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A Playwright for the World

The World Shakespeare Festival took in 73 productions from around the globe in almost 40 different languages. Part of the London Olympics, this eight-month celebration of the Bard included a Lithuanian Hamlet, an Urdu Taming of the Shrew and a Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Festival reached over 1.8 million people; but can these productions continue to reach people long after the actors have left the stage?

The idea of preserving an art form as transitory as a theatrical performance is what informed the digital project Year of Shakespeare, funded by an AHRC research review award. “Wouldn’t it be great if there more eyewitness accounts of performances during the Festival of Britain or David Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford in 1769?” says Dr Erin Sullivan of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute. “We wanted to document the World Shakespeare Festival, and to have that documentation in a focused place.” Sullivan and fellow project leaders Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson sent out reviewers to each production and posted the results on a dedicated website.

But the ambition of the project went far beyond presenting a single viewpoint on each performance. “In a festival like this one, where a lot of productions would be in different languages, traditional ideas of critical authority might be turned on their head,” explains Sullivan. “You might have someone going to a production who knows lots about Shakespeare, but he or she might not know the language it’s being spoken in, while someone else in the audience may not know the story, but will understand the dialogue.” So in addition to the review of Afghan theatre company Roy-e-Sabs’s Persian version of The Comedy of Errors, for example, there are also audio recordings of the reaction of two Afghan female audience members. A previous Shakespeare production by the company led to two of the actresses fleeing Afghanistan after receiving death threats for breaking cultural taboos by appearing on stage. “You can hear the sense of euphoria in these audience members’ voices, just how proud they were of the women of their country for being brave enough to do this,” says Dr Paul Edmondson. “If the technology still exists in 90 years’ time, you might still be able to hear those Afghan young women reacting to the performance of The Comedy of Errors last June, at the Globe Theatre, which I think would be extraordinary. The project is a message in a bottle to future generations.” Year of Shakespeare also includes reviews of key events relating to the Festival, along with interviews and podcasts.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which manages the archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is acting as a trusted digital repository for the project and will be archiving in hard copy as much of the site as possible for future use.

The point, of course, is not preservation for preservation’s sake; rather, the project is intended to open up a debate on the playwright’s global role, looking at questions of national culture.

To some, Shakespeare is very much ‘England’s national poet’, and is closely linked to notions of British identity. However, says Dr Sullivan, “the sense of Shakespeare somehow belonging to the British is often quite unexpected for people from other countries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that Shakespeare had a myriad mindedness; by that he meant a kind of complexity and diversity to his plays that perhaps makes them more malleable and more capable of perpetual re-fashioning and re-interpretation.” Indeed, Dr Edmondson points to the diversity of the Festival performances as evidence of Shakespeare’s adaptability: “What was extraordinary was the sense of how each culture ‘owned’ Shakespeare through their productions. They weren’t trying to make Shakespeare approximate something they appreciated in British drama; they were very much staging the drama of their own culture.” The Russian version of Measure for Measure had the same actor playing the Duke and Angelo, necessitating a different ending from the original, and dispensed with several scenes; an Arabic version of Romeo and Juliet saw the young lovers killed by a suicide bomber.

Singaporean teacher Melissa Kwok, who watched several performances last year via the online digital arts service, TheSpace.org, believes such performances documented by the project may help inspire future generations to further interpret Shakespeare in the context of their own national culture: “The Year of Shakespeare shows that cultures beyond England can interpret and frame Shakespeare’s work, making less it canonical, and more accessible. Often we mimic the West in accents and setting while doing Shakespeare in Singapore — and it was a question I posed to my students: whether we could Singaporean-ize Shakespeare, to claim the colonial product for ourselves.”

It was vital that a project so bound up with exploring Shakespeare’s worldwide impact itself had a global reach: the website has been viewed in 153 countries. “Using digital media allowed us to cast our net wider in terms of who was able to put ideas and opinions into this ‘time capsule’ and also in terms of letting people know about the project using social networking,” says Dr Sullivan. The reviews were open to comments from readers, in order to encourage interaction and conversation. And it seems this is a conversation that is far from over. A book covering the project, A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, will be published in April. Another is planned, this time exploring key concepts around Shakespeare’s role in the Olympics, looking at questions thrown up by the project in greater depth. “The AHRC gave us the funding to make the project happen logistically, and it also helped us to create the space to be able to think through some of the bigger issues,” explains Dr Sullivan.

Year of Shakespeare has also inspired another digital platform. “There was so much interest from our band of people that were going to all these shows and writing about them, in a really highly energised way, that we thought, we can’t let all that go,” says Dr Edmondson. “We’re launching reviewingshakespeare.com in April, an online review platform for Shakespeare productions all over the world, so that we can continue that discourse we started with yearofshakespeare.com.”

Article by Hannah Davies

Image: 19th Century engraving of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' Act IV, Scene I

For further information: Year of Shakespeare website

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