All the world’s a stage

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

From April 21st to June 9th, The Globe theatre is the stage for all the world, as 37 international theatre companies are coming to London to present 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in their own languages. This international celebration of the Bard is the centrepiece of the World Shakespeare Festival and it offers a rare opportunity to see familiar tales reinvented in a new language and infused with the spirit of a different culture. Hindi, Cantonese, Korean, Arabic, even British Sign Language and Hip-Hop – this is Shakespeare as UK audiences have never seen or heard him before. Mostly Film sent a few curious theatregoers to The Globe and here is their take on some of the productions so far

Richard III [Mandarin]
by Philip Concannon

The National Theatre of China’s presentation of Richard III in London got off to a rocky start. Just before the show began, we were informed that the company’s costumes and props had been placed on a UK-bound ship some seven weeks ago and they were still on that ship, stranded somewhere outside Felixstowe. So the version of Richard III that we saw at The Globe wasn’t everything it might have been, but the show must go on, and there was still plenty in this performance to impress.

The simple costumes adopted as makeshift replacements actually give the whole affair an appealing minimalist vibe, with the cast all clad in black and differentiated by splashes of colour, and when a character died the act of draping a black cloth over the head was hauntingly effective way of marking their passing. The actors may have lacked the props that would have brought their adaptation to vivid life (a battered old chair and table was all they had to work with), but the urgent drumbeat that accompanied the performance went a long way to creating an engrossing atmosphere.

The biggest surprise served up by this Richard III was Richard himself. We are so used to seeing this character debilitated by a hump or limp, but here he was upright and oddly charming, carrying himself with a smirking swagger as he implemented his Machiavellian plans. Zhang Dongyu brought plenty of charisma to the part, as well as an unexpected sense of humour. Even non-Mandarin speakers were amused by the sly glances and gestures he threw at the audience while others took centre stage, and the laughs didn’t end there, as a broader style of comedy was provided by a pair of acrobatic assassins.

With the possible exception of She Nannan as Queen Margaret, none of the other actors quite managed to match Dongyu’s impact, and as a result the show tended to drag when he was out of the spotlight, but such slack periods were few and far between. This Chinese take on Shakespeare was a straightforward and compelling adaptation, even if we can only imagine the show they would have put on had their ship come in.

Troilus and Cressida [Maori]
by Irene Musumeci Klein

Welcome to Troy, Aotearoa. Ngakau Toa’s Maori version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which kicked off the first week of the Globe to Globe Festival 2012, proved such an inspired act of cultural translation it should settle the identity question once and for all: forget Bacon, Oxford, De Vere – Shakespeare must have been Maori.

Life in the antipodes taught him all he needed to write a play about ‘wars and lechery’ for his ‘wooden O’. He learnt the art of storytelling on an epic scale in the marai, the wooden meeting house at the centre of Maori villages, where genealogies and ancestral stories are carved into the walls and recited by the tribe. Then he watched a dozen men perform a haka – eyes bulging out of their sockets, tongues hissing, chests bellowing a war cry, tattooed thighs and buttocks drumming the floorboards.

The Maori company came to the Globe and conquered: they navigated the insidious waters of its massive space and tamed its wild acoustics. The acting was big, loud, and highly effective, even though I would have preferred a less caricatured depiction of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which was as camp as the Greek tents.

The show’s power came from its parade of proud, physical masculinity, set up to be mocked and debunked by Shakespeare’s script. But quieter, intimate moments worked as well: Troilus and Cressida’s doomed struggle for love had a crushing bittersweetness rarely seen in productions tainted by the play’s cynicism.

At the end of the show the audience were so energised that an impromptu response haka was performed by a large contingent of expat Maoris. It made me want to be Maori too for a night, just to be able to show my gratitude in such a way.

The Tempest [Bangla]
by Philip Concannon

As the rain that had threatened throughout The Tempest finally began to fall towards the end of the play, I felt it was fitting that this particular production should climax with the audience getting wet. After all, the play begins with a shipwreck, depicted on stage by the actors carrying model ships on their arms and swirling as Ariel (Shimul Yousuf) whipped up a storm. It was an inventive and elegant way to open this Bangladeshi version of Shakespeare’s play, and it set the tone for the next two hours.

The Dhaka Theatre brought music and movement to The Globe with their performance. Barely a scene was allowed to pass without one or more of the actors breaking into a song or dance, as the company blended traditional Bangladeshi folk music into the narrative, with the key scenes in the text being expressed in an energetic and accessible fashion. Throughout the play, the physicality of the performances impressed; most notably when Prospero (Rubol Noor Lodi) exerted his dominance over Ariel and his slave Caliban (Chandan Chowdhury) by leaping across the stage and coming down with a crash that knocked the other actors to the floor. Even the musicians got in on the act, with two drummers consistently drawing gasps and spontaneous applause as they spun through the air while keeping an astonishing rhythm.

The Tempest is cleverly directed with the 13-strong cast lined up across the back of the stage and utilising a number of colourful boxes in a variety of ways. Everyone plays their part, but two performances clearly stand out. As Trinculo, Samiun Jahan Dola has a gawky charm and a skill for physical comedy that instantly wins the viewers’ favour, while Yousuf’s Ariel is the beating heart of the show. Her reaction to finally being liberated by Prospero is an affecting moment.

The actors seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the ovation they received as the final dance number brought The Tempest to a close, but they had fully earned such a reaction. In their hands, Shakespeare’s tale of magical feats had cast its spell over the audience.

Julius Caesar/Giulio Cesare [Italian]
by Concetta Sidoti

When I heard that Italy’s contribution to the Globe to Globe season would be a modern-dress Julius Caesar, I imagined I’d be seeing a Silvio Berlusconi-style swaggerer brought down by his former friends. But this was to underestimate the ambition of the Globe and of 369gradi and Lungta Film, the two Italian companies that brought this production to London (trailer here). In this austere and daring adaptation directed by Andrea Baracco, the cast numbered six, the scenery consisted largely of three doors – and Caesar was “played” by a tatty leather chair.

If that sounds funny, it wasn’t. The scene where the three plotters – Bruto, Cassio and Casca – advance in unison and strike viciously, leaving red chalk lines all over the chair, set to an orchestral arrangement of Kraftwerk’s The Model, was astonishingly powerful. No need to speak the words “Et tu, Brute?” when the idea behind them is reverberating around the theatre.

The rest of Caesar’s dialogue was not missed either and the modern Italian adaptation by Baracco and Vincenzo Manna was sparse and elegant while doing justice to the great funeral speeches – “Amici, romani, concittadini” and all.

The dialogue was only part of it, though. This was a production that emphasised movement and music, introducing elements of dance and using its numerical disadvantage as a spur to greater creativity in rigorously choreographed scenes where crowds and battles were expressed by a handful of actors and props.

At the heart of the play was Giandomenico Cupaiuolo as Bruto, a good man driven mad by the dark and corrupt Rome that surrounds him, and by the internal voices that whisper to him. His chief tormenter was Roberto Manzi’s shaven-headed, black-clad Cassio – a malevolent force who recalled Nosferatu. Gabriele Portoghese’s Marc’Antonio was a brash hipster in sunglasses who turned serious just long enough to deliver the speech that sealed the fate of the conspirators. His interactions with the opportunistic and imperious Ottaviano (Lucas Waldem Zanforlini, who also played Casca) foreshadowed the battles that follow in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Initially, I had hoped that Antony and Cleopatra would be the Italian play in this international season, expecting lashings of passion and spectacle on the Globe stage. Instead – and to the theatre’s credit – it programmed this spare and unsparing production, which deserves to be seen by a larger audience. To that end, the entire performance has been filmed in Italy and is available on YouTube. It starts here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s