Year of Shakespeare: Around the Globe and Back AgainFestivalsYear of Shakespeare

  • Colette Gordon

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.



By Colette Gordon, University of Cape Town

Now that the Globe to Globe World Shakespeare festival has completed its Olympian enterprise of staging “37 plays in 37 languages”, this seems a good time to look back and reflect on what was ultimately staged at Shakespeare’s Globe.  What meaning emerged from the festival and how did reception of individual productions shape this meaning?

Peter Kirwan’s clear vivid account of South African Isango Ensemble’s U-Venas No Adonisi does a fine job of conveying the excitement that attended this production at the opening of the festival.  I was lucky enough to see the show some days earlier at its “preview” in Cape Town, in a remarkably reclaimed rehearsal space: an unused assembly hall in an unmarked venue at the end of a one way alley.  Inside, the company had created their own Globe replica: a piece of carpet pinned to the floor cut to the curve of the apron stage, stacked oil drums painted turquoise as pillars, the old plaster molding picked out fantastically with gold paint, evoked the outlines of the outdoor theatre.  For one night (after which everything was swiftly dismantled), friends and family were able to share in this act of imagination; the next day the performers boarded a plane for London and the Globe.

I can well imagine that U-Venas No Adonisi was one of the bright points in the festival, in so many ways perfectly pitched.   And the Year of Shakespeare post captures, better than any review, the excitement and the richness of the production, its ebullience and its beauty.  Such a brief account must struggle to capture the full theatrical sweep of the production and the director’s very controlled handling of the non-dramatic text, something that struck me but was generally played down in reviews. The reviewer for the Evening Standard assured readers that “[n]o translation is required to understand what deliciously expressive chief Venus Malefane and her sisters want from the unwilling youth”.[1]  It seems worth noting that in fact, despite the problems of an eclectic libretto, part extempore, presented in multiple languages, audiences familiar with Shakespeare’s narrative poem could follow the action quite nearly, when they realised that each new face of Venus marks a key defeat in the poem.  In this way, director Mark Dornford May, while allowing the actors broad freedom of interpretation, presented a very studied dramatization of Shakespeare’s narrative poem that observes and amplifies its highly rhetorical structure.

Isango’s Venus is ever new, as this review notes, but each renewal conceives a failure; and each change acknowledges Adonis’s power.  This endless masquerade of feminine remodeling (badly distorted in the image of a “chief” Venus and her attendant “sisters”) brought a dark and poignant isolation to Malefane’s solo performance in the second half where, with only herself to persuade, the Goddess becomes torn and tormented, emotionally stripped bare.  This must also highlight Mhlekazi Mosiea’s standout performance as Adonis.  Mosiea is a far cry from the passive, petulant boy of account.  While Venus is ever fresh in her assaults, constant Adonis sustains a fierce silence, knowing that to open his mouth is to risk the constancy that marks him as a man.  It is fully as exciting to watch Mosiea biting his tongue and grinding his teeth through Venus’ playful taunting numbers as it is to hear him suddenly explode on a musical line that throws the audience, and the Goddess herself, into the thrilling high tragedy of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (music by Mandisi Dyantyis).  Perhaps the most breath-catching moment occurs when Adonis for a moment relaxes his guard, taking up the musical vernacular and in that moment coming closer to Venus’ than in the high drama that binds them together in a kiss.  In silencing Adonis, requiring the man to demonstrate his constancy in the face of shape-shifting womanhood, the poem comes to life as a remarkable queering of gender norms across time and place, its sophistication hardly acknowledged in reviewers’ nudge-nudge wink-wink accounts of African chief Venus and her “sisters”.

All this seems to me to highlight a significant tension between the company’s loose interpretive “African” style and director Dornford May’s very controlled, personal and specific engagement with Shakespeare’s poem.  But Peter Kirwan’s post for Year of Shakespeare, which went far beyond the shallowness of the Independent’s correspondent who saw only the spectacle of “stamping feet” and “Zulus and Xhosa in full cry” raised for me questions that go beyond this production, at base questions about what represents the global and what the global represents.

As Kirwan describes it, U-Venas no Adonisi offered “a modern idea of Africa, globally aware but celebratory of its diverse heritages” – “a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices”, “celebrating an African heritage” but “aware of the future”.  I am struck by the contrasts invoked in this and other discussions of festival works.  Here the old, tribal, and universal seems to be set against the new, multiple, and global.  And the tension found here appears resolved where the universal of Shakespeare’s plays meets the global of the international theatre circuit, when the production acknowledges past and future: the past tribal, the future global.  But if we celebrate this as a production “aware of the future but celebrating an African heritage”, it seems we must ask: what future is the Isango troupe aware of?  And, then, what African future (or present) are Isango’s European audiences aware of?

Within a week of U-Venas No Adonisi’s performance at The Globe, South Africa achieved its democratic majority, marking eighteen years of post apartheid democracy. The moment was sobering as well as celebratory, an occasion for many to reflect on what had and had not been achieved in those years, and a marked contrast to Globe to Globe’s Olympics-driven theme of festive unity.  But the reflective spirit of that moment speaks directly, and persuasively, to the question of what is being collectively imagined at the Globe.  Taking the temperature of South Africa’s last watershed, South Africa activist Jeremy Cronin notes that “In our post-1994 euphoria, we too often imagined we were the naughty prodigal finally ‘returning’ home to a mythical happy family of nations”, an apt characterization for South Africa’s showcasing at the Globe to Globe festival.  Considering seriously what it means to acknowledge a “global” reality, Cronin gets to the rotten core of the dream of moving “beyond” apartheid. The National Party’s mid-20th century political project, he points out, “was not disconnected from a much longer global and local history… Treating apartheid as a stand-alone evil disconnects it, in the first place, from 500 years of colonial conquest, and from persisting patterns of global inequity and neo-colonial domination.”[2]  That persistence (in the past, present and future) is too easily forgotten, even at home.  Cronin’s essential point, scandalous though it may seem, is that Apartheid was (always) global.  And that persists.  South Africa did not become global when it threw off the banns of Apartheid.  It was global all along, and today the country’s great challenge must be to throw off that colonial coil, where the country is inescapably bound up in global systems of inequality.[3]

And what future is Isango aware of, as it celebrates African heritage at the Globe?  I was aware, watching the single preview, attended by family and friends, that the ensemble’s work is barely seen in South Africa, where there is a real need for such innovative companies – still more, for educated, developed audiences for repertory theatre.  But all of Isango’s energy seems to be expended on the international touring circuit.  The night that I saw this show, not one cast member looked back to see the theatre their imagination and creative labour had built stripped and swept away.  The performers, who informed me with more weariness than excitement that they’d seen every kind of theatre, are habituated to migrant labour on the European “international” circuit.  This is not “home” then, but a launch pad for another round of work.  And the Globe is just another theatre, just another job.

At its South African showing, amid the excitement, energy, and brilliance of the performances, and afterwards as we ate and talked together, I saw something essential about this production, something that audiences at London’s Globe could not, and would not, see.  It seems to me that this is Isango’s true global face: tired, a little jaded, putting on a show, and not through any desire to deceive, but a need to please their “global” audience. The international theatre circuit, a rather profitable ghetto, allows Isango to survive, perhaps even thrive, but while Dornford May laments his frustrated dreams of founding a National Theatre, what they lack is not just funding (over which they have little control) but an audience at home.  How will their international success change this?  Isango’s presence in the international theatre circuit cannot be separated from the problems of South African theatre, indeed it tells us much about South African theatre.

