All the world’s a stage and in this Olympic year London’s stage is playing host to the world. Not only amid the gleaming stadia of Stratford but also at the riverside Globe Theatre, where an unprecedented feat of pageantry and visa permissions has been under way.
Thirty-seven Shakespeare plays and 37 foreign theatre companies have been brought together for the Globe to Globe festival. It began in April with Venus and Adonis, performed in a sextet of South African languages, and culminates on Friday and Saturday in an English-language Henry V.
Festival director Tom Bird says he invited these companies with the brief to perform Shakespeare as they would at home. And who more totemic to take up that mantle in Turkey’s name last weekend than Haluk Bilginer? In 2011 he revived almost the entire canon in Shakespeare Musical (Şekspir Muzikali), directing and acting the seven ages of man through a musical medley of Shakespeare’s works.
A graduate of some of Britain’s most venerable dramatic institutions – EastEnders, not to mention LAMDA – Bilginer was excellently cast as Antony, an ageing star of the battlefield whose vestigial talent and charisma keep his reputation from souring in the face of his all-consuming devotion to his mistress.
Less well known inside Turkey, but an actor of such repute in Britain that his face is permanently plastered on the side of the Globe, is Kevork Malikyan, a Turkish Armenian who came to drama school in London the 60s and never returned. He plays Antony’s faithful deputy, Enobarbus, with a bawdiness that speaks to spectators across the linguistic divide.
Playing the titular ‘Serpent of old Nile’ was the captivating Zerrin Tekindor – not a permanent member of the troupe, but an actress sourced especially for the task. Bilginer describes Tekindor with some justification as the perfect Cleopatra – and this from a man who has played opposite the Turkish screen’s grandest diva, Turkan Soray.
Tom Bird acknowledges that Bilginer’s Oyun Atolyesi was one of the first companies to be chosen for Globe to Globe, and therefore had their pick of the plays. For his part Bilginer says the choice was made easy: he considers Antony and Cleopatra one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, and certainly his greatest love story. Nevertheless in this production there is as much innuendo as grandeur, with the messenger scenes arousing particular mirth. Both the script and the crowd are played for laughs, and yet the moments of self-realisation which precede Antony’s death were enough to move at least one audience member near me to tears.
My one quibble is with some curious elisions which take place towards the end. We see on stage one more sea battle and one fewer death than I remember from the original. The play’s extremes of pomp and bathos have been cut; there is no mention of burning thrones, and Enobarbus dies in no ditch, instead excusing himself from the stage with a few silent mutterings (though it is arguably more bathetic to deny the audience’s expectations of that famous scene).
Bulent Bozkurt’s translation is one of utility and not beauty, with much of the richness of this play delivered by some very strong performances not inherent in the text. At one point a fruitful yilan/yalan (asp/lie) duality not available in the English original might have suggested itself, but in this version it went ignored. Colloquialisms such as peki hala dostum are everywhere. On those few occasions where the characters do speak in verse, it has the effect of further colloquialising rather than elevating the lines. ‘Yıpratamaz zaman onun güzelliğini / Solduramaz rengini bozamaz ahengini' has a superior twang to its English counterpart (‘Age cannot wither her/ Nor custom stale her infinite variety’), and the effect of the rhyme is to undermine the sentiment far more starkly than is necessary in the English.
Given the brief of playing Shakespeare as they would to a home audience, the speed of some of the delivery has indeed not been designed for compromise. All but the most fluent Turkish speakers would have trouble keeping pace. But the sold out performances in Istanbul this week will no doubt have the audience hanging off every word.