Catherine Abbott: Shakespeare Lives

Catherine Abbott, Project Manager, Arts and Creative Economy at the British Council in Dubai, talks to Vision about partnering with the Emirates LitFest, the Middle East's largest literary event, to celebrate Shakespeare  

Vision: Can you tell us about the British Council's partnership with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFL) to celebrate the 400-year anniversary since Shakespeare's death?

Catherine Abbott: In 2016,The British Council are commemorating 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, one of the most globally renowned playwrights, with a yearlong celebration of events throughout 2016 titled “Shakespeare Lives”. It was vital for us to be able to work in partnership with the most recognised literary brand in the country and a conversation that began with “how can we work together to incorporate Shakespeare into the 2016 EAFL programme?” led to hundreds of emails, telecons and international skype calls where we exchanged ideas, discussed potential events and shared contacts.

Six months later and the Shakespeare strand of the programme has taken on a life of its own. The theme of this year’s LitFest programme is succinctly “Time” and what an apt theme it is. Although 400 years have passed in time since William Shakespeare left this life our partnership with EAFL will ensure the unprecedented legacy of this wool merchant’s son will live on in the Emirates.

V: What are the biggest events planned and who's involved?

CA: The British Council will have activity in 140 countries. This year’s anniversary is not just an opportunity to commemorate one of the greatest playwrights of all time. It is a moment to celebrate the extraordinary on-going influence of one man who, according to a recent survey by the British Council, is more iconic than David Beckham and the Queen. Shakespeare has over 1,000 writing credits on IMDB (even though he was born 300 years before film was invented). He is on the curriculum for more than half of the world’s schoolchildren, his works have been translated into more than 100 languages and he has made a huge contribution to global literacy. As one of his contemporaries, Ben Jonson, said: “Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all time.”.

Globally some of the key events taking place include: The Royal Shakespeare Company tour of China; Shakespeare’s Globe will perform across the world from Iraq to Denmark and Young people will reimagine Shakespeare in Zimbabwe. In the Emirates, the largest contribution to the programme is through the Literary Festival with a specific Shakespeare Strand. Other events include A Global Shakespeare Academic Conference in New York University Abu Dhabi, A Production of Romeo and Juliet by Constellation Theatre and a variety of events and activities at the British Council’s teaching centres in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

V: What will be included in the Shakespeare strand at LitFest?

CA: The Shakespeare strand at EAFL will kick off a series of the Bards Films at Novo Cinema on Feb 28th, including a filmed staged version of Hamlet, which features a unique female lead with Maxine Peake. We also wanted to showcase the diversity of representation in film by screening Hamlet from 1955 with Laurence Olivier, King Lear from 1970 with Paul Scofield and Othello from 1995 with Laurence Fishburn. Key events are Literary Heavy weights such as Meera Syal and Steven Berkoff performing at the opening and closing ceremonies respectively, A Sonnets Exchange with Imitiaz Dhaker, and Khalid Al Budoor and a Shakespeare Decoded professional development workshop for teachers amongst others.

V: What do you aim to achieve through these events?

CA: We want to highlight the fact that Shakespeare’s legacy is without parallel as he lives on today in our language, our culture and society and has had enduring influence on education. His words, his plots and his characters continue to inspire much of our culture and wider society. Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere, from Dickens and Goethe to Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Brahms; from West Side Story to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

We also want to achieve meaningful levels of digital and social engagement. A social media campaign called ‘Play your Part’ (#PlayYourPart) will invite the next generation of creative talent to produce an individual digital tribute to the Bard. We will have a Bard booth on the promenade of the LitFest where actors in Shakespearian dress will encourage audiences to recite video and upload their favourite Shakespearian quote via twitter.

V: Who would you like to engage?

CA: Ultimately we want to engage avid Shakespeare fans in the Emirates, but more importantly to present Shakespeare to a wider global audience, including the next generation of leaders, individuals and communities who have not had the opportunity to engage with his work before. For this reason, we are focusing on Arabic content through the bilingual Sonnets Exchange session on March 12th in English and Arabic and the screening on Cymbeline in Novo Cinema on March 2nd at 1pm.