Will power

Forget the grimacing and the grunting that are about to beam and resound around the freshly hallowed tracks, halls and pools of east London. For those who spurn the significance of young bodies exercising themselves in pointless competition, the cold, damp summer of 2012 in the capital will be remembered differently. Think about the other Stratford. For arts lovers, London 2012 will go down as the summer of Shakespeare.

Say what you will about the Cultural Olympiad, the sprawling celebration of the arts that is a beguiling mixture of the studiously quirky and the undeniably great, there is little doubt as to what constitutes its emotional core. The unprecedented festivities devoted to Britain’s most important cultural figure are the showpiece, the game-changer. Never before have so many actors and directors, from so many different theatrical traditions, gathered together to honour the greatest of all playwrights.

Such is the level of activity that it is hard to grasp. There is the World Shakespeare Festival, featuring foreign companies interpreting the plays at a variety of venues across the country, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three theatres at Stratford-upon-Avon. There was the Globe to Globe season at Shakespeare’s Globe, all 37 plays in 37 languages, which ended last month. The British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition opens this month.

Switch on the television to watch the football, and there is presenter Gary Lineker quoting from Shakespeare, in yet another vain attempt to stir the country’s hapless football team. Get on the London Underground, and you may be accosted by Mark Rylance, arguably Britain’s foremost theatrical performer, reciting poetry as part of Pop-up Shakespeare. You can’t avoid Shakespeare this summer. “Somehow,” says no less a figure than Nelson Mandela in the RSC’s promotional literature, “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.”

This is the key to this summer’s emphasis on Shakespeare. It is not necessarily the sheer accomplishment of the work, which is already head-spinning enough. It is the continuing relevance of Shakespeare to our own time that is being explored, interrogated, celebrated. As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, puts it: “How is it that these plays, that are written at a particular moment in a market town in Warwickshire, have been able to speak to the world ever since?”

One of the things to laud in Shakespeare’s work, he says, is its status as “high culture that speaks to the whole society. And that is fascinating. It is not a charge you can level at Dante or Goethe. This is the first commercial theatre where you have all classes of society in the same audience, and all their needs are being addressed. It is like the cinema in the 1920s and 1930s, or British television in the 1960s. The whole country is watching and enjoying.”

MacGregor sees the canon of Shakespeare’s works as a “response to instability” that cannot help but resonate in freshly unstable times. “England in the 1580s and 1590s is such an unsettled time. Everything about the world is different. The security of an anchorage in the past has gone.

“It is so unclear what is going to happen. If the Spanish do get rid of the Queen, which is not all that difficult, then what? If the rule of law breaks down in Ireland? And that is quite apart from the food riots and the plague. What is exciting [about Shakespeare] is that it shows that this is how people can respond to instability in every key area of existence. This is what they wanted. These were very successful plays.”

The BM show is another example of MacGregor’s mission to explore the world’s most potent stories – and Shakespeare’s barely sketched life is among the most compelling – through the objects from its own collection, aided by loans. MacGregor cites the volume of the Complete Works that was made available to prisoners of the South African apartheid regime on Robben Island, among them Mandela, which is included in the show.

The universality of Shakespeare’s verse was never more in evidence than when the inmates were asked to choose their favourite passages from the volume. Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s mentor and friend, chose Shylock’s words in The Merchant of Venice: “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” Mandela himself picked the words of Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

If you are British, you will know at least some of the words from the Shakespearean canon. Familiarity with the work has bred, if not contempt, then complacency in some quarters. Which is why Michael Boyd, outgoing artistic director of the RSC, welcomes the influx of foreign interpreters that are putting fresh twists in the work over the summer. I ask him what the world can teach the British about Shakespeare, and he replies: “The same kind of thing you get from any conversation with a new friend.”

Until recently, Shakespeare was taught at schools by having pupils sit in a classroom and pore over the text, an approach that privileged the admittedly sublime quality of the verse at the expense of other factors. That has too often resulted in a “wordy” approach to Shakespeare in the British theatre, something not at all in evidence in other countries’ theatrical traditions.

In Two Poses for Richard III from Brazil’s Companhia BufoMecanica, which played in Stratford in May, for example, the History plays were given a circus-like treatment that, according to Boyd, “introduced a sense of playfulness, or delight, or carnival” to the plays. “In fact, it is the very thing that Shakespeare was lamenting in his plays, the loss of that carnival, Catholic culture, which is still in existence in Brazil.”

For so many years, he says, Shakespeare’s words were “bursting out of their skins” to compensate for the limitations imposed on productions of his plays. “In the Victorian age the plays were literally censored. It was a revisiting of the puritanism of the Reformation. We are only now, in the past 20 years, fully coming out of that. The notion of a celebratory Shakespeare is a new one.”

Boyd points to the way that foreign theatre companies have been able to use “Shakespeare’s well-honed ambiguity to tell true stories about life in their own countries. It is a double disguise: the stories are British, and they are historical. ‘It’s not about us but it is.’ And, of course, it is a lovely reflection of what Shakespeare was doing himself, by setting his plays in Padua, Vienna, Venice.

“Artists who are not free seek freedom through allegory. And that is at the heart of what Shakespeare does.”

This summer’s Shakespeare bonanza in London makes an extra point too, according to MacGregor. It was in Shakespeare’s time, as the BM exhibition will show, that London began to confront its status as a world city. “Because England is facing the danger of disintegration at the end of the 16th century, there is this sense of the unspoken traitor in our midst, that your neighbour could also be your enemy. This is the beginning [of Londoners] having to live with people from different traditions. That is a new phenomenon in London.”

I ask Deborah Shaw, director of the World Shakespeare Festival, if we are living in a golden age for the appreciation of Shakespeare. Has there ever been such a rich confluence of studies and performances? “Certainly we could never have created a festival like this even five years ago, we simply didn’t have the digital tools to have kept the conversation going,” she replies.

This summer, that conversation has encompassed contemporary events from all over the globe: Iraq’s Romeo and Juliet, portraying feuds and generation clashes; Julius Caesar set in Africa; a Macbeth from Tunisia, where artists have been at the centre of the debate over a new constitution.

The “digital chatter” over Shakespeare that Shaw says has brought the playwright’s light to bear all over the world is echoed in MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World, which further disseminates the themes of his plays.

In the last episode, MacGregor focuses on the story of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the 92-year-old German-Polish literary critic who earlier this year addressed the German Bundestag on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He told of how he had suddenly needed to marry his fiancée within 24 hours to prevent her from being taken to Treblinka. As he rushed through Warsaw, the only thing that whirled through his anxious mind were the words from Richard III: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” Once more, the words of Shakespeare, a timeless commentary on human affairs, had found a new time and place in which to make themselves felt.

“And that,” says MacGregor, “is what there is to celebrate.

The World Shakespeare Festival continues until September www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk. ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’,

British Museum, July 19-November 25 www.britishmuseum.org

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