London 2012 Festival: Drama on display

There’s no doubt that Shakespeare is the jewel in the crown of the London 2012 Festival, but there’s plenty more on the programme, too. Ruth Mackenzie, the project’s director, gives Simon Tait a flavour of what’s on offer

Ruth Mackenzie gets in first and says we don’t have to talk about Shakespeare, do we? Haven’t we talked about that enough? And she ends by asking if we have discussed Shakespeare enough.

The truth is that, unavoidably for many reasons, Shakespeare is the core of the London 2012 Festival’s drama programming. Something like 70 productions and 40 venues involve amateurs – 7,200 amateur theatre-makers in 260 groups are working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and its partners on Open Stages – as well as professional interpretations, and the range is bewildering.

“There’s the South Sudanese doing Cymbeline – a country that’s only just become a country with all of the joy of being free to express and enjoy their own culture using the words of Shakespeare,” Mackenzie says. “An absolutely great thing.”

Mackenzie is director of the London 2012 Festival, which runs between June 21 and September 9, and she is inordinately proud of its Shakespearian element. When she was a student she even had a walk-on part in Keith Michell’s production of Bingo!, Edward Bond’s play about Shakespeare in old age, which was the sensation of the mid-70s – “Nothing like it if you want to get to know Shakespeare,” she says.

The problem for her is because the quality of the Shakespeare productions is so good, in a conversation like this it threatens to obscure the range of other drama that bedecks the £55m programme stacked around the London Olympics.

She’s desperate to talk about Peter Sellars, Deborah Warner, Ambassador Theatre Group – whose offering she thinks has been shamefully underplayed so far – Punchdrunk, Mnouchkine – here for the first time almost in living memory – Handspring, John McGrath and his National Theatre Wales experiments, Silviu Pucaretti, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, Rimini Protokoll, the wild choreography of Elizabeth Streb, the Unlimited programme for deaf and disabled performers – “I’m convinced that’s going to be one of the stories that the sharp-eyed will tell” – the Wooster Group, Robert Wilson…

In an hour we’re not going to get to them all. No one has stopped to count how many presentations there are as part of the festival, but Mackenzie’s one regret is that no one will be able to see them all, even her. “Except that most of the Globe’s 37 plays will be on the arts council’s new Space [web]site – that’s pretty fantastic,” she adds.

Mackenzie’s provenance is in music, opera and festivals, but she reluctantly has to admit that her heart is in theatre. Her job has been about who she knows, and what she knows they know. Several commissions for the festival have gone to theatre-makers she came across during her time running Nottingham Playhouse, or with Martin Duncan at Chichester, not to mention at the Manchester International Festival. Indeed, she has clumped around her the likes of Duncan, Alex Poots of Manchester and Brian McMaster, who ran the Edinburgh Festival for 15 years, as her advisers.

Between them they needed to find out not just what theatre-makers around the world were doing but also what they were thinking, and it was talking informally at first to mates like Warner and McGrath that teased out some of the most fascinating drama you will see.

So the question of how much these are genuine commissions and how much is ‘badging’ – existing programmes that she has simply stuck the London 2012 Festival label on – doesn’t really arise. It’s more subtle than that. “It was as much about allowing artists to do what they hadn’t been able to as anything,” says Mackenzie. “Yes, it’s risky, but I just think about what Beckett said.” Oh yes, Samuel Beckett is someone else she needs to talk about – Robert Wilson is directing his acclaimed new production of Krapp’s Last Tape in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

What Warner and Fiona Shaw, teamed with Artichoke, have come up with is Peace Camp, a series of installations celebrating our coastline through art and poetry. And with author Toni Morrison and singer Rokia Traore, Sellars is creating a prequel to Othello in which Desdemona talks to her nurse about her life.

Mackenzie particularly wants to draw attention to ATG’s The Sacred Truce – a reference to the ancient Olympic truce notion that she is fond of, whereby participating nations forget about war and politics to compete in amity. In a project called The Ripple Effect, playwright Ursula Rani Sama is creating five new short plays with groups of ten-to 15-year-olds working in eight different ATG venues around the country. “It’s the first time ATG theatres have tried to do something together, the first time they’ve commissioned a writer and team to create something for young people, and they’ve promised the young people it will come into the West End,” Mackenzie says. “I love this project.”

Handspring, the puppet company that made the horses for War Horse, has put Ted Hughes’ Crow poems into a theatre piece as a co-commission with Greenwich, and John McGrath has asked the Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras to set stories from the Welsh folk myth cycle, the Mabinogion, in the forests of north Wales.

From last year’s Manchester International Festival Mackenzie has brought Punchdrunk with its take on Doctor Who, in which the audience has to save the Tardis from certain doom in an Ipswich car park.

And then there’s Ayckbourn, whose double bill at Chichester and Scarborough includes a new piece, Surprises. “It’s so important for me to say to the world, ‘Here’s another playwright, performed almost as often around the world as Shakespeare’,” Mackenzie says. “For me, he has broken boundaries, he’s reinvented theatre, he’s serious about experiment, risk and surprise.”

But if there could only be one? “Oh, please don’t ask me what my one tip is, drives me mad,” she says – but, after the smallest pause, she adds: “Well, actually it would probably be the Woosters…” And we’re back to omnipresent Shakespeare, because the New York-based Wooster Group is playing a dramatised Troilus and Cressida with the Woosters as the Greeks and the RSC as the Trojans, rehearsing separately and coming together in Stratford, co-directed by Mark Ravenhill and Elizabeth LeCompte.

That Beckett quote, though? “Oh yes, you can’t beat old Sam and I seem to think of him more and more. ‘Don’t be afraid to fail,’ he said, ‘but if you’ve failed, fail again but fail better’.”

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