LONDON – In fewer than 100 days time, athletes and spectators from around the world will be pouring into London to fill the great steel and concrete “O” of the Olympic Stadium. But there’s another major venue that is already welcoming international audiences and stars — the “wooden O” of Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre — which sits, as its historical namesake did, on the south bank of the River Thames — is playing host to the “Globe to Globe” festival, a bold and breakneck staging of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, in 37 different languages from Armenian to Yoruba, in the space of just six weeks.
The man who landed the enviable job of programming the festival is Tom Bird, a youthful and energetic playwright and physical theater practitioner. There’s occasionally a wild look in his eye as he describes the 18-month-long process of trying to assemble a lineup of productions that are creative, inspirational — and affordable. He went to Japan initially, he says, with his eye on the acclaimed New National Theatre production of “Henry VI.”
“If Shakespeare had been alive today, there’s a fair chance he would have worked at the New National Theatre,” Bird says.
But the cost of transferring the production to London for just two performances proved prohibitive, so Bird had to think again. He did, however, find some consolation in his visit to Tokyo. “Everything seems much easier when you’re drinking Japanese beer and eating yakitori,” he says. “Even when handling emails about contracts, flights and the chronic shortage of hotel rooms in Olympic London.”
He even found time to enjoy a visit to a traditional bathhouse: “It was heaven. All my worries seeped away — until I got into an electric bath and jumped out straight away when it started pulsing around me.”
He didn’t know it then, but he was to experience another “electric” shock a few months later — this time in Russia. Bird often consulted prominent theater critics in his sleuthing of outstanding productions. One Russian critic was particularly scathing, telling Bird that “No one is doing good Shakespeare in Moscow right now.” In fact, the only halfway-decent play the critic had seen recently wasn’t even by a Russian company, but a small Japanese theater group that was performing Chekhov’s early masterpiece, “The Seagull.”
Bird tracked them down — and what he saw was like an “electric bolt of theatrical intensity.”
He’d stumbled across the Chiten theater company from Kyoto, whose artistic director, Motoi Miura, has won numerous awards for his cutting-edge productions that use experimental sound, video and movement. The production of “The Seagull” that Bird saw was less than an hour long, and at one point was interrupted by a klaxon, followed by a ceremonial serving of Japanese tea. “I knew then I’d found a very Globe type of theater company,” he says.
Having found his Japanese company, there remained the matter of which play Chiten would bring to the Globe.
“Miura went away and read ‘Coriolanus,’ “explains Bird, “and he got very excited, and came back to me. But by that time I was already talking to someone else about it, so I had to quickly backpedal.”
The play — a political tragedy about a Roman general torn between power and honor — is, he thinks, an excellent fit for the company. “It’s a play that is very big and very small at the same time, and Chiten has the ability to make that shift.”
Bird will be seeing Chiten’s “Coriolanus” for the first time along with everyone else, when it premieres on May 21. The company — like all the others — gets just one day in the Globe’s rehearsal room and one morning on the stage before the doors are opened to the public. Not everything has run smoothly so far — the National Theatre of China made its U.K. debut last week with “Richard III,” but without any costume or props after their cargo container ended up stranded at a port far from London thanks to a storm.
So what can audiences expect? Bird is laying his money on something that is “very visual, a small company with the actors playing lots of parts. You’ll always be aware that it’s a play — they’ll always give a nod to the artificiality of theater. They don’t get hung up on costume, they just want to speak the language.”
One company, then, that need not fear its luggage getting lost en route.
“Coriolanus” by the Chiten theater company plays at the Globe Theatre May 21 and 22, from 7:30 p.m. Tickets are from ￡5 to ￡35. www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/box-office. On May 22 at 10:15 p.m. there is a reception at Tsuru Bankside with the opportunity to meet the cast. Tickets ￡20. Contact the Japan Society on 44 207 828 6330. There are plans to stage the play in Japan in January 2013. Check www.chiten.org for updated information.