The Yohangza Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been around for a while - I remember the opening scene tearing the roof off an Edinburgh preview in 2005 - and it's got the confidence of a show that's been playing in for several years. This is very much a Dream told from the point of view of the fairies, adapted as the spirits of Korean folklore, with Puck (here divided between two actors) as a roguish master of ceremonies. The lovers are intruders in this world, and the mechanicals disappear entirely, apart from a single female herb-gatherer, who in an surprising gender-reversal, in wooed by the king of the fairies after being turned into a pig (an image which carries a strange overtone for anyone who grew up in the '80s). This is a very physical, joyous production, with the cast, in beautiful costumes and make-up, throwing luminous bracelets into the audience like rock stars - one tweeter described it as 'the closest I've seen to a rave in the theatre'.
I Termini's Italian Julius Caesar was an altogether drier affair, the kind of thing you might expect to see at the Barbican. The cast was stripped down to minimum - Caesar himself was kept offstage, discussed but never seen - and costumes were eclectic; Casca in leather and jeans, a bald-headed Cassius in tails and Brutus in a moustache and frockcoat that gave him something of the look of fellow assassin (and actor) John Wilkes Booth. Spaces were created with moving doors, in the manner of Steven Berkoff's The Trial. This was a polarising production; I spoke to many people who hated it, and it was certainly sometimes annoying - when the schoolchildren behind me started giggling at Portia's headbutts to her husband, I wanted to shush them, then realised that I agreed - but there were also moments of extraordinary beauty, like the assassination itself, with the three killers gathering round a black chair (to the Balanescu Quartet's version of 'The Model') and slowly drawing lines on it in red chalk. Written down, it sounds absurd, but (as I observed last week) the step from the ridiculous to the sublime can sometimes be as short as that in the other direction.
The South Sudan Theatre Company were here as representatives of a country which has only existed for a year, and their production of Cymbeline did, at times, feel like something that should be admired more for its existence than for its quality - the Jupiter scene, with spirits in white sheets appearing in the gallery, was pure school nativity play. This was another piece of ensemble storytelling, like the Greek National Theatre's Pericles, drawing in this case on African traditions rather than Mediterranean - an usher told me that the company had blessed the stage before the performance by pouring a bottle of beer round the perimeter (He seemed very keen to tell us this; I think he was worried that we might think that the alcohol smell was coming from him). It was an unpolished but good-hearted show, made remarkable by the sense that we were witnessing the birth of a nation - my companion quoted Theseus "never can anything be amiss/ When simpleness and duty tender it" - and it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by the curtain call, as the cast took the hands of the entire front row.
National politics were also inevitably brought out by the Ashtar Company's Palestinian Richard II. But for my season ticket, I probably wouldn't have bothered with this show - it's a play I dislike, and one that only seems to work if you accept that the detestability of the lead character. Here, Richard was clearly a Machiavellian villain - the play opened with an additional scene showing the political killing of the Duke of Gloucester, his throat slit Sweeney Todd-style as his shaved in prison, using the first of the show's many mirrors. As you might expect, this production was cynical about regime change - Bolingbroke gradually became as brutal as his victim, his final pledge to travel to the Holy Land gaining an additional irony from the company's origins.
One of the incidental pleasures of this festival has been the matching of national companies with individual plays. A few patterns have emerged - plays involving magic have tended to go to Asian companies, complicated plots to Africa, political plays to Eastern Europe and Latin America. In this respect, it's interesting that the two most gory plays - Richard III and Titus Andronicus - have been performed by Chinese companies. The Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio's Titus, in Cantonese, was a cool, minimalist production, with clean angled furniture and colour-coded costumes - Titus' family in grey, the Emperor's in sharp-looking whites and the Goths, like their subcultural homonyms, in stylish blacks (Tamora, in particular, wouldn't have looked out of place on Camden High Street of a Friday night).
I've already written about the Q Brothers' Othello; the Remix, a smart, very knowing adaptation, so I won't go on about that. So far, everything I've seen has been either inspiring or (at the very least) interesting. We're nearly at the halfway point, and a few themes have emerged: absent lead characters, the different performance aesthetics of hot countries, political subtexts and bare (male) buttocks - I'll write about these in my next post.