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Drama on display

The Stage, 7/6/2012
There’s no doubt that Shakespeare is the jewel in the crown of the London 2012 Festival, but there’s plenty more in the programme, too. Ruth Mackenzie, the project’s director, gives Simon Tait a flavour of what’s on offer

Ruth Mackenzie got in first and started the interview by saying we didn’t have to talk about Shakespeare, did we? Hadn’t we talked enough about that? And she ended by asking if we’d discussed Shakespeare enough.

The truth is that, unavoidably for many reasons, Shakespeare is the core of Festival 2012’s drama programming, something like 70 productions and 40 venues involving amateurs – 7,200 amateur theatre makers in 260 groups are working with the RSC and its partners on Open Stages in Festival 2012 – as much as pros, 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”.

She is actually inordinately proud of the Shakespearian element that is being offered in the festival, of which she is director, between June 21 and September 9. When she was a student she even had a walk-on part in Keith Michel’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”.

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

She’s desperate to talk about Peter Sellars; Deborah Warner; ATG, whose offering she thinks has been shamefully under-played so far; of Punchdrunk; Mnoushkine, here for the first time almost in living memory; Handspring; John McGrath and his Welsh National Theatre experiments; Silviu Pucaretti; Ayckbourns’s new play, the “very amazing” Rimini Protokoll; the wild choregoaphy of Elizabeth Streb; the Unlimited programme for deaf and disabled performers – “I’m convinced that that’s going to be one of the stories that the sharp-eyed will tell’; the Wooster Group; Robert Wilson… Well, in an hour we’re not going to get to them all. No-one has stopped to count how many presentations there are 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 site, that’s pretty fantastic”.

Ruth Mackenzie’s provenance is in music, opera, 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. Not a few commissions have gone to play makers she has come across during her time running Nottingham Playhouse or with Martin Duncan at Chichester, not to mention at the Manchester International Festival, and 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 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 “badging” – existing programmes that she has simply stuck the Festival 2012 label on – doesn’t really arise. It’s more subtle. “It was as much about allowing artists to do what they hadn’t been able to as anything,” she says. “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 at Enniskillen.

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. With Toni Morrison and the African singer Rokia Traoré, Peter Sellars is creating a prequel to Othello in which Desdemona talks to her nurse about her life.

Mackenzie particularly wants to draw attention to the Ambassador Theatre Group’s The Sacred Truce – a reference to the ancient Olympic Truce notion Mackenzie is fond of whereby participating nations forget about war and politics to compete in amity. Ursula Rani Sama has created a new play, The Ripple Effect, devised for ten to 15 year olds working in six different productions in six different venues. “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,” she says. “I love this project”.

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

From last year’s Manchester Festival she’s brought Punchdrunk with their take on Dr Who in which, you can guess it, the audience has to save the Tardis from certain doom, in an Ipswich car park.

And then there’s Alan 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 was one… “Oh, please don’t ask me what my one tip is, drives me mad,” she says, and after the smallest pause adds. “Well, actually it would probably be the Woosters…’ And we’re back to omnipresent Shakespeare, because The New York based Wooster Group are playing a dramatised Troilus and Cressida with them as the Greeks and the RSC as the Trojans, rehearsing separately and coming together in Stratford, co-directed from both sides by Rupert Goold 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”.