Entertainment & Arts

Calixto Bieito grows drama out of Shakespeare's forests

Calixto Bieito
Image caption Calixto Bieito has presented Shakespeare plays in a dozen languages

Calixto Bieito's sex and violence-filled productions have made him one of Europe's most controversial directors. Now he is mashing up Shakespeare for the final week of the London 2012 Festival.

After several years working away from the UK, Catalan director Calixto Bieito is back with a radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare.

In his new work Forests, Bieito has combed the Bard's complete works for mentions of trees, heaths and woodland.

The result is, he admits, a work where even Shakespeare scholars will struggle to identify all of the references.

But audiences at The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham, can expect scenes influenced by As You Like It's forest of Arden and the moving trees of Macbeth's Great Birnam Wood.

"There are so many forests and trees in Shakespeare," says Bieito, talking ahead of Tuesday's opening night.

"I wanted to make an open show with a new plot using the words of Shakespeare like a symphonic poem. I'm much more interested in this than the plot."

Forests marks the Catalan director's first work in the UK since 2004.

Image caption The play is a commission for the World Shakespeare Festival

His previous UK theatre productions include Hamlet and Celestina, both for Edinburgh Festival and Birmingham Rep, and Macbeth at the Barbican, while his opera productions have included Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Giovanni for English National Opera and Die Fledermaus for Welsh National Opera.

Bieito's interpretations have often stirred up controversy.

His raunchy production of Die Fledermaus in 2002 shocked audiences with an orgy, violence and strong language.

He also ruffled feathers with his ENO productions of Don Giovanni and Verdi's A Masked Ball. The latter opened with a dozen men sat on lavatories and featured homosexual rape, satanic sex rituals and masturbation.

In 2004, Bieito caused a scandal in Berlin when his Abduction from the Seraglio shifted Mozart's opera to a modern-day brothel. The hero was a cross-dressing pimp who slaughtered the prostitutes at the end of the night.

"You say all the time I'm a bad boy," says Bieito, "but I'm more interested in philosophical things."

He originally wasn't keen to take on the latest project when he was approached about a commission for the World Shakespeare Festival.

"When they asked me to do Shakespeare I decided I would not do more. In two years I'd already done Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear in five different languages . At the end of King Lear I was exhausted."

But Bieito re-read the complete works of Shakespeare, including the Sonnets, in under three months. "I've done 12 Shakespeares in different languages," he says modestly. "I'm a fast reader."

It was a chance remark from his wife that planted the seed of an idea.

Image caption Into the woods: Josep Maria Pou in a scene from Forests

"We were talking about our children, and she said she would like to see them growing up like trees. Maybe it was this sentence that made me think about forests."

Bieito has no qualms about chopping up Shakespeare's prose for his arboreal venture.

He cites film director Luis Bunuel as an inspiration. "You don't need the story, the show is full of pictures. You'd have to be a Shakespeare specialist to recognise everything."

Presented by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Barcelona Internacional Teatre, Forests features a cast of English and Catalan actors.

So what can audiences expect?

"They will identify with what the show says about childhood and the violence that exists in the world," Bieito says. "It's like going to a concert and you feel emotions but you don't know where they're coming from.

"Shakespeare's words are out of context, but they are much more free. They are not a slave to the plot - they get a new dimension."

Forests is at the Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham, until 15 September, and the Barbican in London from 6 to 10 November. It was commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival and is part of the closing week of the London 2012 Festival.

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