All the world's a stage: Introducing the biggest Shakespeare festival ever

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The World Shakespeare Festival is the centrepiece of the Cultural Olympiad, featuring 70 productions from across the world. Festival boss Deborah Shaw tells Arifa Akbar how it will cast the playwright in a whole new light.

In less than two weeks, Britain's theatres, galleries and museums will undergo a dramatic transformation. They will be turned into dedicated stages to celebrate the works of a certain 16th-century playwright. If all the world's a stage, then William Shakespeare is about to feature as its central player. A million tickets are on sale; hundreds of international artists are making their way to Britain; almost 70 productions are ready to roll.

The World Shakespeare Festival 2012 will be unprecedented in scope and ambition. Forming the heart of the London 2012 Festival, which marks the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, the arts programme for the Olympics, its aim is to bring the biggest audiences to the biggest Shakespeare celebration that the world has ever seen, from April until November.

The festival's spiritual heartland will be Stratford-upon-Avon but its tentacles will stretch to almost every corner of the British Isles including Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Productions from the experimental to the classic, the offbeat to the stately, will be staged in venues big and small, including the Barbican, Tate Modern, Royal Opera House and the National Theatre in London, as well as innumerable regional stages. Shakespeare's Globe has directed Globe to Globe, a six-week multi-lingual extravaganza which will see 37 plays performed in as many languages, from 23 April. The British Museum is planning a major exhibition for July called Shakespeare: Staging the World, which offers historical insights into Shakespeare's London. The Royal Shakespeare Company, the producer of the festival, has commissioned 12 new productions, all of which premiere in Stratford.

Deborah Shaw, associate director of the RSC, is the director of the festival, and she has, unsurprisingly, been having some sleepless nights as its opening draws closer. Her insomnia brings her repeatedly back to the question: will the festival inspire people with a lifelong love of Shakespeare?

Time – and audiences – will tell, but what is clear on meeting Shaw is that the endeavour to fulfil this aim has been a labour of love – and a passion for the Bard of Stratford, which appears to verge on an insatiable and undimmed creative obsession. Shaw has been staging regional and national Shakespeare festivals for years, from the Bath Shakespeare Festival to the RSC's Complete Works, trawling the world for weird and wonderful interpretations, from physical theatre to circuses, from Bremen and Baghdad to the favelas of Brazil.

What's more, she had her own Romeo and Juliet moment when she met the Iraqi theatre director, Monadhil Daood, while scouting for interesting international productions – and married him (he is, aptly, bringing a production called Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad to London for the festival).

Although she evidently has a keen textual knowledge of the plays – she quotes lesser-known passages verbatim and refers to scenes as if they were minutely etched in memory – the studiousness is underplayed. There is no part of Shaw's bubbling enthusiasm that emanates pretension or academic fustiness. Traditional performances are not necessarily more authentic than their experimental or celluloid counterparts, she says. Shakespeare was writing for the masses and that is how his work should be enjoyed.

"He had great characters, great scenes and great stories. He's perfect for Hollywood." Gwyneth Paltrow would doubtless agree, but some Shakespeare purists might balk. Either way, it is a thoroughly refreshing outlook that takes the elitism out of the Shakespeare industry. Shakespeare's voice, says Shaw, is supposed to set people free.

"Only 8 per cent of the population was literate when Shakespeare was writing the plays. He was walking the line between thieves, robbers, vagabonds and actors, but with an ear to the people who pulled the levers of power. He was in the court and on the street. The kind of energy in his plays is anarchic. It's not written for the salons or for the aristocracy."

Her "watch-him, don't read him" approach particularly extends itself to the way that Shakespeare is taught in schools. The plays were "written to be heard", she insists when I relate my dismal classroom experience of reading the plays out in turns as a school-kid. Isn't Shakespeare similarly alienating to pupils today who engage with the texts from their desks? And doesn't it give credence to the Lenny Henry effect? (The comedian and actor famously admitted to an early aversion to Shakespeare).

