On May 13, the late Sunday morning humdrum of strollers along the south bank of London’s Thames River contained an unusual number of Serbians. A colorful mural on a wall across from the river describes the reason for this influx. It was a visual representation of the Globe-to-Globe project, an international Shakespeare festival, during which the Globe (the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theater) is hosting a performance of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, each in a different language from a different international troupe. This makes each performance unique, as the plays are set in the culture of the language. On that Sunday, it was the National Theater Belgrade’s turn to perform Henry VI part I in Serbian.
Globe-to-Globe exhibits Shakespeare’s words breaking the barrier of language. It captures the impact of his words on a deeper level. Shakespeare asks the big questions. Significant themes and ideas not specific to a certain time or place fill his plays. Each of his plays explores recurring themes from different perspectives, with unique depth and subtlety. His plays raise profound issues that show extreme cases of a theme. If his play is about leadership, then he writes about whether or not one can control their kingdom. If his play is about psychology, then he writes about whether or not someone is going insane. Even though not everyone speaks the same language, or shares the same beliefs about these issues, the questions Shakespeare invokes are universal.
While the multicultural impact the Bard has is a function of his core ideas, each nation understands his text differently. Translating Shakespeare into a variety of foreign languages and cultures presents obstacles. For example, in the Japanese production of Romeo and Juliet, the play had a very different interpretation from the tragic love story we think it is. In Japanese culture, suicide is thought to be a noble solution to an unsolvable problem. Therefore, the ending was made out to be a practical way for the lovers to be together on a new spiritual plane.
Even though a good number of Serbians occupied the theater, the Globe is still in London, and it was clear that some of the audience members spoke no Serbian, including me. This did not deter National Theater Belgrade, who made it understandable on more than just a verbal level. No doubt, the absence of subtitles made this much more difficult. But no one got lost because the Serbians physically portrayed each line as it was spoken. They were fine physical actors, prancing around, acting out stories as they were being told. Even the stage would illustrate the scenes.
The chameleon of a set first seeming like nothing but a large circular table. Looking more closely, I could see that the table was actually 9 separate tables pushed together. Four large arc-shaped tables formed the outer ring of the circle; four similar smaller ones formed the inner ring. In the center was one circular table. Each had the same reflective, yet not shining, iron hue. 12 identical chairs were evenly spaced around the table. The one farthest upstage had a silver box on it. That was it, and it worked. Over the course of the next 2 hours those tables and chairs morphed to become a castle, battleground, city, wasteland, court, a slaughterhouse and a church. The actors also helped transport the scenes. The crawled and jumped over, under, around, in-between and on top of these tables. The tables started together as a unit, reflecting England, secure in the legacy of the late King Henry V. His ashes were in the silver box, which was blessed by all in the first scene. But as the kingdom divided, the clashing and bickering lords pulled each piece of the circle apart. Returning from intermission, the tables were not even in a circle at all, but snaked across the stage. The final scene had each table overturned and uneven, showing the upside down state of things in England. Two peasants spilled Henry V’s ashes to end the play, showing his legacy was scattered. When John Talbot died, the center table was moved offstage, showing that the heart of England was lost. Joan of Arc was killed in that hole, as she was the heart of France, as well as having killed Talbot.
The lack of emphasis on verbal communication led to the play being cut in a way that left out scenes that normally define Henry VI, Part 1. For one thing, having only one woman in the cast caused all the female roles but Joan of Arc to be exempted. This negated Shakespeare’s intent to show that in a world in such disarray, women take over. The most striking change to the text was the near absence of John Talbot, the one man who kept the English hopes alive. The production relied heavily on the ensemble element (there were no exits and entrances off stage, except for the final exit), causing Talbot to fade into mass of soldiers. He is meant to shine out against the French, the last defense keeping England in the war. Talbot is a symbol of England. Even today, his character is a source of unity and inspiration to Englishmen everywhere.
Performing this play without him, in England, impacts more than the plot, it takes away from the rush of emotions that Talbot triggers. He is also supposedly the only man who stays a real man. In a world without order, Talbot stays strong. He is the only Englishman who does not operate out of pure self-interest. While everyone else flees to save themselves, Talbot fights and dies to save others. But this contrast is not only lost with the absence of women, but also with the absence of men. King Henry VI and Charles, ruler of France, were played with the same manly countenance as every other character. This diminished the idea that the leaders were feeble at this time.
The scenes that were cut were essential to the plot, and I came away with the feeling that if I understood the Serbian, the play may have actually made even less sense, as I found myself assuming they were saying certain lines, though I’m not sure exactly what lines were cut, but it was clear that women were cut completely, and Talbot spoke very little. The scene order was enough to show the adapted storyline had some holes, even when the physical comedy made up for it.