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Global Spotlight

An American writer goes to Paris, Shakespearean Olympics, and a Nigerian-British copro.

From Kentucky to Yorkshire to Paris

Naomi Wallace is an American poet, screenwriter and playwright who has lived in Britain since 1997, when she left her native Kentucky for Yorkshire. Unabashedly left-wing, poetic and visionary, Wallace’s plays (such as In the Heart of America, The Fever Chart and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek) have garnered admiration in productions around in the world, in the hands of such directors Kwame Kwei-Armah, Ron Daniels and Dominic Dromgoole. But in spite of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, a citywide festival of her plays in Atlanta in the aftermath of 9/11 and a cult following for her film Lawn Dogs, Wallace has yet to achieve the kind of recognition in America enjoyed by her friend (and former Iowa Writers Workshop teacher) Tony Kushner. If Americans take a cue from Europe, this may soon change.

On April 28, Wallace’s drama One Flea Spare, rendered in French as Une puce, épargnez-la (in a lively, actor-friendly translation by Dominique Hollier), will open at Paris’s venerable Comédie-Française. It is the first play by a living American playwright to be accepted in the company’s permanent repertoire. This places Wallace, born in 1960, in the company of Tennessee Williams—the only other American to earn that distinction (posthumously), just last year—along with such European luminaries as Dario Fo, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Why is France’s national company, established more than 300 years ago to honor Molière, so keen to produce a play by a Kentucky playwright about an aristocratic couple, a wounded sailor and a homeless girl trapped in a cellar in plague-ridden 1660s London?

According to director Anne-Laure Liégeois, Wallace’s work marries a contemporary sensibility to heightened language “which speaks of the human body,” using intimate personal moments to confront the political realities of the outside world. Wallace’s erotic, transgressive plays about the nightmares of empire fit the agenda of Muriel Mayette (an actress and the first female general administrator of the Comédie-Française), who wants her company to go “outside the walls,” developing new plays, new stages, new spectators and an expanded global perspective.

Hollier, who has translated several of Wallace’s works, believes that the playwright’s ability to mix “the political and poetical” has resulted in an enthusiastic response in France, where she is recognized as “one of the strongest and most important voices in contemporary theatre.”

As the playwright notes: “Most of the U.S. theatre establishment has cold-shouldered my work for many years now. The incorporation of One Flea Spare into the repertoire of La Comédie has made me criminally happy. What a wondrous honor to be able to be able to whisper to myself: ‘Me and Tennessee are in this together.’”

—Erica Stevens Abbitt

London and Other Cities, United Kingdom

World Shakespeare Festival: If Shakespeare were an Olympic athlete, would he be a distance runner—steady in his genius all the way to the finish line? Or a javelin thrower, with sure aim and piercing words? Or a diver, executing more twists and turns than the breathless spectators dare expect?

In July and August, more than 5 million people are expected to cheer on the world-class athletes at London’s Summer Olympics. But from this month through November, audiences seeking another kind of thrill will snap up a million-plus tickets to experience the Bard’s feats of language and the exhilarating displays of imagination, passion and skill by today’s foremost interpreters of his work. The World Shakespeare Festival, organized by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of the Cultural Olympiad, in cahoots with a bevy of international partners, is a staggeringly ambitious undertaking, featuring a majority of newly commissioned work and copious contextual programming.

“This is not a festival that could have been produced in any other year,” says festival director Deborah Shaw, pointing at the influence of world events. “The contributions from Latin America, for example, look at contemporary politics in the region through the prism of Shakespeare’s history plays. The Middle East and North African productions catch a trail of the Arab Spring, exploring the toppling of tyrants and the refusal of a new generation to accept the constraints of an older generation.” She adds, “The joy of creating a festival from within a producing theatre is that you can both inspire a body of work within the company and you can build longterm relationships with artists around the world, rather than ‘shopping around’ for existing productions. It creates a unique festival which is also a snapshot of contemporary theatre.”

