Bringing Shakespeare to The Space

Guest blog from BBC Academy director Anne Morrison

Fancy watching Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night performed in Hindi with traditional Indian dance, songs and backing band?

How about a lavish staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by an award-winning South Korean theatre company known for combining folkloric and contemporary themes?

They may sound like you’d need a very expensive plane ticket to see them, but these productions - and 35 others like them – all recently took place in central London as part of the Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

In total, there were 37 different plays in 37 different languages. But if you didn’t make it don’t worry: they will all be available to view on The Space, the online platform for digital arts. Nineteen are already there, all with English scene synopses and many with subtitles.

The 37 theatre companies involved often interpreted the plays through their own culture and the creativity on show was astounding

The product of a longstanding Arts Council England and BBC partnership, The Space is designed for artists, arts and cultural organisations to showcase events, performances and archive footage in what has been described as “the biggest summer of arts the UK has ever seen”.

The BBC provided the technical basis for the platform, and also training to increase digital skills in the arts and culture sector - and that’s where the BBC Academy comes in. In addition to our Building Digital Capacity for the Artspartnership, since May we’ve been training the organisations and artists which were selected for The Space in how to create and distribute digital content.

These successful applicants were also appointed volunteer mentors from inside the BBC to help make their artistic projects a digital reality. I was one of those volunteers and found myself working on one of the biggest projects: Globe to Globe, part of the World Shakespeare Festival for the London 2012 Festival. 

It was a monumental undertaking for festival director Tom Bird and his team at Shakespeare’s Globe. The 37 theatre companies involved often interpreted the plays through their own culture and the creativity on show was astounding. I’ll never see The Winter’s Tale in the same way after Renegade Theatre’s exuberant performance in Yoruba.

The Belarusian staging of King Lear was as bleak and absurd as if it had been seen through the eyes of Samuel Beckett. I don’t know what life is like in Belarus, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it feels a bit like that at times.

This creativity on stage was paralleled by some serious innovation behind the scenes by Ian Russell, who runs Sparkly Light Creative Media, and his team of directors. Ian and several others were colleagues of mine when I used to run BBC Events, and were there filming for The Space. Because of the shoestring budget and scant time to view any rehearsals, much of the time the camera crew were seeing plays for the first time through the camera lens. It meant they had to devise a very different shooting style to capture the performances with their four cameras. The emphasis was on making sure they didn’t duplicate shots or ‘cross the line’ and that they were totally aware of what each other was doing.

They certainly stepped up to the challenge. I think the resulting footage works brilliantly. And, although we were passing on our digital knowledge to the Globe, it turned out to be a learning experience all round. I think there’s a lot the BBC could glean from this regarding outside broadcasts with multi-camera direction on a low budget.  

A similar level of ingenuity was required to find 37 translators to provide text in English for the films on The Space. My PA, Meghan Cruz, had the unenviable task of pulling this together, with huge help from the College of Journalism’s Najiba Kasraee and Ruth Hansford on The Space team.

Where we could, we wanted to go back to the original Shakespeare plays and put up the corresponding subtitles. We soon realised some of the plays were so far removed from the original Shakespeare that this wasn’t possible – though even to find this out meant locating a native speaker to check. It was a major effort and we were hugely helped by Najiba’s contacts in the BBC language services and their expertise in many of the languages required.   

Watching the performances, it was clear that the festival’s aim of reaching out to the diverse communities of London (and beyond) was a success. Many were not typical theatre-goers and had never been to Shakespeare’s Globe before. But the actors were often well known in their own country and got a very warm reception when they came on stage.

I hope the visual record of the festival created for The Space gets some of this excitement across. It has certainly allowed the plays to reach an even wider audience. According to Hilary Bishop, managing editor of The Space, there has been a “constant demand” for the films – sometimes before the performances had even taken place.

I’ve also talked to one or two people who are using them for academic research into the theatre traditions of the countries involved.

I’m delighted that the great kaleidoscope of nations which came through the theatre with all their brilliance, vivacity and creativity has a legacy that goes beyond the moment of performance. It’s certainly been a thrill to play a small part in ensuring this near-hallucinogenic experience was recorded for posterity.