Cultural Olympiad's World Shakespeare Festival is all set to be a marathon. The Globe to Globe season – now under way at Bankside's timber-framed Globe – is an unparalleled celebration of the Bard: 37 plays in 37 languages, by troupes paying flying visits from all over the planet.
For Shakespeare's birthday (23 April), the Ngakau Toa ensemble whisked over from New Zealand to perform Troilus and Cressida in Maori. They took the wooden O by storm, converting the Graeco-Trojan War into an inter-Maori clan conflict and launching into their haka war dance with thunderous stamping, tongues flicking. The later battle scenes featured whirling stave fights, performed with a stark panache that steered away from the "tourist spectacular" trap.
The actors strutting their stuff as vaunting warriors fearlessly and cheekily sported little more than flax sporrans and buttock tattoos – accompanied by a trumpeting conch horn. If Week One is anything to go by, Globe to Globe will be a culturally fascinating feast of languages, ethnic costumes and music, variously combining ancient traditions with modern and global sensibilities.
Romantic love and heroics are corroded by seedy shenanigans in Troilus and Cressida. This staging principally portrayed a macho culture, with a satiric edge. In the Greek (aka Kariki) ranks, Thersites was played as a female minion, mocking the muscle-flexing haka and the effeminacy of Achilles's toyboy. The limp-wristed mincing by Patroclus and Pandarus (Rawiri Paratene of Whale Rider fame) wasn't far off Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?, but the bawdy comedy was counterbalanced by more subtly drawn characters: Achilles unexpectedly tender; Cressida nervy underneath her steely exterior. With surtitles used only to outline each scene, you could watch the actors undistracted. Of course Shakespeare's words were lost, yet the rolling storyline came through clear and strong.
The quality may vary as Globe to Globe continues. Its opening celebrations included a hit-and-miss recitation of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, in 32 languages. Some were barely audible, others skimmed the surface emotionally. Yet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" was spellbinding, intoned like a magic charm in Western Australia's long-vowelled, indigenous language, Noongar. The verses in Scots were vibrant, Cornish brought out a bardic lyricism, and, in clipped Latin, the sonnets' logical shifts, theses and antitheses, stood out sharply.
Truly fantastic, following that, was the transformation of Shakespeare's longer, tragicomic poem Venus and Adonis into U-Venas no Adonisi. This was a sung-through opera by South Africa's Isango Ensemble, textually filleted but musically electrifying with carnivalesque marimbas, touches of Purcell and sighing ululations. It was highly theatrical too, with a petulant, leaping Adonis ensnared by a formidably voluptuous Venus on the banks of a river – rippling white silk which became her wedding dress and his winding sheet. Let's hope this show transfers for a longer run, perhaps to the Young Vic which has championed this company before.
That venue is lumbered with a lifeless dramatisation of the hit book Wild Swans. Jung Chang's family saga about generations resisting injustices in China and turning against Communism has been pared down ruinously. Though Katie Leung conveys desperation all right as Chang's character, Er-Hong, the dialogue is risibly stiff in Sacha Wares's production, and the normally minimalist set designer Miriam Buether opts for collective mud-shovelling and path-laying, so the scene changes last a lifetime.
Finally, back with the World Shakespeare Festival, the RSC's first contribution is What Country Friends is This? or The Shipwreck Trilogy – The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest performed by a single ensemble.
In a recession, arts organisations are doubtless thankful for any sponsorship, but it's ironic that an offshore disaster triptych should be backed by BP. Two protesters climbed on stage and distributed leaflets at the press performance of Twelfth Night. Still, the overseeing director David Farr's angle is politically correct. He highlights how Shakespeare's characters, landing on foreign strands, suffer from xenophobic persecution, lose their sense of identity, make new lives for themselves, refresh stagnant societies, or problematically colonise.
In The Comedy of Errors, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, we glimpse illegal immigrants being "disappeared" by the port's mafia-style duke. Meanwhile, the slapstick farce of confused twins is slight, though Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes, as identical Dromios, are enjoyable dimbos. Farr's Twelfth Night is more enchanting and inspired (with nu-folk songs by Adem Ilhan). Illyria looks like a decaying grand hotel that has been washed by an ocean wave, Olivia's bed, dreamlike, half up the wall. Emily Taaffe's gamine Viola emerges dripping from a tank of glowing water; her tendency to shout her lines is less magical. Kirsty Bushell's languid Olivia becomes deliriously enamoured. Nicholas Day's Sir Toby is a terrific raddled drunk, head waggling, and Jonathan Slinger is on top form as a petty, officious Malvolio who goes bananas, letting it all hang out in kinky garters.
Unfortunately, Farr's Tempest – with Slinger as a nastily controlling Prospero – is nothing to write home about, peculiarly leaden.
'Globe to Globe' (020 7401 9919) to 9 Jun; 'Wild Swans' (020-7922 2922) to 13 May; 'What Country Friends is This?' (0844 800 1110) to 19 May, Roundhouse, London 1 Jun-5 Jul
The once-in-a-lifetime Globe to Globe festival continues enticingly at Shakespeare's Globe in London with a Chinese Richard III (mat & eve today) and a Cymbeline from South Sudan (Wed and Thu). Tom Morris's terrific staging of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons continues its post-West End tour at Plymouth Theatre Royal (Tue to Sat).Reuse content