Arts column: Shakespeare may be 448 years old but he hasn’t aged a day

POOR old St George. Not even valiantly fighting dragons could prevent him from being overshadowed on his official day.

Not his fault that his heraldic symbol has become associated with the dishonourable side of Britishness – with skinhead bullies, intolerance and the BNP.

Nor that it feels slightly uncomfortable being proud to be British, in a way that it never is when the French strut about like their cockerel symbol or the Americans claim to be from the land of the free.

On Monday, instead of hanging white and red flags from our windows and clinking pewter tankards of Bombardier to mark of St George’s Day, we kept our heads down and for the most part forgot about it.

Yet, on the very same day there was widespread celebration for another Great British figure – more British in fact than our English patron saint, who was born in Syria Palaestina.

A man who had no issue with patriotism, whose words – five centuries after they were written – continue to instil a sense of pride in us.

Shakespeare, it is believed, was born and died on April 23 in the sort of poetic symmetry that would not be out of place in his own writing.

All over the country this week, theatres, schools, libraries and TV programmes have been marking the occasion with special readings, debates and performances.

Here in Liverpool, while St George’s Hall plateau seemed deserted in comparison to two days earlier, when thousands of people gathered for the Sea Odyssey street theatre, the Playhouse celebrated a literary giant instead of a wooden one.

The cast of the Globe Theatre’s Henry V (“Cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’” currently touring to the Williamson Square theatre, held a post-show discussion to mark both Shakespeare’s birthday and St George’s Day.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Globe announced a less traditional take on the works of the Bard with the launch of its international Shakespeare festival – Globe To Globe.

Kicking off with a performance of Troilus and Cressida in Maori, featuring a traditional haka war cry, by New Zealand’s Ngakau Toa theatre, the event will see 37 plays produced in 37 different languages.

Other performances will include a Sudanese Cymbeline, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language and Hamlet in Lithuanian.

Festival director Tom Bird describes it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Shakespeare’s work in a way that you’re unlikely ever to have seen it before, and a chance for the communities of London to hear his stories in their mother tongue.”

It proves the universal appeal of the Bard’s work, he adds, whose stories and characters are identifiable in any language or culture.

There will be the naysayers of course, who insist the play should only ever be performed in doublet and hose but, as the Globe demonstrates with two such different productions on the same day, there is room for both. And there’s no arguing against the fact that presenting these plays in a range of translations and styles certainly reflects the cultural melting pot of modern Britain. Shakespeare may be 448 years old but, unlike St George, he hasn’t aged a day.

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