Olympic ShakespeareFestivalsYear of Shakespeare

  • Stanley Wells

Photo. by Christoph Mueller

‘The isle is full of noises….’ Well, it certainly will be as the Olympic Games open with a ceremony that takes as its keynote these words from The Tempest. One of the noises will be the resonant sound of the great bell, the biggest in Europe – twice the size of Big Ben – which is being specially cast for the occasion. It is inscribed with Caliban’s words which continue with ‘sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’, words that, though they come from a ‘savage and deformed slave’, speak nevertheless of the consolations and pleasures of nature and of civilized art.

The Games will bring hundreds of thousands of people into our island. And through media of communication undreamt of in Shakespeare’s time they will be transmitted to millions over all over ‘the great globe itself.’ It was an imaginative decision to link them with the art of a writer who is himself both the glory of our island and one of its greatest exports.

Shakespeare’s global outreach has grown exponentially within the past few decades, and the stimulus to imagination and to creativity that his works provide is reflected in the world-wide range of theatrical productions that stream into and emanate from this isle in the form of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. You can read the reviews by a band of Shakespearians on this blog and via www.yearofshakespeare.com.

Understandably, the festival centres on London, the focal point of Shakespeare’s career, and specifically on the playhouse which bears the name of that which Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built in 1599 and in which the words ‘All the world’s a stage’ were first heard: The Globe. It was a brilliant stroke of imagination – and no doubt a logistical challenge of the first magnitude – to programme, in the weeks leading up to the Games, a series of productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s acknowledged plays along with a version of one of his narrative poems, each of them performed in a different language, even including hip-hop and British Sign language, by actors from the originating countries. And it was a great stroke of wit to make this Globe to Globe Festival culminate in the first performance of the Globe’s own production (in English) of Shakespeare’s most strongly nationalistic play, Henry V, thus eliding the Festival season with the Globe’s own, which will run throughout the period of the games.

Though when Shakespeare wrote he can have had no idea of how great his impact on later ages would become, he knew something from his reading of both British and classical history of the intensity with which events and literature of the past may reverberate, like waves of sound from a bell, through subsequent ages. After the bloody murder of Julius Caesar he causes Cassius presciently to look forward to a time when what he dignifies with the label of a ‘lofty scene’ will be ‘acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown.’ So it is with the lofty – and the often unlofty – scenes that Shakespeare himself created. His play texts can still be richly rewarding when presented as they have come down to us, challenging us to enter imaginatively into the language, the dramatic conventions, the systems of thought of worlds far distant from ours.

But there is no denying that his plays too have achieved the status of myth. Increasingly in recent decades they provide the inspiration for scenes far different from any that their author could have imagined. Most of the productions at the Globe, and many of those performed elsewhere, will be given not only in accents unknown in Shakespeare’s time but in theatrical modes undreamt of then. His words will be stripped back, even abandoned, his stories will be reshaped, his characters re-imagined, modern cultural and political significances will be drawn from the plays’ bowels or grafted on to their limbs in the attempt to make them speak directly and vibrantly to modern audiences.

This process may deny the plays’ uniqueness, limiting their range of reference and muffling their resonances like the tones of a cracked bell that has become encrusted with the detritus of time. Yet it would have been familiar to Shakespeare himself. Just as he re-shaped and re-imagined both history and the myths and fictions on which he drew, so theatre practitioners of today find new meanings in his plays, taking them as points of departure while weaving new fantasies around them. They are most successful when they are most radical, seeking not to provide audiences with a half-baked mish-mash of past and present but treating the original texts with the same kind of creative daring with which Shakespeare transformed the legends of King Lear and Hamlet, the histories of Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra, and the romance stories of As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. His plays not only derive from the art of the past, they have come to be used as sources for the art of the present.

In the tiny village of Aston Cantlow, where Shakespeare’s parents are likely to have married, hangs a church bell that was cast before the Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare must have heard it. The Olympic bell that will sound for the first time at the opening of the games may well survive as long, linking the events of this summer of 2012 with a future that is as unimaginable to us as our time was to Shakespeare.

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Author: Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells