In 1982 I was set upon by some football hooligans on the Tube, who attacked me because I happened to be crying at the time, which shows the sort of hooligans they were. I was crying because of Shakespeare, having just been to see Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack in Much Ado About Nothing in which the beauty of the language was enough to make a man weep. So as the beery-breathed thugs crowded in I felt impervious: I was wrapped up in beauty. The Bard’s words were talismans, which would protect me and forever sustain me.
And I’ve felt the same about Shakespeare, and football fans, ever since, so this summer is going to be just glorious. Just like those proverbial buses there’s not one but two enormously promising productions in Wales as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.National Theatre Wales’s ‘Coriolan/us’ will be staged by a long-established theatre team, Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes, in a gargantuan, decommissioned aircraft hangar in south Wales – Hangar 858 to be precise – and even they admit it’s a bit daunting. With a relatively small cast of eleven it’ll mean harnessing technology and moving people around a lot: one imagines that will include the nightly audience of 400 who’ll be kept on their toes.
I like the Bard’s plays which are set in the bloodbath-at-the-house-of-death, works such as Titus Andronicus, the rages and riots of Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. We always have wars, and violence seems to be forever spreading like a virus but Shakespeare explores the motives of power and the roots of bloodlust like no other writer. He’s like Max Hastings, but with lots more drama. And with a big vision of a world that can easily be rent asunder. By dissecting the motives he acts as a civilizing force in a world going mad.
So the space for staging Coriolan/us is suitably big. Mike Brookes calls it “a landscape with a lid on it.” It’s a vast, echoing and sublimely atmospheric second World War storage space. Shout the name “Coriolanus” and it takes minutes for the echo to subside. Well, ok, seconds.
But Brookes and Pearson have been doing this sort of thing for a long time, taking old factories and industrial hubs and making them pulsate once again with new theatrical energies. They’ve also chosen to interweave two versions of Coriolanus, the translation into English of Bertolt Brecht’s version – which sounds pretty much how they themselves would translate the Elizabethan English – and the original Shakespeare. There’ll be a new dynamic there, too.
Still on the theme of disused aircraft Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh language sister company will be presenting a new translation of The Tempest as Y Storm, on the disused airfield at Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan, a site that will host this year’s National Eisteddfod. It’ll have a lot of circus skills on show to match the juggling elegance of the language. Elen Bowman, on directing duties, is one of our best young theatre makers. It augurs well, even if there is a storm brewing.
Translating Shakespeare into Welsh isn’t easy, as the rhythms of the senior tongue don’t match easily with iambic pentameter. I say, senior tongue not only because Welsh is the older language but also because I love telling tourists in Stratford-upon-Avon that Avon comes from the Welsh word for river, namely afon! Suggesting we were here first!
But the translation is in the very capable hands of Gwyneth Lewis, Wales’s first National Poet, who is exquisitely adept in both languages. In fact she wrote the world’s biggest poem, emblazoned on the front wall of the Wales Millennium Centre, one of the partners in this project. She’ll rise to the challenge, you can bet.
Not that everyone’s happy, of course. There’s plenty of damp in the makeup of Welsh character to make one’s fair share of squibs: so there have been letters in the press complaining about Theatr Genedlaethol presenting a translation instead of commissioning a new work in Welsh. Fair point, but most times I see Shakespeare it feels like a new play, about now, and me, and you can’t connect more deeply than that. And he’s a Welsh playwright as much as, say, Saunders Lewis. For he is a universal writer. With everything to say.
Shakespeare did well by his Welsh characters, from the indomitable and haughty Owen Glendower, a terrorist of his day, and a problematic father figure of Welsh nationalism. There was Fluellen, choleric and lovable. King Richard II’s Captain, faithful and trusty. Not to mention Lear, derived from Llŷr, a mythical king, or god, who featured in the Mabinogi, our finest folk tales. Glendower, in particular, was built up by Shakespeare to be a character of scary inspiration, able to defeat the English with sharp myth as much as metal sword.
I’m pretty sure our national companies here in Wales will do well by him, the Bard, everyone’s bard, matching the extraordinary pertinence, exactitude and beauty of his language with great theatricality. Certainly it will be a splendid summer as these twin productions take flight. And probably soar.