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Shakespeare's global birthday bash

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There's no escaping Shakespeare in this Olympic Games year, however fast you run. The World Shakespeare Festival kicked off at the Globe last night with a performance of Venus and Adonis by the Isango Company of South Africa, followed tonight by a Troilus and Cressida from New Zealand performed, says Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole, by "big scary Maori guys with tattoos."

I'm sure Dominic has long since got over his miserable experience with that difficult play at the Old Vic during the Peter Hall reign. His Globe to Globe Festival features Pericles from Greece, Cymbeline from the South Sudan, the Henry VI plays from the Balkans and King Lear from the Belarus Free Theatre.

I plan to pop in for as many matinees as I can, but I have definitely marked my card for the Lithuanian Hamlet directed by Eimuntas Nekrosius over the June national holiday weekend for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  Why? Because every time I go to Eastern Europe, the name of Nekrosius is mentioned with awe, and I want to see what all the fuss is about.

The founding spirit of the Globe, Sam Wanamaker, must be revolving in his grave with pleasure as his dream theatre presents all 37 plays in 37 different languages this summer. Just how difficult it was to have the place built was discussed again on Sue McGregor's excellent BBC Radio 4 The Reunion programme.

Wanamaker started off in a tent in 1972 (it was called the Bankside Globe then), with a best-forgotten Hamlet and Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra, and on the opening night the tent was blown over in a huge gust of wind. It was not an auspicious launch. The Globe itself opened in 1997, Wanamaker having died six years earlier. The only performance he saw on the site was The Merry Wives of Windsor in German. That same Bremer Shakespeare Company returns to the Globe proper with Timon of Athens on 31 May, and a moving occasion that will be, I'm sure.

One of the most remarkable elements in the radio programme was the honesty with which Sam's daughter, Zoe Wanamaker, implied her own ambivalence about the Globe project. For while Sam was killing himself trying to get the Globe off the ground, she was making her own way as an actress on the fringe, then at the RSC and on television. Not only that: her sister was a member of Southwark Council, which was antagonistic towards the Globe for many years. As Zoe cheerfully said, Sam must have felt like King Lear living under the same roof with Goneril and Regan.

I love Shakespeare on radio. One of my favourite ever productions of The Winter's Tale, with Benny Hill as Autolycus, exploded like a romantic flower in my ears when I was a schoolboy. And last night I much enjoyed hearing David Tennant as a hilarious Scottish Malvolio in a BBC Radio 3 Twelfth Night that also had a wonderful Sir Toby Belch from Ron Cook and a gorgeous Viola from Naomi Frederick.
Naomi's Rosalind at the Globe, a witty and very sexy crop-haired androgyne in brown leathers, was one of the best in recent years, and I was trying to visualise how she might look as Viola. Actually, it's a feature of radio Shakespeare that you give up trying to "see" the play and succumb to the words and the sound effects completely. There were lots of horses clip-clopping around the place in Twelfth Night, which worked very well for the outdoor street and duelling scenes, as well the country squirearchy nexus of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and a funny little Fabian.

In today's Daily Telegraph, the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate says that his first date with his future wife (the writer Paula Byrne) was at a Richard III in Romanian. My first date with mine was at an RSC Love's Labour's Lost at the Aldwych; even in English, that clever and conceited comedy can sound like a foreign language.   

Shakespeare brings people together on private missions and public business. Over the years I count many of my greatest theatrical experiences as Shakespeare in a foreign tongue: the mesmerising Rustaveli Theatre of Georgia in Richard III, a Serbian Hamlet after the death of Tito, Enrico Quatro by a Parma collective that gave Prince Hal a motorbike, Peter Brook's Titus Andronicus in Paris, Robert Lepage's Coriolanus, shot through a reductive slit on the stage, in Montreal (where I sat next to Al Pacino), Luca Ronconi's shattering King Lear in Rome, Ninagawa's beautiful Pericles at the Barbican, Peter Stein's classic Troilus and Cressida at the Edinburgh Festival and, most memorably most recently, the Toneelgroep Amsterdam in a conflation of the Roman Tragedies.

Most of the plays thrive in different cultures and political climates, which is why this summer should be so exciting and illuminating. And it's going to set a real challenge to the RSC, who did not get off to the best of starts last week with a Richard III in the Swan that was okay, but not all that urgent or revealing.

It will be fascinating this week to see how they do with what is billed as a "shipwreck" trilogy in yet another sub-division of the World Shakespeare Festival, "What Country Friends Is This?" : The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest, with Jonathan Slinger playing Dr Pinch, Malvolio and Prospero.

There's suddenly something not quite right about the new RST by the river Avon: it looks very shut up from the outside, the restaurant doesn't serve dinner after the show, there are no flags or trumpets, no buzz on the street (the lawns are fenced off, presumably for newly sewn grass to grow) and that long foyer corridor that takes you through the ghastly tweeness of the RSC shop is cold and depressing.

And Rupert Goold has suddenly withdrawn from co-directing Troilus and Cressida for the RSC with the Wooster Group co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte. Let's hope that that's the end of the bad news from Stratford, otherwise the Globe really will be ruling the roost even before Mark Rylance joins in again as the countess Olivia and Richard III. And who won't be queuing up to see those performances?


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