Year of the Producer Blog: Scouring the world for Shakespeare

Tom Bird is the festival director of Globe to Globe, an ambitious project that will see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed in a different language courtesy of 37 visiting international theatre companies from such far flung places as Afghanistan, China and South Sudan. It runs at the Globe as part of the World Shakespeare Festival from 23 April to 9 June 2012.

Bird has worked for the Globe since 2007 before which he worked for the Edinburgh physical theatre festival Aurora Nova at Edinburgh and with a number of music groups including the Northern Sinfonia. Originally from the North East, Tom is a regular contributor of plays to Live Theatre’s Short Cuts events in Newcastle.

This feature is part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, which is run in association with our Whatsonstage.com Awards charity Stage One.

Tom Bird: The car skids from side to side across the road, as the snow falls gently on the southern Caucasus. Our driver, Levon, pounds the brake pedal with his foot as he approaches the next hairpin at sixty, a damp cigarette drooping from his mouth. The Lada’s tyres lose their tenuous grip and we career off the road into a quarry. Neither of us are entirely sure whether we are in Armenia or Azerbaijan. Why am I here, at the mercy of Levon’s sobriety, on a disputed mountaintop border in this fraught part of western Asia? Because of Shakespeare.

The journey from the Sundukyan National Academic Drama Theatre in Yerevan, Armenia (King John) to the Marjanishvili State Drama Theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia (As You Like It) is just one of the many journeys that both Dominic Dromgoole and I made in putting together Globe to Globe, a once-in-a-lifetime theatre festival that will see all 38 Shakespeare plays performed in 38 different languages by 38 different theatre companies as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Shakespeare’s Globe will host work from Buenos Aires and Tokyo, and myriad places in-between, in what promises to be a momentous six-week period in the history of Shakespearean performance worldwide.     

In its outlook, the Globe has always been one of the most international of London’s theatres. If it weren’t for an American (founder Sam Wanamaker) and a South African (the architect Theo Crosby), the place wouldn’t exist. The only performance that Sam Wanamaker ever saw on the Globe site was a 1993 production of Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Shakespeare’s Merry Wives) in German in the building site on Bankside that would eventually become Shakespeare’s Globe. It was performed by the Bremer Shakespeare Company who will return eighteen years later for Globe to Globe with their Timon aus Athen.

Of course, there are numerous challenges to any team trying to assemble such a festival which I think has a fair claim to be the most ambitious theatre carnival ever attempted. Besides Armenian drivers, the festival finds itself at the mercy of international politics (Cymbeline will come from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, The Comedy of Errors from Afghanistan, Richard II from Palestine); ash clouds; the Eurozone crisis (the National Theatre of Greece join us with Pericles); delicate sensitivities (the Polish Macbeth is one of the most badly-behaved performances you will ever see); censoring dictatorships (the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear will be harder-earned than most) and many other hurdles besides.

Never, though, has it been anything but a joy to flick through our brochure and take in the sheer scale of what we will do this spring, and what it means to a great host of people around the world.

There are some of the world’s most prestigious theatres, some of the newest, some of the oldest, some of the most contemporary and daring interpreters of Shakespeare, some whose back-stories made me sob and laugh in equal measure. There is a range of athletic ticket offers including the possibility of seeing all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays for £100. This is a unique chance to see the way that performers tell stories in every corner of the world. Even producing it has been a frenzied ecstatic journey – I can’t wait for the culmination.

Globe to Globe takes place at Shakespeare’s Globe from 21 April to 9 June 2012