As part of this year’s Cultural Olympiad, the artsy side-runner to the Olympic Games, Shakespeare’s Globe has launched an ambitious programme of works to celebrate the Bard. Yet – predictably – they’ll be doing it with a difference. Each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays will be performed on the Globe’s stage in a different language.
Exciting. Innovative. Far-reaching. Controversial – yes, but also in a way which you might not have considered.
The fracas has emerged from the production of Shakespeare’s fourteenth play The Merchant of Venice, to be performed in Hebrew. The anti-Semitic nature of the piece – typified through the Jewish moneylender Shylock – already makes a Hebrew performance provocative, yet the character has been played sympathetically since the early 19th Century, and productions in Yiddish and Hebrew are not anything new.
The controversy this time lies with the company performing the play, a group from Israel named Habima (meaning “The Stage”). Habima have performed the play in many different forms from 1936 up until the present day, yet their self-proclaimed status as “The National Theatre of Israel” has provoked outcry from protest groups, opposing their presence on the international stage.
Well-known figures including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Jonathan Miller and Richard Wilson have put their names to a letter written by the group ‘Boycott from Within’, calling for Habima’s production at the Globe to be halted for their complicity with the Israeli government. The group argue that Habima’s performance in the illegal Israeli settlements of the Occupied Palestinian Territory presents an infringement of international law, citing especially a production in the town of Ariel, whose controversial ‘cultural centre’ opened in 2010.
Habima argue that as a theatre group within Israel they are obligated to tour theatres throughout the region in order to receive funding; they do not force any actor to play in the Occupied Palestinian Territory if their conscience does not allow it. As many have pointed out, the Globe’s project also sees companies from countries like Iran, China and Turkey perform, whose human rights record are also highly questionable.
Shakespeare’s Globe has replied that it will go ahead with its production of The Merchant of Venice is Hebrew, despite the assertion of ‘Boycott from Within’ that it has ironically become “the language of the abuser of human rights”.
The Globe has issued a statement suggesting that an exchange of views and meeting of people is better than the “isolation and silence” a boycott would cause; yet in raising this dialogue the London-based group may be considered in implicit support.
The idea of cultural sanction seems tantamount to censorship: obscene and at loggerheads with ideas of openness and reconciliation. Nevertheless, to support a company of such partisan importance is highly questionable.
The ambiguities within our conceptions of the Middle East echo the conflict of The Merchant of Venice. What is justice; how should it be doled out?