Perhaps, she says, but it ought not to be this way. The blame for young people's failures to connect with the language, the characters and the drama in these magnificent and timeless plays does not lie not in the texts themselves, but with those introducing Shakespeare to younger audiences.

"How did we get to [the point of] children being bored by Shakespeare? We are really not doing it right... You are to blame if you have drained the blood of Shakespeare."

Shaw has a distinctly international outlook on Shakespeare, which was first sparked in 2006 when she directed the Bath Shakespeare Festival.

"They didn't give me enough money to do a whole Shakespeare play, so I started looking abroad for really interesting takes. That's when I met Monadhil Daood, who was directing a pan-Arab production of Hamlet. I'd also been to see Shakespeare in Germany for a number of years. I saw The Taming of the Shrew at the Bremer Shakespeare Company, where all the men sat on one side of the theatre and women on the other side. Sometimes the men would laugh and look over at the women [to see if they were laughing]." It was productions such as these that whetted her appetite for the more global and experimental versions of Shakespeare – plays set in war-torn Baghdad, in South America, jazzed- up Shakespeare as a murder mystery set in the silent-movie era. Her international approach opened up other worlds and approaches.

Many of these productions, coming to the festival from as far afield as Russia, Brazil, Mexico and the Arab world, have posed their own challenges. The Iraqi Theatre Company wanted to bring suicide belts and guns along for their Romeo and Juliet production ("I told them, 'don't bring those'"); a Russian troupe wanted to bring a trained acrobatic dog for A Midsummer Night's Dream ("we found them a great Dane").

Some of the more off-beat productions Shaw has seen have inspired visceral, even aggressive responses. The work of Luk Perceval, a Flemish director in Germany, "makes people go and shout at him." His version of Othello, with Tomas Thieme [star of Downfall and The Lives of Others] caused outrage, not least because Shakespeare's Moor was played by a white, German middle-aged actor, and the set was filled with upside-down pianos. A production in 2008 called Richard III – An Arab Tragedy threatened to become a dangerous moment as the play, with its close-to-the-bone critique of power, was performed in Damascus in front of President Bashar al Assad, his wife, and 150 of his bodyguards. "It felt like the court of Elizabeth or James... the audience was looking to the president for his reaction as Richard was saying, 'I don't want to be king'," Shaw says.

Does she prefer these provocative productions to the straighter ones? She won't be drawn. "As long as you are transported, as long as something is offered that changes your perception, if it delights or shocks, then I'm not going to choose between one or the other, whether it's a beautifully understated performance or physical theatre. What I love is an artist with something serious to say, where he or she is in dialogue with a classical text."

What she will say is that Britain's approach to Shakespeare has tended towards the conservative. "I think in Britain, there's a sense of responsibility that weighs us down. We go through Shakespeare from beginning to end. We are the guardians of Shakespeare but this should not be at the expense of contemporary writers being in dialogue with the plays. Sometimes I feel there's a millstone around our necks but if you are from Baghdad, you have to do Shakespeare in translation, so you are not as precious. You are going to muck about with it to a certain extent." Baghdad, and its theatre, has become a second home to Shaw ever since she met Daood, and became the Iraqi Theatre Company's co-founder. The theatre is bringing Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad to Britain for the festival, and she is excited by the way in which certain scenes have been appropriated.

"The Queen Mab speech [in Romeo and Juliet] has all sorts of sexual imagery to it. What they have done is use a folk story of a lady beetle who is weaving and looking for a husband. There are also magic carpets on which characters fly across the wreckage of Baghdad... Yet they have transposed the spirit of Shakespeare and his obsessions absolutely.

"I'm not saying, 'chuck it all out', and you have to understand it before you can appropriate it, in the way that Picasso was a really good figurative artist become he became a Cubist. I think theatre is getting more conceptual in the same way that visual art went from figurative to conceptual. It's on an inexorable journey and Shakespeare survives all of that."

It is also remarkable, she notes, that different aspects of the plays are drawn upon to give a local relevance across nationalities and cultures.

"Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare was writing plays set in Rome, or the wild shores of Bohemia, to talk about Elizabethan England. Now, we have writers in places like Mexico who are using Shakespeare to write about their own cities. It's about artists reflecting their contemporary worlds through Shakespeare, which is what his plays allow them to do. Themes of power, legitimacy, love and honour [are timeless].

"There are different obsessions in different parts of the world, and these illuminate the plays in different ways. The Baghdad Romeo and Juliet is about a younger generation not accepting the way of the world of the older generation. The Tunisian Macbeth is about the decline and fall of a dictator. Brazilians and Mexicans want to do Shakespeare's histories a lot.

"All of his plays are about how you live as human beings, in families, in society, in nations. Shakespeare's not pedantic and not telling you the right way to do something. He asks, 'what if?' and, 'now what?' and, 'how do you want the world to be?'"

The World Shakespeare Festival begins on 23 April (www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk).  Macbeth: Leila and Ben is also playing at Riverside Studios, London from 4 - 7 July as part of LIFT 2012.

World view: Festival highlights

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad

This production by the Iraqi Theatre Company is infused with Iraqi poetry, music and ritual. The romantic tragedy is re-located to contemporary Iraq, amid factional schisms between Sunni and Shia communities. It will be performed at the Swan Theatre before transferring to London's Riverside Studios. From 26 April to 5 May

Sonnet Sunday

As part of the Globe to Globe Festival, performers will stage Shakespeare's sonnets in more than 25 different languages. Among other highlights, the Aboriginal theatre company Yirra Yaakin will perform sonnets in the language Noongar, Owain Arthur, starring in One Man Two Guvnors, will recite in Welsh, and Czech actors will perform sonnets using puppetry. 22 April

Troilus and Cressida

New York City's The Wooster Group, a company known for its innovation and experimentalism, is co-producing Shakespeare's epic Trojan play about war, love and politics. Rupert Goold (RSC associate director) and Elizabeth LeCompte, (director and co-founder of The Wooster Group) are co-directing this groundbreaking multi-media collaboration at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. From 3 to 18 August

Julius Caesar

Gregory Doran, the incoming artistic director of RSC, has directed a pan-African version of this history play, transforming it into a political thriller set in modern Africa. The play opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford before going to the West End and on a UK tour. From 28 May to 7 July

Much Ado About Nothing

The Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Much Ado About Nothing', which opens at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to the Noël Coward Theatre in London, will mark Meera Syal's RSC debut. Iqbal Khan's production transports the story of sparring would-be lovers Beatrice, played by Syal, and Benedick, to India. From 26 July to 15 September

A Soldier in Every Son – An Aztec Trilogy

Spanning a century and based on true events chronicled in the Aztec codices, this trilogy is closely inspired by Shakespeare's history plays. A co-production between the RSC and the Compania Nacional de Teatro de Mexico, to be staged at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. From 29 June to 28 July

Two Roses for Richard III

From Brazil, Companhia BufoMecanica brings a combination of theatre, circus and aerial skills to re-imagine Shakespeare's history plays, focusing on 'Richard III'. Staged at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. From 7 to 12 May

Timon of Athens

Simon Russell Beale takes the title role in Shakespeare's fable of conspicuous consumption, debt and ruin in Athens, at the National Theatre. He plays Timon, a philanthropist and patron of the arts, whose generosity bankrupts him. Deserted by former admirers, he plots his revenge. Directed by the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. From 10 July to 9 September

Forests

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company joins forces with the internationally renowned director Calixto Bieito and Barcelona Internacional Theatre to present an original play inspired by Shakespeare's references to forests throughout his work. Staged at the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. From 31 August to 15 September

West Side Story

A full scale production of Leonard Bernstein's 'West Side Story' with bold new choreography by Will Tuckett and the Northern Sinfonia orchestra, staged at Gateshead's Sage. From 4 to 7 July

Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History

A Tunisian 'Macbeth' where Shakespeare's tyrant and his wife are reincarnated as a modern-day duo, Leila and Zine Ben Ali. Adapted by Lotfi Anchour and Anissa Daoud for Northern Stage, Newcastle. From 12 to 14 July

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