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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year ed. by Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan
  • Sujata Iyengar (bio)
Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year. Edited by Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan. London and New York: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015. Illus. Pp. xviii + 356. $112.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.

The passing of time has allowed Londoners to ponder (and in some cases to mourn the loss of) the camaraderie and celebration of the 2012 Olympics, and it has enabled Shakespeareans to reflect upon Shakespeare’s starring role in the so-called Cultural Olympiad’s World Shakespeare Festival and the Olympic opening ceremony. This volume tempers our emerging enthusiasm for Global Shakespeares with a thoughtful, measured, and earnest critique. Chapters offer a range of material, including lyrics by poet Kapka Kassabova, the 2012 writer in residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; in-depth interviews with festival directors; Stuart Hampton-Reeves’s bracing comparison between nation-state pageantry in the 1590s and the 2010s; Rose Elfman’s and Stephen Purcell’s studies of audience response; the revelation by Tracy Irish, program developer of the World Shakespeare Festival, that only forty-three completed surveys (of those sent out by the British Council) were responsible for the widely publicized and widely misunderstood statistic that “50% of the world’s school children study Shakespeare” (65); and Colette Gordon’s strictures on “making up Africa” (191) as an imaginary continent—a commentary that, she insists, is not a “critique” but a well-placed reminder that it is time to “qualify [] the global euphoria (euphoria about the global)” (193).

Editors Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan begin with a beguiling anecdote: when offered an overview of the Olympic opening ceremony, then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt asked in bewilderment, “Where’s Shakespeare?,” having failed to recognize in the first words Caliban’s paean to the “sounds and sweet airs” of the island (52). Their provocative account of the ceremony connects the Olympic ideal to the often unexamined assumption that the “moral benefits … of studying Shakespeare are as evident as those of physical exertion” (11). Although the writer of the opening ceremony, author Frank Cottrell Boyce, notably imagined the North Atlantic archipelago as “‘Isles of Wonder’” (45) rather than the “sceptered isle” of previous generations, and both the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies quoted Caliban, “a native—and enslaved—inhabitant of the island” (47), Sullivan and Prescott identify multiple ironies in the ceremony’s gestures toward racial harmony and technological prowess. One of their examples clarifies the limits and even the [End Page 136] evils of such a seemingly worthy goal; on the Royal Mint’s commemorative silver medal appears the face of the black eighteenth-century writer and freedman Olaudah Equiano alongside not his own words, however, but those of Shakespeare (19). Moreover, while London’s original Olympic bid placed “multiculturalism” at the center of Tony Blair’s London, the 7/7 terrorist bombings, “see-sawing government attitudes to … immigration” (25), and the London riots in 2011 led to the downplaying of multiculturalism in favor of a “diversity” (25) that would instead inculcate immigrants into a “‘common culture’” (26). It’s not unexpected, then, that the historically elitist cultural production of Shakespeare in Britain would prove similarly ambiguous, along with the Olympic “legacy” that Sullivan anatomizes in the concluding chapter.

In an interview included the collection, Cottrell Boyce observes of the opening ceremony, “There’s as much Milton as there is Shakespeare in it”; Shakespeare entered “by osmosis,” he suggests, as “part of the cultural air that we breathe” (46). In contrast, a conversation with Tom Bird, director of the Globe to Globe Festival that invited troupes from different countries to present Shakespeare in whatever idiom felt most natural, explains the festival committee’s deliberation. It identified specific linguistic communities in London and used different outreach methods to encourage them to participate. Bird points out, “As a theatre-goer in London, whether you make theatre or not, it was so extraordinary to be sitting there watching The Tempest with three thousand people from Tower Hamlets [a London borough] because you realize this never...


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