As I enter the main space at the Rich Mix Theatre, Shoreditch, loud Balkan music permeates the auditorium. There’s an open bar in the theatre space, and an infamous portrait of Shakespeare is projected on the back wall, at the centre of the proceedings like a religious effigy. I don’t know what I’m about to witness, have I come to a cross-cultural rock concert? Or a sacred, spiritual exploration of the Bard. Even now, as I am back at home contemplating the evening’s events, I am unsure about how to categorise the nature of this performative showcase.
Bards Without Borders is a performance showcasing the poetry collective of the same name, who, through spoken word poetry seek to get to the bottom of “how Shakespeare shines a light on our experiences of loss, joy and displacement”. The poets’ performances draw from their varied cultural backgrounds, relating Shakespeare’s seemingly antiquated works to their experiences and knowledge of migration and seeking refuge.
This description of the evening sounds promising. However, despite all the right ingredients for an multicultural investigation of Shakespeare’s relevance 400 years after his time, the performance’s presentation and structure is muddled and confusing. The evening begins with two performers reciting lines of poetry, but the lack of introduction to this opening work means that the themes and meaning of the lines are lost upon the audience. Various events follow, a musician channels the spirit of Shakespeare through the medium of djembe drum, and there are translations of famous plays into Arabic, Swahili, Old Yugoslavian and Somali. The “Minister for Shakespeare” arrives half way through declaring that Shakespeare should only be kept for British pleasure in an attempt at comical satire and irony. Parts of the programme are very informal, yet others seem rehearsed to try to create humour which instead comes across as unnatural and forced.
However, despite these criticisms there is still great value in the content of many of the poems recited, and one section of the showcase creates an intriguing platform that encourages intellectual debate. A spade and the complete works of Shakespeare are metaphorically placed at the front of the stage, posing the question “Should we bury, or resurrect the works of the Bard?” Every poet in the collective answers the question with an individual, spoken word response. It is almost like a literary trial. “Burn it, burn it, burn it!” shouts one extremist poet, declaring it irrelevant and sexist. Others are more moderate, and contemplate how Shakespeare’s timeless narratives can be adapted for contemporary audiences through popular culture, whilst many declare their love for the Bard’s work and its ability build pathways between countries.
A standout performance comes from Colombian poet Barbara Lopez, who interestingly supports the resurrection of Shakespeare’s verses, despite her dislike for their misogynistic portrayal of female characters. Dressed as her heroine, Ophelia with flowers crowning her head, Lopez details that if we “burn” the plays that mistreat female characters – such as Ophelia – we are abandoning and mistreating these women ourselves. “Don’t bury her [Ophelia] twice!” she exclaims.
Overall, Bards without Borders is an attempts to question the relevance and collective obsession with Shakespeare’s works 400 years after his death, yet the wide variety of performances are disjointed, making the showcase appear unaware of its own identity and purpose. Despite this incoherent structure, the Bards Without Borders poetry collective undoubtedly portray themselves as a group of talented, relevant and articulate writers, who present interesting cultural and literary opinions.
Bards Without Borders played Rich Mix, Shoreditch for one night only on 23 April 2016. For more information see The Rich Mix Theatre website.