Nothing could have prepared Mansi Multani for the downpour. Playing Olivia at the Globe Theatre in London, she could have expected a night under the stars on the banks of the Thames. Instead it felt like the monsoons in Mumbai. The rain came bucketing down just as her character was trying to seduce a cross-dressed Viola in a comic scene from Twelfth Night.
It didn’t make the slightest difference. The audience standing before the open-air stage simply pulled on their hoods and carried on cheering. Some even decided to dance. It didn’t matter either that Multani (dressed as Olivia in a hot pink salwar kameez) was speaking in Hindi, a language that most of the audience did not understand.
“The play’s the thing,” wrote Shakespeare, and the universal appeal of his plays came alive in the storm and rain of a London spring as the actors from the Company Theatre of Mumbai performed Twelfth Night or Barahvi Raat in Hindi at the Globe. Directed by Atul Kumar, the play was part of the opening weekend of the Globe to Globe World Shakespeare Festival linked to the 2012 London Olympics.
The plays written by Shakespeare — and much loved around the world — have come back to his own Globe Theatre, where he had staged them over 400 years ago. In a fitting tribute to the bard, the Globe Theatre will see all 37 of his plays staged in 37 languages — from French and Polish to Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, Dari, Shona, Hebrew, Swahili, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori and Juba Arabic from South Sudan. There is even a play in sign language.
When Atul Kumar was asked to adapt one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies for the Globe, he gave it his all. The rain probably added to the atmosphere. What better setting for Twelfth Night — a play about shipwreck, lost twins and mistaken identity — than a downpour?
“Ishq ke khurak hai agar gana- bajana to bajate raho (If music be the food of love, play on),” said Duke Orsino (Sagar Deshmukh), kicking off the play with its famous opening lines, and the carnival began. Flamboyantly dressed in a long red coat, Deshmukh and the other actors of the ensemble cast performed the play in Hindi with perfect comic timing. The translation by Amitosh Nagpal, who also plays Sebastian in the play, was suitably cheeky, with Nagpal telling a sympathetic audience that Shakespeare had given his character only four lines, and drawing a laugh and cheer when he said he had still translated the play.
The next day, there was a powerful staging of Richard III in Mandarin by the National Theatre of China. The famous words: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” — one of the best known lines from a battle scene — echoed around the Globe.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime theatre festival,” says Tom Bird, Globe to Globe Festival director who spent 18 months travelling the world from Belarus to Bangladesh, identifying the theatre groups. What he found everywhere — from a sweltering pavement in Mumbai to a subway in Tokyo — was love for the bard.
Whether it was Belgrade, where a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept running at the National Theatre even as Nato bombarded the city in 1999, or Kabul, where a group of defiant theatre artistes staged Love’s Labour Lost amidst the ruins of the war-torn city in an ancient garden near Babur’s tomb, Shakespeare continued to inspire people around the world.
The Roy-e-Sabs group from Kabul, that staged the daring production, allowing the lovers to hold hands and the women to shed their head-scarves, will leave the country for the first time to stage The Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian at the Globe. Nikita Milivojevic of the National Theatre of Belgrade, who kept her theatre running and moved the performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to mid-day to avoid the air-strikes in the evening, will stage Henry VI, Part I.
What’s more, the world’s newest country, South Sudan, will perform Cymbeline in Juda Arabic, while Shakespeare’s most powerful work on racism and religious persecution — The Merchant of Venice — will be staged in Hebrew by the Habima National Theatre of Tel Aviv.
From the land where the Padma river floods mercilessly, and where cyclones and storms often sweep away entire islands, came a production of The Tempest. The Dhaka Theatre, under the direction of Nasiruddin Yousuff, chose to do Shakespeare’s tale of exploitation, slavery and magic in the Panchali style, a blend of dance, dialogue and music, and one often used by Tagore.
Using Manipuri drummers, traditional music instruments like the dhol and ektara and decorative rickshaw art, the production tried to recreate the world of Prospero, Miranda and Caliban in a Bengali setting.
“Shakespeare’s language is so strong. His plays are so structured, almost like iron,” said Yousuff. “So I thought I would go with the theme of the play. I have made it visual and used music to create the scene and take the story forward.”
“Water is very important for us. We are affected by floods and natural calamities. The Tempest was the right choice for Bangladesh. It is a very proud moment for me to bring the first Bengali production of Shakespeare to the Globe,” said an emotional Yousuff.
Also performing at the Globe will be All’s Well That Ends Well in Gujarati by the Arpana Theatre of Mumbai and a modern-day interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu by Theatre Wallay of Lahore. The play features the stage and screen star of Lahore, Nadia Jamil, as Katherine.
For the playwright who probably never left England, this is a worthy tribute. His most famous lines will come alive in voices from around the world.
(The festival runs till June 9, 2012 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.)