Shakespeare’s Globe announces a project that’s either brilliant or crazy or both: in 2012 it will present all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays in 38 different languages. According to Londonist, this is the Globe’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad (although the Globe’s press release references the Cultural Olympiad, the Olympiad’s web page refers to an entirely different project by the Royal Shakespeare Company—multinational but not clearly multilinguistic), which looks like some small recompense for the looming catastrophe of the Olympics.
There’s a stunt aspect to this project, surely. And it looks to be so exhausting the Globe can’t seriously expect anybody to take it all in. (Six weeks is 42 days, so we’re talking a play a night for six weeks with only four days off.) I suppose the Globe is counting on native speakers of each language being in town for the Olympics (I wonder if Latin is one of the languages). But the results are sure to be challenging, exasperating, and exciting; sometimes bewildering, often enthralling. At least if the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eight-language production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I was lucky enough to see at Toronto’s Luminato festival in 2008, is anything to go by. A South Asian cast performed in English and seven other subcontinental languages. This polyglot approach was disconcerting, and frankly you have to be up for a spot of adventure to see any play in a language you don’t understand. But if you could put your cultural timidity to one side, this very physical mashup of Shakespeare’s world with Indian theater threw off sparks. The Dream was an inspired choice, too—probably Shakespeare’s most familiar play apart from the Big Four tragedies, offering recognizable action even when performed in an unknown language and translated into the theatrical traditions of an unfamiliar culture.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept. Unlike the Globe productions to come, nobody could have understood the whole performance, making it hard not to feel that a scrim was being interposed between us and the words. And the words are always paramount. Still, it was impossible to be in the theater with these players in this particular production and not be bowled over by the energy inadequately captured in these two clips, the only ones I could find on YouTube. In truth, if you have any sense at all of Shakespeare as living theater, are you going to hesitate for even a second before choosing this over a popular but lifeless Dream like the one Toronto’s Dream in High Park series offered two summers in a row? We keep saying Shakespeare is universal, and if that’s not to be the hateful empty piety it is in so many mouths, it at least means that he has to offer enough to non-English-speaking cultures to be adaptable. He’s proven himself time and again (see perhaps the single best chapter in Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, about Shakespeare’s global influence), but to bring all the plays together at once as the Globe will do just might exceed critical mass.
I expect that in the resulting chain reaction, some productions will be disasters while others will achieve an even higher level than this Dream. Who wouldn’t at least want to take a flyer on an Urdu Taming of the Shrew, a Maori Troilus and Cressida, a musical Arabic Tempest “based on the Persian Gulf’s sea shanty tradition,” or a British Sign Language Love’s Labour’s Lost? I certainly want to be part of it. If Around the World in 38 Plays, the TV version of My Year with Shakespeare, is in production by then, I wouldn’t have to stir from the South Bank to see all 38 plays in six weeks. UK TV producers, are you taking note?