Tuesday 1 May 2012

Globe to Globe - the first week

One of the most interesting parts of this summer's Olympics-related Shakespeare shenanigens, the Globe to Globe festival features 37 plays (plus a narrative poem) in as many languages, from not quite as many countries.  I bought a season ticket, which gets me a matinee standing place for all of them for £100.  I'm told there are about a hundred of us - I'm starting to recognise the others by sight, notably a middle-aged couple who bring their toy rabbits and sit them on the front of the stage, dancing them around at the curtain calls.  So far, I've seen six shows and, it's got to be said, every one's a winner.

The Festival began with  Venus and Adonis, from Cape Town's Isango Ensemble.  Although it might seem perverse to kick off with something that isn't even a play, this was a canny choice of opener - fairly short, dance- and music-heavy, partly in English (as well as parts in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans), and from a company who've played London successfully before.  As ever, they sang and danced like angels - it's hard to imagine a more moving start to the Festival than the sight of a young South African actress, a little smile playing across her face as she paused before singing words that had left this city four hundred years ago, now returning after their journey a continent away. 

The poem's a story of lust and obsession, in which the young and beautiful Adonis is pursued by the predatory love-goddess.  One of my university lecturers said that the ideal casting for a film version would be Elizabeth Taylor and Woody Allen; in this case, the part of Venus was divided among the seven female cast members, of different ages, costumes and physiques (starting with the regal Pauline Malefane), the collective style creating a Jungian eternal feminine.

The Vakhtangov Theatre's Russian Measure for Measure, by contrast, was characterised by a doubling rather than a sharing - the Duke and his replacement, Angelo, played by the same actor.  This production started worryingly like a '70s fringe show, with boxes of plastic bottles and paperbacks (including Carrell's The Shakespeare Secret) scattered around the stage, but picked up as it went on, with staging flourishes like Angelo's dream sequence as he and Isabella tangoed around the platform, broken by a sudden Spike-like awakening (I wanted at this point, to include a link to Spike waking up after his unexpected erotic dream about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I can't find one that hasn't been messed about with, or turned into a fan's music video.  Anyway, you get the idea.).  The doubling came into its own at the very end, with the Duke's proposal to Isabella, blocked in exactly the same way as the equivalent Isabella/Angelo scene earlier in the play.  It's tempting to conclude that this feeling of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' is one that has an extra resonance in Putin's Russia.

I only saw the second half of the Ngakou Toa's Maori Troilus and Cressida, after catching Zefferelli's Much Ado About Nothing at the NFT (I realise that sounds pretentious, but it's what I was actually doing that day - so sue me).  I hadn't actually intended to attend it at all (two and a half Shakespeares in a day is quite a lot), but kept hearing positive positive things, from Stella Duffy's blog, and a fellow season ticket holder I overheard in the Measure for Measure queue, who said, in a phrase that stuck oddly in my mind, that the play was well-suited to 'that bare-chested, tongue out, foot stomping haka machismo'.

That turned out to be quite an accurate description - the males tattooed and bare-buttocked, the females more clothed, with plaited hair (which led to one lovely gag on Cressida's post-coital entrance with dishevelled JBF bed-hair).  I don't mean it as an insult when I say that the highlight was the curtain call, with a full-cast haka being answered by another in response from a group of Maori in the audience - it's the only time in my life I've seen audience response get a round of applause.

This illustrates one of the incidental pleasures of the season - the appearance of multi-culti London in the audience, as different nationalities and ethnicities turn out for their team.  This created an especially interesting effect for the Company Theatre's Hindi Twelfth Night, , with South Asian families (who'd obviously booked in advance) in the galleries, and Caucasians in the yard, in a sort of reverse-Raj.  (It also meant that verbal jokes got laughs from the gallery, physical from the yard.)

The Company's blurb described them as drawing on Indian theatrical traditions including Kathakali - to this ghorah, it seemed closer to Bollywood, with primary-coloured costumes, apart from Malvolio's black jacket, and song and dance in almost every scene.  The musicians were placed dead centre, actors joining them when not onstage and occasionally joining the action as a chorus.  This was popular, high-energy performance, with an impish female Feste and odd jokes in English - Malvolio at one point said 'Goodness gracious me'.  At the risk of coming over all Billington, it was a bit one-note for me, strong on the play's humour, less so on its vein of melancholy.

The National Theatre of Greece's Pericles was another production that kept the cast onstage throughout - actors became different characters by slipping on a coat or (for the oily Simonides) a pair of shades, sometimes turning into a chorus of fishermen, or  trouserless punters at Marina's brothel.  Again, there were throwaway jokes in English - Pericles, begging for food from an audience member 'Of course I've got no money -  I'm Greek.'

This was another production where it was impossible not to see the cultural history as part of the experience - the ensemble playing evoked not just conventions from the classical Greek theatre, but of the whole Homeric tradition of storytelling.  The opening captured this beautifully - a single lute-player sat alone on stage; when it was time to begin, an actor joined him, gave a whistle and, as the cast gathered from all over the auditorium said (in English) 'Let's play.'

This sums up the whole wonder of this season for me - companies from all over the world coming to the symbolic centre of Britain's theatrical and literary culture, and bringing their own history and achievements to the party.  Shakespeare's plays are turned into a vast adventure playground, and this year, the world's come round to play.

(In case you're wondering, I didn't see the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor or the Mandarin Richard III - on the only occasions when I could have done, it was pissing down with rain.  I'm dedicated, but not stupid.)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds great fun, I went on one of the matinees and it did look like everyone knew each other!
    You missed quite an experience with the richard III as their costumes never arrived!