Globe to Globe – a retrospective

The Globe to Globe festival lasted six weeks and comprised thirty-seven Shakespeare productions, each in a different language. Theatre companies from around the world presented a wide variety of interpretations of Shakespeare in a range of theatrical styles.

The individual characteristics of these productions proved endlessly fascinating. But some common features emerged from this disparate collection of drama.

1. Women

Productions from a wide variety of cultures took characters written as male outsiders and recast them as female tricksters.

The Māori Troilus and Cressida had a female Thersites. Her tied-back hair and thin angular features were complemented by a shrill nasal voice that she used aggressively to mock everyone around her.

In the Hindi Twelfth Night the often dour figure of Feste became a sprightly young female whose mockery had none of the sad emptiness that comes to a peak in Feste’s concluding song.

The clownish Bottom became an old woman herb collector in the Korean Dream. She was transformed into a pig with a taste for mushy peas, jellied eels and fish & chips.

The Bangla Tempest continued the pattern with a regendered Trinculo, played as a clown with a swaggering walk and exaggerated gestures.

Autolycus in the Yoruba Winter’s Tale was yet another female trickster. She was duped by the Young Shepherd, stealing what she thought was a full purse, which turned out to be a decoy stuffed with paper.

Adam and Jaques were both played by women in the Georgian As You Like It. Whereas Adam merely came across as a faithful retainer who happened to be a woman in male attire, Jaques was a more intriguing prospect. She had an androgynous look, wore male attire with trousers, a grey coat, her short black hair swept down on one side.

The female Moth in the BSL Love’s Labour’s Lost and Mardian in the Turkish Anthony and Cleopatra were essentially sexless figures and often played by women in English language productions.

The figure of Christopher Sly was changed in the Urdu Shrew into Ravi: an all-purpose narrator and played the fake Vincentio, the Tailor and the imam conducting Petruchio and Kate’s wedding.

The trend was repeated in the German Timon of Athens, where Flaminius was a woman. As that character is Timon’s secretary, this gender switch made sense in a modern context. The compassion that Flaminius showed throughout, and particularly at the end when flying the paper butterfly over Timon’s dead body seemed appropriate to the regendering of the character.

The production also had a female Apemantus who wore a set of false noses stuck to her face. This and her general demeanour meant that Apemantus was portrayed as a female trickster figure rather than the more usual characterisation of a solemn, male philosopher. She began to look somewhat like Lear’s Fool.

Such was the prevalence of this transformation across the range of cultures represented in Globe to Globe, to produce female tricksters in particular, that it began to look as if English theatre culture was the odd man out for not having this character type as a regular feature.

2. Storytelling

Some of the theatre companies in this festival sprung out of performance traditions rooted more in storytelling and street theatre than in standard UK theatre practice.

As a consequence they featured narrators practised in holding the attention of the audience attention, lest they wander in search of other entertainment.

This was true of Archan Trivedi’s Laffabhai (Lafeu) in the Gujarati All’s Well That Ends Well. Despite the language barrier, his stage presence gripped the audience.

The South Sudan Cymbeline sprung from a street theatre culture. Throughout this performance the cast had engaged with the audience in a compelling manner, something that seemed to come naturally to actors who need to grip the attention of outdoor daytime audiences.

A long speech by Belarius in particular had proved compulsive listening. The actor Victor Lado Wani spoke in bursts, punctuated by slight pauses. These momentary silences had formed a subliminal hook that drew in the attention.

This sophisticated oratory was much more compelling than the efforts of many UK trained actors.

These observations point to an illuminating historical parallel.

The first Globe had in its day been just one developmental step up from the traditional English street theatre of touring companies performing in market squares, their income coming from passing round a hat rather than getting spectators to pay in advance.

These companies would have undergone a period of adjustment from playing in markets and inns to performance in the new amphitheatres.

Seeing a contemporary street theatre company adjusting to the modern Globe provided an insight into how that historical transition might have proceeded.

3. History repeating itself

Three productions had endings that mirrored their beginnings.

