A literary flavor adds to London Olympics

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A literary flavor adds to London Olympics

LONDON - As the world comes to Britain for the Olympics, Britain is celebrating arguably its greatest gift to the world - the plays of William Shakespeare.

Anyone who doubts that accolade for the playwright dead almost 400 years might want to go to the new “Shakespeare: Staging the World” exhibition at the British Museum, and look at the final exhibit, a well-worn, one-volume collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

The book is the property of Sonny Venkatrathnam, a former South African anti-apartheid prisoner. He secretly kept it in the notorious Robben Island prison but shared it with other inmates, who underlined and autographed the passages that meant the most to them.

The book lies open at lines from “Julius Caesar” - “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once” - signed “N.R.D. Mandela.”

“In a way, Nelson was the Caesar of the ANC,” said Venkatrathnam, who spent several years in the prison with African National Congress leader Mandela in the 1970s. “I think it resonated with his philosophy.”

Mandela, now the revered 94-year-old former president of post-apartheid South Africa, is one of more than 30 inmates whom Venkatrathnam asked to sign the volume. It became known as the “Robben Island Bible,” because Venkatrathnam told prison warders - who had banned nonreligious books - that it was “the Bible by William Shakespeare.’’ He plastered its cover with cards celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in a successful bid to disguise the contents from guards.

“They would come and say, ‘What’s that?’ I’d say ‘It’s my Bible,’?” said Venkatrathnam, a dapper 76-year-old who traveled to London for the opening of the exhibition. “For all the years on the island they wouldn’t touch it.”

British Museum director Neil MacGregor said the book is “a wonderful symbol of what Shakespeare means to all of us.”

The exhibition, which opens Thursday, is part of an outpouring of Shakespearean activity in Britain that includes the opening ceremony of the July 27-Aug. 12 Olympic Games. Director Danny Boyle’s ceremony, entitled “Isles of Wonder,’’ is inspired by the strange and enchanted island of “The Tempest.”

Other helpings of the Bard include a cycle of history plays, currently being shown on Saturday night, prime-time BBC television, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic World Shakespeare Festival. Since April, the RSC, based in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, has been bringing companies from around the world to stage his plays in Britain.

The productions, in more than 40 languages, have ranged from an Iraqi “Romeo and Juliet” to a Russian “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and a Brazilian circus “Richard III.”

American director Peter Sellars, whose contribution to the festival is “Desdemona’’ - a reimagining of “Othello” by U.S. writer Toni Morrison and Malian singer Rokia Traore - said Shakespeare is truly a writer for the whole world.

“He was a guy who - and not for reasons of branding - called his theater ‘The Globe,’?” Sellars said.

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