Across the world, elite athletes are hard at work preparing for the world’s greatest sporting spectacle: the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

At the same time, dozens of international theatre troupes are busy rehearsing for a similarly extraordinary event – the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival – taking place in cities and villages throughout Britain.

From mid-April through the end of November, the festival will be the biggest and most varied celebration of the Bard ever attempted, with thousands of actors and more than 70 activities, including exhibitions, art installations and cutting-edge performances. It is just one of the spectacular events taking place as part of the London 2012 Festival, the summer’s Cultural Olympiad -- an arts-based counterweight to the sporting celebration of the Olympics.

One of the most ambitious projects in the festival is Globe to Globe, taking place within Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the reconstructed circular Elizabethan playhouse on the south bank of the Thames. Audiences here will see all 38 of the Bard’s plays performed by theatre companies from 38 countries in 38 different languages. There will be summarised subtitles for English-speakers, and Henry V on 8 and 9 June will be performed in English.

Tom Bird, the Globe to Globe festival director, spent months searching the world for Shakespeare performers. “It’s been a real logistical challenge,” Bird said. “But travelling around watching Shakespeare plays is not a bad way to spend your life. I’ve visited places I never expected to see and had so many memorable experiences, like drinking sake with the Japanese group, or talking my way into India’s theatre world by hanging around with all the directors in Mumbai’s Prithvi Café.”

According to Bird, several of the featured companies have never performed outside their own countries, and Globe to Globe will host a number of world premieres, such as the South Sudan Theatre Company’s performance of Cymbeline and the Armenian version of King John. “It will be amazing,” Bird said. “And [it] will really open our eyes to all of the wonderful theatre work around the world that we don’t usually get to see.”

This international focus for the World Shakespeare Festival is fitting, considering recent research by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Council shows that 64 million students – an extraordinary 50% of the world’s school children – learn Shakespeare’s plays, making him truly the world’s playwright.

“We think of Shakespeare as an English institution -- like he’s our national poet or playwright,” Bird said. “But when you go to Lithuania or Japan, they think of him as their own national poet, and they openly say that they think Shakespeare works better in Lithuanian or Japanese than it does in English. Kids in Armenia are named Hamlet and Juliet because of these plays. It shows how deeply Shakespeare’s work has penetrated and how he is loved across the world no matter what language is spoken.”

This year’s Shakespeare events in Great Britain
The World Shakespeare Festival will take place throughout England, Wales and Scotland and include theatrical performances, exhibitions, conferences and online projects.

Globe to Globe
Globe to Globe begins 21 April with a performance of Venus and Adonis performed in Xhosa and Swahili, and continues until 9 June at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London’s Southwark neighbourhood. Highlights include Troilus and Cressida in Maori, the Tempest performed in Bangla and Two Gentlemen of Verona, performed in the Zimbabwean dialect of Shona.

Royal Shakespeare Company
For a more traditional version of Shakespeare’s classics, the Royal Shakespeare Company will hold court in Stratford-Upon-Avon (8 March to 6 October) with What Country Friends Is This?, a collection of ”shipwreck-themed” plays including Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest.  

The British Museum
The Staging the World exhibition, 19 July to 25 November, will recreate the world of the early 17th Century, and feature Elizabethan coins, armour, maps, tapestries and other objects from the time of Shakespeare, presented in the context of his plays.