But audiences did not flock to Shakespeare’s Globe to hear this story about the global market and South African theatre, however much they desired to see theatre that is authentically South African.  Audiences also came to see a Zimbabwean Two Gentlemen of Verona that has never played in Zimbabwe, though the London based company tried to arrange this before their showcase at the Globe.  As I have argued elsewhere, Two Gents tells a story of African diaspora and migration, of a very real Zimbabwean theatre and audience in Britain.[4]  The story is again one of globalization, but it is not the one that is registered in discourse about the festival.  Kenyan contributor Bitter Pill’s link to Africa is the birth in Zimbabwe of its artistic director. Strikingly, over half of the productions have European (white) directors at the helm.  For South Africa there is British born Mark Dornford May; for Zimbabwe, German Arne Pohlmeier; and for Kenya, Sarah Norman from England and Daniel Goldman from Wales, the two directing a Kenyan theatre company created and managed by Keith Pearson, who came to Nairobi as a teacher of English.  Norman’s UK company, that “brought” the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor from Nairobi, workshopped it at the Harare International Festival of Arts, and then in London, at Oval House Theatre”, and is now staging another African show, The Harare Files, with one of the London based actors from Two Gents, who are also based at Oval House. What is presented as being “brought from” African countries is, it seems, being produced by a tightly linked group of Europe-based artists with interests in Africa.

The South Sudan Theatre Company and the Renegade Theatre Company from Nigeria are bringing theatre from Africa in a different mode.  Nigerian Newspaper This Day reports that director Oguntokun’s decision to stage Itan Oginnitin (The Winters Tale) at the Musical Society of Nigeria in Lagos was met with cheers, and quotes a canny audience member “I’ve always watched his [Oguntokun’s] plays and he has never disappointed me. It was very thoughtful of him to remember that charity begins at home. I don’t know how much he would be paid for staging the show in London but I value greatly his choice of making sure we see this before the foreign audience.”[5]  I have not found any record of a performance of SSTC’s Cymbeline in Juba, but an interview with the directors in The Guardian made it clear that the play would be performed in South Sudan before it travelled to the Globe, communicating the company’s commitment to creating theatre for its national audience.[6]  Clearly the work of both companies for Globe to Globe represents vital, homegrown collaboration between artists in these countries.  If the festival is drawing artists together in these countries, no doubt this is for the good.  Those close neighbours of Kenya and Sudan that might have the most to tell us about Africa’s global present and future – places like Congo and Uganda – were not part of the festival.  But the few countries represented already tell stories of the global in Africa: stories of nation building, but also less grand narratives of dispersal, dependency, exploitation – stories that are not just about Africa.

After all of this, it seems crucial to ask: how and why does U-Venus No Adonisi constitute for us “a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices”?  Why should we assume that the performers’ “heritage” is mythic, but that their “global future” is a reality?  Between myth and the global future, where is history?  Why are these terms invoked; and what are the unexamined dichotomies that structure their meanings in each case, untethered, it seems, by history?  What do the productions really tell us about the global future or the inherited past?  Ultimately, I would ask whether the festival does not invite audiences to see a myth of essential practices in these performances and to believe in a myth of a global future, as it celebrates not just Shakespeare (that old postcolonial chestnut) but the globe.


[1] Evening Standard, 23/04/2012

[2] Jeremy Cronin, ‘How History Haunts Us’ Sunday Times 29/04/12.

[3] It seems worth noting as well that South Africa has been “tribal” for a long time – as has Europe – and worth asking why tribalism should mean one thing in Europe and another in Africa.  By what operations is tribalism consigned to the past in Africa, and in Europe?

[4]  ‘Hamlet in England, Hamlet in Exile’ in Shakespeare in Southern Africa vol. 23 ‘Banishment, Xenophobia, Home and Exile in Shakespeare and the Renaissance’ (2011), 64-9.

[5] Mary Ekah, ‘Nigeria: Art Meets Charity’, This Day 02/06/12.


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To read more about the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: Colette Gordon

Colette Gordon is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. She is completing a book-length study of theinteraction betweenearly modern credit culture and stage performance entitled Shakespeare’s Play of Credit with support from a Folger fellowship. Other projects include work on Shakespeare in Southern Africa and Shakespeare in Prison.