Global warning

Should there be a boycott of the Israeli theatre company at the Globe?

In this Olympic year, the Globe’s idea is smart: all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays performed in 37 languages by companies from around the world. The theatre is offering special prices for “athletic” theatregoers able “to complete the Globe biathlon, triathlon, pentathlon, heptathlon, decathlon, marathon (that’s 26)”. If you stand, you can see the lot for £100 – including The Tempest in Bangla, Coriolanus in Japanese and Hamlet in Lithuanian.

But the cosy picture of global inclusiveness has proved complicated. The invitation to the Israeli Habima theatre company, due to perform The Merchant of Venice, provoked thespians (Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance, Mike Leigh) to call for its boycott. This, in turn, has elicited angry warnings from Howard Jacobson, Steven Berkoff and others about the spectre of censorship targeting Jews. 
Escaping the controversy, so far, is the Palestinian contribution to the Globe’s season. On 4 and 5 May, the Ashtar theatre company will perform Richard II in Arabic. When I spoke to the company’s co-founder Iman Aoun, it was still in the early stages of rehearsal but the plan was to create a modern interpretation, reflective of the recent upheavals in the Arab world. 
Ashtar, which Aoun co-founded in 1991, is known in Palestine for its bold, avant-garde work – re-imagining texts and devising original pieces. It is an exponent of “the theatre of the oppressed”, pioneered by the Brazilian theatre-maker Augusto Boal. The company sees itself as an “agent for change” in Palestine, a player (in all senses) in the struggle to liberate the occupied territories, training young people and working in universities in 
the West Bank and Gaza.
Her thoughts on the presence of Habima at the Globe, meanwhile, are clear: “We have nothing to do with their existence there. We condemn the fact that they perform in the settlements [in the West Bank].” She supports the principle of boycott, too – “We do not work with Israeli companies.” But saying that, she clarifies, keenly aware of the opportunity the Globe season presents to bolster her cause: “We do support the people who support our struggle.”

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial