Skip to main content

London theater to stage Shakespeare's plays in 37 languages

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Tue September 27, 2011
The Globe Theatre will host 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages.
The Globe Theatre will host 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shakespeare's plays will be presented in 37 different languages
  • Theater companies from all over the world are taking part
  • Among them are groups from South Sudan, Afghanistan and the United States
  • The Globe to Globe festival is part of London's Olympic build-up

(CNN) -- It will be Shakespeare as nobody has seen it before. Over six weeks next spring, London's Globe Theatre will present all 37 of the Bard's plays in 37 languages, performed by companies from as many countries.

Theater groups from the newly independent nation of South Sudan and conflict-torn Afghanistan, as well as the Balkans, China, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, France, Russia and Belarus will be among those taking part.

One play, Love's Labour's Lost, will be performed entirely in British Sign Language (BSL), used by the deaf community, while the Q Brothers from Chicago will stage Othello in hip hop.

Tom Bird, festival director for the Globe to Globe event -- which will run from April to June as part of the "cultural Olympiad" ahead of the London 2012 Olympics -- told CNN it was the most ambitious project of its kind.

Between a third and a half of the plays to be staged had already been adapted into the various languages, but the festival's organizers also traveled widely looking for talented theater groups to create new adaptations.

They were "completely bowled over" by the enthusiasm shown for the project by countries around the world, he said, and had to make some difficult decisions about who would make the cut.

"The tricky thing is we can't get everyone in, so we thought a little bit about the languages that are spoken in London, like Urdu, Yoruba and Polish," Bird said.

"We also looked at countries that have a great long history of performing Shakespeare, like Georgia and Armenia, and finally if there was a very good show, we could take that anyway."

Some of the groups chosen to take part face "incredible obstacles that no European or Western theater company would have to put up," he said.

The actors from Afghanistan had been rehearsing in the British Council compound in the capital, Kabul, that was attacked last month, leaving eight people dead and twice as many injured. "Luckily they weren't there on that day, but it was really a very, very lucky miss," Bird said.

The Afghan actors cannot currently get visas for Britain in Kabul, so will have to rehearse The Comedy of Errors in India and then travel to London from there, he said.

Acting involving both men and women, the latter not always covering their heads, also presents a cultural challenge, he added.

The theater company from South Sudan gave its first performance at independence day celebrations this summer, as the new nation emerged from decades of civil conflict.

The group will perform William Shakespeare's Cymbeline in Juba Arabic, in what will be "a great moment in the history of the country," Bird said.

The three plays of Henry VI, about England's first great civil war of the 15th century, will be staged as a Balkan trilogy by the national theaters of Serbia, Albania and Macedonia, whose actors can draw on the region's recent turbulent past.

Globe to Globe's statement points to the Belarus Free Theater -- which will perform King Lear -- as "the world's bravest theater company" for its work, "which it does in spite of the threat of state persecution."

The Palestinian group Ashtar Theater, from Ramallah, will present Richard III in Palestinian Arabic, while the Israeli National Theater company Habima will perform The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew.

Bird hopes the range of languages represented will bring a new audience to the Globe, a reproduction of the original Elizabethan theater on the banks of the River Thames in which William Shakespeare himself had a stake.

An estimated 60,000 Bangla speakers live in London's inner city Tower Hamlets area, he said -- and the festival organizers hope many will want to see The Tempest performed in that tongue.

Some of the 130,000 Brazilians in London could also flock to the Globe to see Romeo and Juliet performed in Brazilian Portuguese by a troupe from Belo Horizonte.

As for those theater enthusiasts who don't speak a myriad of languages?

They won't find a line-by-line subtitling of each play, Bird said, but a synopsis will be provided so people can follow the gist of what is happening -- and performances will be limited to no more than two-and-a-quarter hours in length. Audiences can also enjoy experiencing performance styles, costumes and music from the four corners of the world.

"We want people to really listen to the language, even if they don't understand it," Bird said. "We hope they will enjoy hearing these familiar stories in an unfamiliar language."

Tickets will be on sale to the public from October 17. The Globe to Globe festival starts April 23, William Shakespeare's birthday.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT