seem a little restrictive and, rather than being a platform through which different companies and identities educated one another, it became something a bit too akin to a showcase. Sometimes, the tone felt like “We’ve given you the money, now show us what you’ve got”. The season was a resounding success, but more emphasis on true artistic collaborations could have made it a richer cultural experience.

In my eyes, the two most interesting pieces in this discussion were the RSC’s King John and Troilus and Cressida (I’m sorry, I’ll be mentioning it a lot in the coming posts). The former worked largely within British theatrical tradition but was created in a way which clearly focussed on collaboration. Headed by Maria Aberg (a Swedish director) and with significant input from Dramaturg Jeanie O’Hare and the various designers, the effect was one of plurality. Whether King John slotted into the remit of the World Shakespeare Festival is questionable, especially when placed beside the RSC/Wooster Group venture. Like it or not, Troilus and Cressida embodied what I understood the festival was supposed to be about; joining with international companies and learning what they can teach us about how they “do” Shakespeare. It’s also key in this respect that the companies rehearsed separately until the latter stages of the process before colliding head-on in performance. By putting two starkly opposed ways of working in opposition, they were able to inform and illuminate one another. True, Rupert Goold’s original plan to have a postmodern metathetrical RSC-in-ruffs take on proceedings may have been a bit more successful, but the production nonetheless showed two traditions playing off each other and creating sparks in the process.

Criticism and Reception

It could be that I assign to this point more credit than it’s worth due to my interest in the subject, but it can’t be denied that the way in which we watch and talk about theatre has changed dramatically within the past five years. The influence of blogs, Twitter and websites has seen the advent of a new age of theatre criticism.

That discussion cannot be had in full here (I’ll leave it for another day), because the key point here is how this trend for long-form criticism and more immediate audience feedback relates to the WSF. Throughout the summer, hundreds of blogs and twitter feeds have commented on shows and events, adding to the abundance of opinions and thoughts surrounding the productions. Consciously or not, every review posted on a blog is written in reaction to the strict confines and creatively stunted main-stream media review structure. Whereas during the Complete Works Festival in 2006, blogs were only just beginning to gain a following, in 2012 they are a constant reminder that the opinions of the newspaper critics are not the only ones out there. Take a look at the difference in opinion between the press reviews of Troilus and Cressida and their long-f0rm online cousins, and you see a marked difference.

The same shift is also happening in academic circles; normally, academic reviews of productions happen months after the event in journals (or “posthumously” as some described it on Thursday). The creation of http://yearofshakespeare.com/ however, meant that similar reviews were able to be discussed within days in long-form (though not as long, perhaps, as true journal entries). Star ratings were shunned and an emphasis was placed on discussion and debate, ensuring that no one person’s opinion was seen as gospel. There are discussions that this sort of forum will continue after 2012 as a space to consider Shakespearean productions in an informal academic discussion; there is no doubt this would complement the work of the bloggosphere beautifully.

The concluding thoughts at the Shakespeare Institute centred around “The 2012-ness of the World Shakespeare Festival”, and what made the event specific to now. From my perspective, the Olympics and surrounding events have marked a point at which cultural event fed into wide social discourse in a way which hasn’t been seen before. We can be tweeting, facebooking and blogging before, during and after going to see a theatrical production or a sporting event, sharing our thoughts not simply with our closest friends but with the whole world. 2012 perhaps marks the point at which social media reaches its peak before new methods of communication are found and the existing formats become stale. In the context of the World Shakespeare Festival, this has meant thousands of opinions on singular performances, as the notion of the lone, objective critic is destroyed and theatre is placed back into the hands of those to whom it belongs: the people.


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