Kapiti Independent ExclusiveFrom Tom Aitken in London
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is in itself a daring venture, and further daring ventures have marked its gradual establishment of itself as a force to be reckoned with in London theatrical life.
Now it has begun the most daring escapade of all, Globe to Globe: the complete Shakespeare plays, all 37 of them, performed in a continuous series of two-night stands by companies from all over the world, speaking in their native tongues. These include, apart from the obvious European and European-derived languages, Swahili, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese, various varieties of Arabic, Bangla, Shona, Armenian, Yoruba and British Sign Language.
In some respects, one of the most daring decisions of all was to begin the sequence of actual plays (following the wonderful Cape Town Isango Ensemble in a musical version of the poem Venus and Adonis) on Shakespeare’s birthday with the Maori Te kappa o Ngākau Toa ensemble recreating Troilus and Cressida (in Te Haumiata Mason’s translation, directed by Rachel House) in the classical Maori world.
For starters, Troilus is one of Shakespeare’s least known works. Very few people would turn up to a foreign language of this particular play confident of knowing where they were in a familiar story at any given moment.
Even in performances in English it can be difficult to decide which characters are on which side in the Trojan Wars. When most of the many men on stage are dressed only in loincloths, the difficulties––and distractions––are redoubled.
The anticipation of such difficulties lay behind one of the more supercilious jeers in a preview of Globe to Globe and other forthcoming arts events by the Spectator’s drama critic Lloyd Evans. Evans decided, or was briefed, to take the line that, since Globe to Globe and the other festivals had only come into being because of the forthcoming Olympic Games (and since Shakespeare had never himself heard most of the languages concerned), Globe to Globe was obviously beyond the pale so far as serious and intelligent theatre-goers like Evans himself were concerned.
He himself would not be attending any of the performances. (I should perhaps mention that he has frequently expressed doubts about whether Shakespeare in languages other than English can really be regarded as in any way authentic.)
Well, it is obvious that Shakespeare wrote in English, and it is his command of that language that in large part makes him the genius he is. But he is also a dramatist, and drama should and can be translated.
Be all that as it may, Lloyd Evans singled one event in particular out for derision in advance.
‘How many play-goers are gagging to see Troilus and Cressida in Maori?’
I am very pleased to report that the answer to his dismissive rhetorical question was resoundingly given last Monday, by a near capacity seated audience and a Globe Yard as full as I have ever seen it. A standing ovation was accompanied by cheers.
The Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, watched the second half of the performance standing in the yard, looking very happy indeed.
The subtitles were, admittedly, not entirely adequate, and most of us, I would guess, were occasionally somewhat adrift in the plot. But the theatrical energy carried us along and the acting was superb. The constant laughter in the comic scenes was sufficient evidence that the audience was instinctively au fait with what was afoot.
We had, a little, wondered in advance, ‘Why a Maori Troilus and Cressida?’ The answer came within minutes as we were caught up in the maelstrom of primitive tribal rivalries and loyalties, blended, in context, with political, social and sexual sophistication. It all seems to transfer with uncanny exactness from Ancient Troy to Maoritanga in the period before European sealers, whalers and missionaries set out on the bumpy road towards New Zealand as it is today.
Despite the many unusual features of the Globe considered as a space for acting, Ngākau Toa, with the appearance of people who had been working there for weeks, exploited the multiple possibilities for direct contact with the audience with terrific panache. Only one of them, Rawiri Paratene, Pandarus (and producer) in this production, has performed here before, as Friar Lawrence in the 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet.
The London press, having had the advantage of actually seen the performance, has (with reservations about the surtitles) been enthusiastic. The Independent ran a double-page spread showing the opening haka (Photographs by Tony Nandi/LNP), and other papers have run pictures and favourable reviews.
‘Seldom watching this play have I been so persuaded that here were warriors, rather than actors impersonating warriors: capable with their thews, sinews and deftly handed spears – simple wooden poles, really – of carrying out mighty acts of slaughter’, said Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph.
‘Here it’s not only Troilus and Cressida who find it impossible to admit their true feelings for each other; all the men on stage seem doomed to act out honour codes that leave little room for anything other than sound and fury’, wrote Andrew Dickson in the Guardian.
There was a vibrant buzz in the Globe before the performance last Monday. The buzz continues, with, as I write, 36 plays yet to be seen.