Return to the Globe

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Originally written for The Stage.

By now it is a truism that Shakespeare’s plays explore universal themes, but the Globe has taken this idea further than most. From its riverside base in London, the theatre has increasingly attempted to live up to its name and showcase Shakespeare’s work on an international level, both by touring its own productions and bringing in companies from around the world.

The pinnacle of the theatre’s international ambition to date was the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, which invited productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in different languages, performed by companies from all over the world. Festival director Tom Bird describes the feat as a “huge, ambitious and difficult thing to pull off”.

The first challenge was to decide which countries and languages to include, which Bird and his team tackled by choosing to focus first and foremost on communities living in London. The other starting point was the desire to make the programme as varied as possible – “we always wanted to mix it up”.

The resulting festival attracted a diverse range of audiences, made up of regular visitors to the Globe and a huge influx of new theatregoers who came to see Shakespeare performed in their native languages. Bird quotes the astonishing figure that 81% of Globe to Globe audiences had never been to the Globe before, far exceeding the festival’s targets. The programme also “confounded expectations of what we think we can do with those plays”.

Following the festival’s success, the Globe has made a commitment to continuing this international strand and is once again bringing back three Globe to Globe companies this year: Indian company Arpana, Fundación Siglo de Oro from Spain, and Deafinitely Theatre, whose work uses British Sign Language.

Sunil Shanbag of Arpana, who will be bringing back their Gujarati version of All’s Well That Ends Well, describes the chance to perform at the Globe as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – or twice in a lifetime, in their case.

“It’s a very giving space,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where audiences feel welcome; there was a lot of generosity. It’s a very different kind of relationship that you share with an audience at the Globe, so as I keep telling people, it’s very hard to fail at the Globe.”

For Shanbag, the priority was to make the play work for Gujarati audiences, but he has been overwhelmed by the response beyond the Gujarati community, especially from Shakespearean academics. He suggests that Arpana’s version, which drew on popular street theatre aesthetics, worked because “the very powerful emotions that run through Shakespeare’s plays – of love, hate, betrayal, loss – these are elements that are very similar to the elements that you find in Indian storytelling”.

Similarly, Fundación Siglo de Oro’s Rodrigo Arribas notes similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and the theatre of Spain’s Golden Age. After presenting Henry VIII in 2012, this year the company are performing Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, which Arribas says shares Shakespeare’s “profound capacity for dissecting the psycho-emotional nature of human beings with their desires, ambitions, perversions, doubts”.

For Deafinitely Theatre, who presented their version of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the 2012 festival, Globe to Globe brought different challenges. “Our language is very dependent on eye contact and really focusing on each other,” says artistic director Paula Garfield, “but with the Globe you can’t do that. You have to focus on the whole audience, which is surrounding you, so it’s about projecting outwards, upwards, across.”

The company have found that the festival had a positive impact on their audiences, continuing their project of bridging the gap between deaf and hearing theatregoers. They hope to continue this with their new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, which has been chosen to be as accessible as possible.

Never shy of a challenge, the Globe’s latest international project involves touring Hamlet to every country in the world over the next two years, coinciding with the anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. Explaining the impetus, Bird says, “we wanted another huge ambitious project to really get our teeth into and to reflect the relationships we had all around the world”.

The project recently received criticism from Amnesty International for its decision to visit North Korea as part of the tour, but Bird insists that “every single country means every single country”. He explains, “we want to be inclusive and not exclusive and to have conversations with as many people as possible”.

As for Shakespeare’s ability to translate across cultures, can any play be truly universal? “We feel that there’s probably nowhere in the world that won’t enjoy engaging with Hamlet in some way,” Bird says. “The play is such an extraordinary story that we really feel like anyone can enjoy it.”

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

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Macbeth, Globe Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

At the Globe to Globe festival, murder has never been such a social event. All of the major scenes in this brashly vibrant Polish production seem to occur at lavish parties, under the watchful if drink-blurred vision of the witches, here recast as a gaggle of gloriously camp transvestites. In these hedonistic surroundings, as a slurring, stumbling Duncan attempts to strip and unapologetically feels up Lady Macbeth, the plot-propelling act of violence seems more of an escalation of well-oiled passions than an act of calculated ambition. This is homicidal guilt figured as one long hangover, as Michał Majnicz’s increasingly dishevelled Macbeth howls his way through murder after murder.

Despite possessing such a familiar plot, little is recognisable about this reimagining of the play. Numerous inexplicable alterations have been made to Shakespeare’s text, including the addition of a scene-stealing witch named Lola, who might well have been inspired by the Kinks track. But while it may bear only a passing resemblance to the Scottish Play that British audiences are used to, this Macbeth has clearly been designed as a visceral experience rather than a linguistic, intellectual one. To overcome the language barrier, Teatrim Kochanowskiego have drawn on pop culture and visual bravado; colourful, explosive images assault our retinas, while music – everything from Michael Jackson to ‘I Will Survive’ – throbs away in the background. It is messily joyous spectacle, tragedy in the style of Steps rather than Aristotle.

Grasping for any overarching metaphorical unity to tame this sensory riot produces empty hands. There are loosely recurring motifs, the most prominent of these being an overt, swaggering sexuality that lends the production its cautious ‘adult content’ warning. Majnicz and Judyta Paradziń as the bloody handed couple crackle with mutual lust, a sexual desire that seems tangled up with their murderous acts, while one witch unexpectedly indulges Macbeth with a blow job following his ascent to the throne. Amid a circus of playful, riotous colour, one of the production’s most genuinely disturbing images is presented in a scene in which Lady Macduff is brutally raped. Yet when reassembled, these strands do not weave into any identifiable shape. If there is a defining texture to the piece, it is one of vague seediness pasted over with sequins and glitter.

No matter how fragile the basis for its interpretation, however, the sheer visual audacity of this production is enough to provoke a wistful yearning for more aesthetic creativity in British theatre. Flaws aside, this is an ideal marriage of production and festival, eventually embracing the party atmosphere that seems to buzz from the Globe. It may not be Macbeth as any of us know it, but this is anarchically beautiful, visually ingenious, vodka-drenched fun.