According to the RSC and the British Council, 50 percent (around 64 million) of the world’s school children study Shakespeare. Two sub-programs seem designed to acknowledge this far-reaching fact, as well as the figure that some 2 million Brits participate in amateur Shakespeare production. A two-year RSC program reaching its culmination for two weeks in July, Open Stages, will present hundreds of amateur and school performances. Another, Globe to Globe, will fill Shakespeare’s Globe for six weeks with professional productions of the Bard’s plays in 37 languages.

And unlike the international work commissioned by Shaw, the Globe to Globe program is entirely without surtitles. It’s a choice, on the part of Globe to Globe festival director Tom Bird, that Shaw calls “rather brave.” Without translation, “You have to be ready to experience the production through your other senses,” she says. “You rely on visuals, body language, the physicality of the production and there’s a subconscious connection through the actor to the elemental that can be very satisfying.” Still, she adds, she’s pleased with the integrated way her own commissions are incorporating English surtitles into their art. “I’ve just been in Baghdad with the Iraqi Theatre Company”—which is presenting Romeo and Juliet—“refining the translation and running it through rehearsals,” she recounts. “Arabic is very fast and also dense with meaning, so it’s a particular challenge.”

An online planner can aid visitors with particular interests (RSC’s “Nations at War” is one thread to follow), but those intrigued by reinvention may want to go out of their way to see the new Two Roses for Richard III by Brazilian circus-theatre troupe Companhia Bufomecânica; Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna of TR Warszawa’s unconventional 2007: Macbeth, which has toured since 2008; the premiere of Russian superstar director Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It); a Tunisian spin on Macbeth subtitled Leila and Ben—a Bloody History; an Indian mise-en-scène for Much Ado About Nothing, starring Meera Syal and

directed by Iqbal Khan; and dreamthinkspeak of the U.K.’s The Rest is Silence, an immersive and deconstructed Hamlet. The list of star directors also includes Yukio Ninagawa of Japan (Cymbeline) and Peter Sellars (who has collaborated with Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré on Desdemona), both presented by the Barbican. Purists will certainly be satisfied by the likes of pedigreed new stagings of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre (Nicholas Hytner directs, Simon Russell Beale stars) and King Lear at the Almeida Theatre (directed by Michael Attenborough, with Jonathan Pryce in the title role).

While venues not just in London but also in Stratford-upon-Avon, Newcastle/Gateshead, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland will host performances, even those who can’t make it to the U.K. can take part in “My Shakespeare,” a digital project to which participants can upload their own creations, also launching this month. (April–November;

London, England

Belong: This show marks a rare co-production by London’s Royal Court Theatre, and the first-ever such collaboration by Tiata Fohodzi, a company founded in 1997 by British-born, Nigerian-raised actor/director Femi Elufowoju Jr. to tell the underrepresented stories of British Africans.

Playwright Bola Agbaje got early exposure at Tiata Delights, the company’s new-play festival, in 2008 and has since won an Olivier Award and been nominated “most promising playwright” by the Evening Standard. Directed by repeat Agbaje collaborator Indhu Rubasingham, Belong will be the playwright’s third piece at the Royal Court. The satirical script concerns a British politician who flees the pressures of his life by returning to his birthplace, Nigeria—only to discover his notions of “home” and “escape” are unexpectedly complicated.

“Bola is of that lineage of playwrights who look beyond their own comfort zone. She has an eye for social and cultural inconsistencies and the contradictions faced by those astride two cultures,” says Tiata Fohodzi’s new artistic director, Lucian Msamati, who recently took over from Elufowoju. Though he too is a writer, Msamati is best known as an actor on London’s top stages as well as on TV (fantasy fans can catch him as the pirate Salladhor Saan in the next season of HBO’s television show “Game of Thrones”).

“For us the association with the Royal Court is like gold dust,” Msamati declares, noting his company normally occupies venues of no more than 200 seats and that while Belong will play in the Royal Court’s smaller space, it will gain his company invaluable exposure to new audiences. He describes the alliance as a sort of first date: “We’re all waiting to see what might come out of it.” (April 26–May 26; (44) 020-7565-5000;

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