Political thriller Julius Caesar, helmed by Boyd’s successor Gregory Doran, is transplanted to modern Africa, while Iqbal Khan sets Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing in modern India, with Whatsonstage.com Award winner Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee as sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick.
If anything is down the centre of the motorway of the World Shakespeare Festival, it is these two productions. It is what we said on the tin in 2004, when I foolishly said to Jude Kelly, “yes, we will produce a World Shakespeare Festival, you can put it in your bid that you take with Ken Livingstone and David Beckham to the bid process.” And then, when the Red Arrows flew over London, I thought, “oh my god, it’s happening, we’ve got the Olympic bid”.
Right from the word go, we said that we wanted this festival to be about celebrating that which is international and mongrel, in the best sense of the words, about Britishness. These two, British-Punjabi and British-African, productions are proving that that has been worthwhile.
Greg’s is the best Julius Caesar that I’ve seen in my time at the RSC, and I’ve seen some good ones. But I’ve never seen Cassius, Marc Antony and Brutus all firing on every single cylinder at the same time in one production, and that has been achieved here with Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Ray Fearon. It’s lovely also seeing Cyril Nri, a great actor of the RSC coming back, and making his mark in that way, and seeing Ray Fearon come back, having been our Romeo.
The production is going to Moscow in November in collaboration with the Chekhov International Festival, which I think will be a sit-up moment for the Moscow theatre scene, to see British-African theatre so celebrated and to see a play about authoritarianism so eloquent. There are very strong plans for it to go elsewhere after that. We’ve had a lot of invitations internationally. The absolute Mecca would be to take that play to South Africa and play it to Nelson Mandela. Then everyone in that production could die happy. But that’s a long way off.
I think the World Shakespeare Festival has had a more profound and a broader impact on the nation’s approach to our house playwright than anything I remember. There’s what we have produced, what we have commissioned, what we have stimulated, even beyond the borders of the festival, all the output from the BBC, all the enquiries into Shakespeare, the very fine films that have been made of Shakespeare’s plays that we have got very closely involved in, the exhibition at the British museum, Will Tuckett’s first-ever rechoreographing of West Side Story, the first time the Bernstein estate and the Robbins family have allowed that to happen. So much stunning work, beautiful work, reaching people with reinterpreted Shakespeare in new ways all the time.
And I am aware of a response on the street, which is changing as a result of this year. A new familiarity, a new curiosity and a deeper understanding by more people. The Complete Works Festival (in 2005/6) made a terrific impact, but because it was so Stratford-centric, its cultural impact on the nation was inevitably limited. It was much talked about amongst cultural vultures and commentators.
This is something that’s actually getting into ordinary people’s houses. A million people accessing our website Myshakespeare. Hundreds of thousands of people taking part either as audience members or artists in the Open Stages professional/amateur collaboration throughout the whole of the UK.
And then there’s the legacy in terms of relationships with artists in Mexico, Russia, all over the world, which is going to be massive in terms of future collaborations that will be in the pipeline now. The impact is tremendous so it’s a very exciting one to go out on.
At the Noel Coward Theatre, Julius Caesar runs from 15 August to 15 September 2012 (previews from 8 August), followed by Much Ado About Nothing from 27 September to 27 October 2012 (previews from 22 September).