This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Circles, Centres, and the Globe to Globe Festival
By Stephen Purcell, University of Warwick
At a meeting of the Year of Shakespeare contributors last week, I found myself thinking about my home city of London as a set of concentric circles. By no means the geometrical centre of Britain, it is nonetheless centred, geographically, by the gigantic loop of the M25, the focal point on which so many of the country’s motorways converge. Within that circle, the bulk of the capital is enclosed by the smaller ring of the North and South Circular Roads. Further in, and one finds the Circle Line, the underground route which bounds London’s economic and cultural heart. London is centralised by its circles in more ways than one.
Over the last few weeks, I have spent a number of evenings in one of London’s most distinctive circular structures, watching a strange kind of decentring take place. As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, Shakespeare’s Globe has just finished hosting Globe to Globe, a 6-week festival comprising 37 different Shakespearean plays in 37 different languages. I had anticipated that the festival would introduce me to companies, languages and theatrical cultures I had never encountered before. But what I was quite unprepared for was just how much this festival was going to challenge my perceptions of the city in which I live.
Tom Bird, the Festival Director, revealed in a talk a couple of weeks ago that he began the process of programming the festival by identifying the languages spoken by specific cultural communities in London. Each production, then, brought part of London’s own periphery to the centre, showcasing the language of a particular community and providing the occasion for some of its members to assert their collective identity within the crucible of the Globe. Those group identities were often powerfully expressed: the sight of hundreds of hands waving in silent applause at the British Sign Language Love’s Labour’s Lost, the sounds of numerous Yoruban-speakers voicing their shared disapproval of Leontes’ conduct during the Nigerian Winter’s Tale, and the joyful cheering which greeted the reunions at the end of the Afghan Comedy of Errors, are memories of audience collectivity which will stay with me for a long time. Sometimes these group responses were tinged with the harsher experiences of particular expatriate communities: when The Taming of the Shrew’s Tranio boasted that he owned a British passport, an audience which must have included a fair proportion of Pakistani émigrés laughed loudly. A character in Pericles joked about the precarious state of the Euro to an audience which was audibly dominated by Greek-speakers, many of whom must have had friends and family in Greece; when Gower concluded the play with a tribute to endurance in the face of adversity, some of the people around me had tears in their eyes.
A celebration of the periphery serves to consolidate the ‘centre’, though, and for all its decentring of dominant notions of ‘Englishness’, the festival also made contradictory gestures towards repositioning Shakespeare, the Globe, and the English language as firmly central. Globe to Globe did much to challenge the hegemony of ‘straight English’ Shakespeare by commissioning London-based companies to work in minority languages (the BSL Love’s Labour’s Lost by Deafinitely Theatre, and the Shona Two Gentlemen of Verona by Two Gents Productions), and the festival’s first English-language contribution (despite its insistence that the language used was not English but ‘Hip Hop’) was a radical pop-culture reworking of Othello by the Chicago-based Q Brothers. If these potentially radical programming choices went some way to knock ‘straight English’ Shakespeare out of the central circle, though, this was finally undermined by the festival’s conclusion – a traditional and patriotic Henry V by the resident Globe company, which was separated from the rest of the festival by a gap of three days, and subject to none of the constraints imposed on the other festival productions.
One thing that was certainly never decentred was the dominance of the Globe itself. It was largely the Globe to Globe team that set the agenda, commissioning most of the productions from scratch: only 10 of the 37 shows involved pre-existed the festival, while 14 premiered at the festival itself, and at least one company seems to have been formed especially. Though the festival organisers imposed little on the visiting companies in terms of form and style, they did ask that each production should include an interval, run no longer than 2 hours and 15 minutes, and include no set (though the Brazilian Romeo and Juliet was exempted from this rule, as was the Globe’s own Henry V). But the Globe space itself demands very particular kinds of use, and as Sonia Massai pointed out at last week’s conference, certain ‘global styles’ – especially those reliant on electronic sound and lighting, or end-on staging – were an uneasy fit. I certainly found myself frustrated by productions which refused to make concessions to the nature of the space, but on reflection, it seems antithetical to the inclusive spirit of the festival to demand that celebrated companies abandon their long-established styles in order to comply with the impositions of the host space.
Then, of course, there was the central figure of Shakespeare himself. Erin Sullivan presented the conference with a copy of the previous week’s The Stage, the cover of which showed a cartoon Shakespeare taking centre-stage at the Cultural Olympiad. Inside, the featured article opened by asserting that although ‘Shakespeare is the jewel in the crown of the London 2012 Festival … there’s plenty more on the programme’, but it spent another five paragraphs on Shakespeare before mentioning any of the non-Shakespearean inclusions. Christie Carson pointed out to the meeting that her Globe to Globe ‘passport’ bore the tagline ‘Shakespeare’s Coming Home’; the same phrase was used on the cover of an April 2012 edition of the London Time Out magazine. In a summer which has been dominated by the Queen’s Jubilee, Euro 2012, and of course preparations for the Olympic games, the phrase is loaded with a sense of English nationalism. Indeed, Emer O’Toole’s recent opinion piece for the Guardian blog accused the World Shakespeare Festival of cultural imperialism, suggesting that its primary function was to re-centralise and demonstrate the superiority of Britain’s greatest cultural export.
I’m not sure, though, that the centrality of either Shakespeare or the Globe detracted from Globe to Globe’s radical potential. On the contrary, Shakespeare’s Globe provided a literal and symbolic focal point, allowing London’s previously marginal communities, languages and cultures to take ownership of the space and achieve a temporary centrality. Both Shakespeare and the Globe were transformed at each performance by the cultures that appropriated them, from the dominant language of the pre-show chatter to the norms and patterns of audience response. Each show was also attended by large numbers of audience members who did not speak the language concerned, and for these playgoers, the sense of gentle displacement involved may well have been both surprising and liberating (as it certainly was for me). Notions of Englishness and of London itself were open for inversion, reassessment, and renegotiation.
The Globe’s recent press release makes it clear that only a minority of playgoers at any given performance would have experienced the production as part of the wider festival. Over 85,000 tickets were sold, but only 4,000 bookings were made for multiple shows – a considerable number, but a minority nonetheless. Only 117 ‘Olympian’ tickets were sold, suggesting that the proportion of audience members who experienced the festival in its entirety was positively tiny. In a sense, then, though the programming of the English Henry V may have been a problematic ‘re-centring’ of traditional Englishness from a pan-festival perspective, it is likely to have made next to no impact on the more radical ‘decentrings’ experienced by audience members at individual shows.
Towards the end of our meeting, we discussed the Globe to Globe festival’s relationship with the broader World Shakespeare Festival. It was suggested that while its geographical and temporal specificity gave Globe to Globe a certain coherence, the World Shakespeare Festival, spread out over several months and over the whole country, had yet to feel like a unified event. Tom Bird himself has admitted that he programmed Globe to Globe without a great deal of consultation with the World Shakespeare Festival team.
It struck me, as I pondered this, that Shakespeare’s Globe – outside of the old city walls, and well outside of the modern Circle Line – is just a little off-centre itself.
What do you think about the Globe to Globe and World Shakespeare Festivals? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!
To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.