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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 October 2005, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Toasting Shakespeare in Armenia
By Gareth Armstrong

William Shakespeare may have been born in the English town of Stratford-on-Avon but, as the actor Gareth Armstrong discovered at a theatre festival in Armenia, some literary giants belong to the world.

William Shakespeare
I spoke of my pride in coming from the country which could claim Shakespeare as her own

I had been warned about the "toasts".

Armenian hospitality is infamous for its assault on the liver, and a lunch that lasted nearly three hours gave plenty of scope to prove it.

Including our hosts, there were 22 of us seated at the long dining table. Altogether we represented a dozen different nations.

What had brought us to Armenia? Or rather who?

William Shakespeare.

We were all taking part in a week-long theatre festival of solo performances based on Shakespeare's works.

That along with the unlikely opportunity for an actor to work in the Republic of Armenia is why I found myself downing icy shots of vodka several hours before the sun was anywhere near the yardarm.


Our host was the mayor of a small town an hour's drive from the capital city of Yerevan.

According to Anna, the charming young translator assigned to me, his first toast was to the unity of nations.

Glasses were clinked with murmurs of solidarity in many tongues.

The Armenian tradition is that you drink vodka at meals only when acknowledging a toast, and the mayor was an enthusiastic toastmaster.

After international friendship, he invoked art, music, Armenian womanhood and then several less comprehensible subjects, which even Anna had difficulty rendering into English.

But the mayor's increasing incoherence did not mean an end to the toasting.

An elderly Russian actor rose to his feet, unaffected by the quantities he had drunk (which was just as well as that very evening he was to perform his take on King Lear) and toasted our mutual muse: the theatre.

Awed silence

Opposite me sat a thick-haired, moustachioed Iranian actor.

(His show was about an actor whose obsession with Hamlet gets him committed to a mental institution.)

He stood, closed his eyes and, in a fine baritone voice, sang a Persian love lyric that reduced everyone to an awed silence.

It was around then that I realised that each of us was expected to give voice at some time during the proceedings.

I had been careless of my vodka consumption, since I had already performed my solo show on Shylock from The Merchant of Venice on the previous night.

But I decided that, if I was to make a coherent contribution, it was now or never.

Convinced that I held the ace in this particular pack, I stood and spoke of my pride in coming from the country which could claim Shakespeare as her own.

He was Britain's greatest poet, greatest playwright and most illustrious son.

Lost in translation

I proposed a rousing toast: "To William Shakespeare".

Gareth Armstrong on stage
I encountered a mild hostility to my laying claim to the writer in whose name we were toasting the afternoon away

There was polite assent but little enthusiasm. Had what I said lost something in translation?

A German participant, who would be troubling Hamlet's Ghost later in the week, firmly echoed my toast to William Shakespeare. He even quoted some of Hamlet's lines in a German translation by Schlegel, which he promised us was as good as the original.

Then a Polish lady, whose show dealt with the wretched women in the life of Richard III, made a similar claim for her mother tongue.

Finally an Armenian actor who, like me, was exploring the enigma of Shylock, claimed that the translations of the poet Havhannes Hovhannesyan were unsurpassed.

What I had encountered was a mild hostility to my laying claim to the writer in whose name we were toasting the afternoon away.

Universal genius

The accident of where Shakespeare was born - and therefore the language he wrote in - gave me no special claim to his heritage.

His genius was quite simply - universal.

As far as I know, no other country has ever hosted a festival of one-person plays about Shakespeare.

It took an Armenian to dream that up.

It had the virtues of economy of scale and expenditure and gave their vibrant theatre community a focus to welcome artists from other cultures and, of course, an excuse to show off their own.

The day after our tipsy lunch, we made a painfully early pilgrimage to Khor Virap monastery: a very important site to Armenians who repeatedly remind you that theirs was the first country to become Christian.

But its poignant location is what stays in the memory.

Dove of peace

It lies at the foot of Mount Ararat, the snow-capped symbol of Armenia, where Noah's Ark in the Old Testament story ran aground after the Great Flood.

It's now located in Turkey with just a stretch of no-man's-land between the tense and disputed borders.

As we were leaving, a small knot of souvenir sellers descended on us and, for a few small coins, I was prevailed upon to take hold of a white dove: the bird that returned to Noah bearing the olive branch in its beak, symbolising the hope for new life.

It was a tired, bedraggled creature that I held, but I was told to release it and make a wish.

It fluttered rather pathetically, as if in the early stages of avian flu, and returned gratefully to its master.

It would be more admirable if I could claim that my wish had been to see an end to the legacy of bitterness between my host country and its Turkish neighbour over events back in 1915.

But my silent desire was a little more mundane. An end to my monumental hangover.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Armenia
28 Sep 05 |  Country profiles


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