Making all the world a stage
Hamlet: Globe to Globe
Canongate, hdbk, 400 pages, €20.99
In 2014, London's Globe Theatre celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth with a tour of Hamlet that covered 200,000 miles. It was an ambitious if flawed undertaking, writes David Blake Knox
The first Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by members of Shakespeare's theatre company. It was destroyed by fire in 1613 - just a few years before Shakespeare's death. However, a modern replica of the original theatre was opened on London's Southbank in 1997. Since opening, the Globe has offered low-price tickets, and a warm welcome to all-comers. This has led to record attendances, and also to critical acclaim for the theatre's accessible and innovative productions.
Much of the credit for this must go to Dominic Dromgoole, who was the theatre's artistic director from 2006 until last year and the author of this book.
In 2014, the Globe celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, and Dromgoole decided that the occasion should be marked in an extraordinary way. The idea was that a small touring troupe would bring a production of Hamlet to every single country in the world.
This was by any standards a remarkable ambition. But, in the following two years, the Globe's touring production covered close to 200,000 miles; Hamlet was staged in 190 different locations, and the same cast performed Shakespeare's play 280 times. Now, Dromgoole has written an absorbing account of that epic journey.
As he points out, the international dimension of Hamlet is almost as old as the play itself. In the early 17th century, English acting companies regularly toured continental Europe, and Shakespeare's plays were often staged there. Indeed, early productions of Hamlet were not confined to Europe: in 1608, the play was performed on board an English merchant ship, the Red Dragon, when it was anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone. Hamlet remains the most performed of all of Shakespeare's works, and it still seems able to speak to many different societies and cultures.
Between April 2014 and April 2016, the Globe's production of Hamlet was staged in just about every corner of the world. It was performed in hotels, cathedrals, marketplaces and libraries as well as in more conventional theatres. The cast experienced food poisoning as well as love affairs. They sweltered in deserts, and shivered with fevers. They were feted in some locations, and treated with deep suspicion in others. They often performed against a backdrop of political and social upheaval that seemed to mirror the central concerns of their play. Indeed, at times, it appears that Dromgoole came to understand the world through the prism of Shakespeare's text.
In fact, there is no definitive version of that text. There are three variants of the play - known as the First, Second and Third Quartos - which were published between 1603 and 1623. There is considerable divergence between these: some of the play's most famous lines do not appear in all the versions, and some scenes that are present in one quarto are missing from another. Shakespeare's play also conforms to a particular type of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. These dramas often include a play within a play; they frequently involve ghosts; and it is common for them to feature themes of madness and revenge. Above all, such dramas invariably reach a bloody conclusion, and a stage littered with dead bodies. Hamlet contains all of these elements, but its universal appeal has clearly transcended its original genre.
Throughout his book, Dromgoole tries to explain the nature of that appeal. Not surprisingly, different audiences around the world identified with different aspects of this production. In Ukraine, for example, the audience saw parallels between Fortinbras' army marching towards a corrosive war in Poland, and their own running conflict with Russia. When the play was performed in a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Dromgoole found they could relate easily to the story of a corrupt state, and the moral chaos that it had produced.
As well as recording a physical voyage around the world, Dromgoole's book also charts a journey into the meaning of Shakespeare's text. He clearly knows Hamlet inside-out, and relishes the power and beauty of its language. He is also aware of the practical difficulties of doing justice to this great work of art. The conclusion of the play, for example, involves a good deal of physical action, including a sword fight and four deaths from poisoning. But the ending also involves complex character development: Hamlet's reconciliation with Laertes, Claudius's parting from Gertrude, the queen reaching out to her son; and Hamlet's farewell, both to Horatio and to the audience. As Dromgoole points out, all of this takes place within the space of just five minutes, and has to be played with technical precision as well as emotional depth if it is not to seem crass or melodramatic. The Globe's tour did not receive uniform support from within the UK. According to some of its critics, the enterprise was tainted from the start by Britain's squalid history of colonial exploitation, and represented an insidious and obnoxious form of cultural imperialism.
Dromgoole admits he imagined Shakespeare's play could, in some mysterious way, exert a benevolent effect upon the world. By the end of the tour, he has become more sanguine, and more modest in his assessment of what had actually been achieved. He accepts there will always be an uneasy and unequal relationship between those who can travel the world by choice and sample its cultural smorgasbord, and those who are trapped by circumstances and can only observe the freedoms enjoyed elsewhere.
Not all of Dromgoole's original ambitions were fulfilled: North Korea would not allow the production to enter its territory, and it proved impossible to stage the play inside Syria.
However, that should not diminish the scale of the commitment made by Dromgoole, the cast, and the production team. If nothing else, the tour may indicate that we have come to the end of the era in which Dromgoole grew up. That was a time when art and international friendship seemed to march in step towards a brighter future.
Now, that worldview seems impossibly naive, and all Dromgoole can hope is that the Globe's tour managed to shine some light on what humanity still holds in common. This well-written and thought-provoking book can be recommended on that score alone.
David Blake Knox's book The Curious History of Irish Dogs is published by New Island