LONDON — A rousing haka war cry by Maori actors kicked off a marathon programme of 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages on Monday as a cultural curtainraiser for the 2012 London Olympics.
The Ngakau Toa theatre company, who launched the festival on Monday evening with their performance of "Troilus and Cressida", shook London's Globe Theatre with the rhythmic stamping and cries made famous by New Zealand's rugby team.
The actors' tattooed thighs were an unusual sight at the Globe, a replica of the 16th century playhouse on the south bank of the River Thames that presented many of Shakespeare's plays during his own lifetime.
Other highlights of the Globe to Globe festival will include a South Sudanese version of "Cymbeline", a performance of "The Comedy of Errors" by Afghan actors, and "Richard III" by the National Theatre of China.
Deaf actors will also present "Love's Labours Lost" in British Sign Language.
The festival runs until June 9 as part of cultural celebrations leading up to the Olympics, which open on July 27.
"It's probably one of the most ambitious festivals of all time," festival director Tom Bird told AFP, adding that a key aim was to attract London's many linguistic communities to the theatre.
"The other thing is to show that Shakespeare isn't really an English poet," he said. "He's become a part of world culture."
Bird said unrest and censorship in several of the 37 countries contributing performers had made it "a real challenge" to set up the festival.
"We have a group from Afghanistan who had its rehearsals interrupted by an attack on the British Council in Kabul (last August), we have the group from South Sudan where there's fighting at the moment," he said.
"And then there's the Belarus Free Theatre, who have to work completely underground because they're banned for criticising the regime.
"The variety of the whole thing is what I'm most proud of," he said. "It's like having 37 children."
Bird added that Shakespeare -- whose 448th birthday falls on Monday -- retains a universal appeal because "he gets what it means to be human better than anyone else".
"He takes you to the darkest times and then to the lightest times in two minutes," he said.
Rawiri Paratene, director of the Maori "Troilus and Cressida", said he was "excited and frightened" about opening the festival.
He said the play translated well because "the classical Maori language is very poetic, very bawdy, very prosaic -- it's got all the different forms of the language that Shakespeare uses."
"I've worked in the Globe before, and it's my favourite stage on the planet," he added. "It's beautifully designed with a few problems like the pillars that you can play to your advantage.
"The best thing is the intimacy of the audience," he said.
Nadia Nadarajah, an actor in the sign language version of "Love's Labours Lost", explained that the Deafinitely Theatre company had simplified Shakespeare's archaic language to write their script.
"It's the language that we use every day," she told AFP in sign language through an interpreter.
"A big challenge for me is using the space eloquently," she added. "Actors that use speech have to project their voice, while I have to project my hands if I want to reach everybody that's watching it."
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