Looking back at the World Shakespeare Festival: Part Two

Yesterday, I considered broadly the way in which the World Shakespeare Festival mirrored current trends in theatre, both at home and abroad. Today’s question is a little more complex, as we consider the universality of Shakespeare’s work and whether or not the WSF has really demonstrated anything which we didn’t know before.

What have we learned from the Year of Shakespeare productions about the performative qualities of Shakespeare’s plays?

This is a difficult one; we’ve always known that Shakespeare’s plays hold a specific power in performance, and that his work maintains relevance in contemporary settings. This leads us to consider the universality of Shakespeare, not just temporily but also spatially. Seeing directors set plays in the current day demonstrates that the canon certainly has a universality within British culture, but what the Globe to Globe season showed was that his work crosses cultural boundaries too.

Perhaps the best way to loosely define “classic” is this: a work of art which, though set in a certain time, maintains relevance across generations and national boundaries. This is the reason the World Shakespeare Festival exists; though the original dissemination of his work was due to the rise of the British Empire, they now live on due to the fact they have gained a global cultural currency.

Each production performed at the Globe demonstrated a reappropriation of Shakespeare’s work by each company. The South Sudan Theatre Company showed Cymbeline to be a celebration for a new era, and was impossible not to read in the context of the country’s new-found independence. The production used music and dance as a way of breaking up scenes and punctuating key moments, much like the Globe’s in-house shows, though still firmly revolved around the central narrative. By extension then, this proved what we already know; that, though Shakespeare’s language, poetry and characters are all gorgeous creations, it is his stories which inspire and enthuse the world over.

This throws up a small problem, however. Seeing as the majority of Shakespeare’s plays are based on source materials and aren’t original works (though they include plot twists and new characters which were invented for the purposes of each play), we have to question whether it is Shakespeare’s works which are being performed or simply the stories, many of which are merely folklore with a bit of poetry.

So what, then, are the inherently performative aspects of Shakespeare’s works? Why, for example, are the Henry VI plays attributed to the Bard and not to Hall or Holinshead, especially when performed in translation? The best answer is a mixture of the three points mentioned above; language, poetry and character. The first two of these are difficult in translation, but a good translator will take the rhythms and rules of Shakespeare’s verse and transpose them into similar poetic patterns within their own linguistic traditions. The Palestinian Arabic used by Ashtar Theatre in Richard II, for example, used an archaic form of the language, which the actors described as (and I paraphrase) “just as difficult to get your head around as Shakespeare”.

More than that, however, characters remain constant across boundaries; though their motives and nuances change for each production, their super-objective will be the same no matter where they perform, and their fate will remain unchanged. Again, I repeat what I said yesterday, and I apologise for failing to put this in a more erudite way, but each production throughout the Globe to Globe season felt like Shakespeare. We left each in much the same way as we’d leave an Anglophonic production, considering its link to the past, its relevance to now, the choices the characters had to make and with a spinning head after trying to understand the language.

In what ways have these productions succeeded or failed in creating a shared frame of reference for spectators?

Only those who saw every World Shakespeare Festival production (and I imagine that group is very small indeed, if not nonexistent) are able to share a solid reference point withanyone else who saw at least one production. Nonetheless, a conversation has grown out of the event, and even those with only one ticket under their belt have been able to join in the debate in some way.

The Globe to Globe season, as perhaps the most public part of the World Shakespeare Festival, has meant a large-scale discussion about translation and international Shakespeare. British audiences have seen that we are not the only nation who can do Shakespeare well and that other languages shed new light on the plays. In this instance, the ongoing debate is not one which focusses on the plays individually but the nature of the festival as a whole; someone who saw Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear can discuss how Shakespeare differs in translation with someone who saw Romeo and Juliet in Baghdadeach providing different examples of the merits of setting the plays in different nations. The same is true of someone who saw Julius Caesar at the RSC and someone else who saw Julius Caesar at the Globe, though the discussion shifts slightly then to one which focusses more heavily on the play.

I do worry a little, however, that this marks “the other” as the focus of what is being discussed and shoving all foreign language Shakespeares into the same bag without necessarily understanding their differences. Rather than talk about productions in English, French, Albanian, Arabic, Maori etc, we talk about productions in English and productions In A Different Language.

One of the strengths of the WSF – that it contained such a variety of plays, companies and styles – is also, then, its downfall. By choosing not to curate around a particular theme or idea other than “Internationalism”, the Festival lacked any identifiable theme which could be picked up in conversation. Most of the conversations I’ve had about the season have focussed around the nature and ethics of the Festival as a whole rather than specific productions.

 

I understand neither of these questions have really been answered here, but these are my initial thoughts on the issues. Once again, without having seen every show it is impossible to discuss with any comprehensiveness any overriding themes or narratives, so that instead we ask bigger, more oblique questions. This is neither a Good Thing nor a Bad Thing, but it’s a shame that individual productions at the Festival don’t get so much attention due to being lost in the noise of the complete entity.

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