The final moments of the National Theatre of China Richard III saw Richmond crown himself wearing a yellow robe of state and take his place on the throne to the sound of ominous droning music. This was an exact replay of the coronations of both Richard and also that of Edward right at the start.

In the German Timon of Athens, Timon repeatedly welcomed both onstage actors and the audience to his party. After Alcibiades’ coup, the bullish general adapted the phrase and invited all and sundry to his party in a deliberate echo of the production’s opening.

King John in Armenian ended with Hubert taking the crown from the dead king’s head. He then turned to the messenger and said the first word of the production “Chatillion…” as whole story appeared to restart at its first moments.

These productions conveyed a cynical attitude to revolution and change.

4. The audience mix

Globe to Globe performances could be sorted into two categories, those with a minority of production language speakers in the audience and those where the clear majority were fully in tune with the production.

Many companies actively scanned the audience looking for their compatriots or at least speakers of the same language.

With the Yoruba Merry Wives, the general silence of the audience was punctuated by patches of shrill laughter from those getting the jokes, but for the most part the performance was foreign language Shakespeare being presented as a curiosity to a majority English audience. The performance became an object of scrutiny rather than immersive appreciation.

However, with something like the Gujarati All’s Well, the clear majority of the audience were fully in tune with the language, making non-Gujaratis the taciturn outsiders in the middle of a jubilant celebration of Gujarat culture.

The narrator announced the interval to his fellow Gujarati speakers and then as a kind afterthought looked down at some bewildered non-Gujarati groundlings, put an imaginary cup to his lips and said “cup tea, coffee!” This was a touching concession to make us feel more at home.

Audience participation by native speakers was quite common, and sometimes quite vocal, ranging from shouts to running commentaries on events. But the Māori Troilus and Cressida took this to another level.

After the cast had performed their closing haka, a contingent of Māoris in the yard began their own haka in a variant used to convey congratulations. The actors on stage watched and listened. A pause in the yard haka gave the cast an opportunity to respond, so that the two groups entered into a haka dialogue.

The intimacy that the Globe space fosters between cast and audience thus became in many instances an opportunity to observe some interesting forms of interaction.

5. Kiss my stage

Three productions paid homage to the reconstructed Globe as the embodiment of the spirit of the original and thereby placing it at the heart of the Shakespearean world.

At the end of his Richard III, Zhang Dongyu kissed the Globe stage, conferring on its boards the status of Shakespeare’s spiritual home.

This gesture was also repeated by the cast of Othello: The Remix a week later.

Before the start of this Urdu production, actor Salman Shahid gave an entire speech in English about the ‘sacred ground’ of the Globe stage and the great honour of performing there.

Embodying continuity with the past gives the Globe a unique character, one to which these visiting companies responded with accolades.

The Globe can build on this status and in future play host to more foreign-language productions, so that Globe to Globe can have a lasting legacy.

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3 thoughts on “Globe to Globe – a retrospective

  1. I think your observations about the outsider as female trickster are very interesting indeed. There must be a research topic in that! The kissing of the stage by the Chinese Richard III has added significance because Hu Yaobing, the marginalised Chinese politician whose death was a contributing factor to the Tiananmen Demostrations in 1989, was the first Chinese politician to make a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Shakespeare didn’t just belong to Britain, but belonged ‘to the world’, he claimed. This was extremely significant, because although never banned in the Cultural Revolution (he was admired by Marx and Engels, after all), many were struggled against because of their involvement with Shakespeare, and the 400 year anniversary celebrations proposed by a Chinese academic in 1964 were publically criticised, warning people not to ‘worship at the alter’ of foreign writers. The recent restatement of that sentiment has a new nuance in our rapidly changing, globalising world – Globe to Globe, as your posts have shown, often seemed to suggest that Shakespeare now belongs more to the world than to Britain.

    1. That is all very interesting context in which to see the current president’s recent trip to the Birthplace. That official visit has reportedly produced a surge in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Stratford, something that my anecdotal observations in the Birthplace Trust bookshop would seem to confirm.

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