Taking Hamlet around the globe

Photo: Helena Misioscia

To celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, Shakespeare’s Globe in London sent a group of actors on a two-year tour to perform Hamlet all around the world, in what ended up as a total of 197 countries, and finishing on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director who directed this traveling production, has written a new book about it, Hamlet Globe to Globe. Below, we share an excerpt from it that speaks to why the Globe took on this ambitious project and why they chose Hamlet.

Hamlet Globe to Globe“Translated into too many languages to count, and performed more times than Shakespeare ate hot dinners, and cold ones, or drew breath for that matter, Hamlet is one of those rare documents that can be said to have brought the world closer together. Audiences all over the planet have shared in its capacity to enlarge the spectator’s openness and desire to question. It has not only shrunk space; it has also contracted time. Each person who watches or hears it is telescoped back to the moment in 1601 when an audience in the Globe first heard the opening words  ‘Who’s there?’ Just as those first spectators share in every subsequent time those words have begun an evening of queasily soulful entertainment. We all share in the suspended window of time within which a play floats, experiencing our own night of only-happening-now uniqueness and sharing the pleasure with the millions of others who have heard the same words in other times and places.

In 1608, on board a ship called the Dragon, Hamlet was performed by its crew off the coast of Sierra Leone for a group of visiting dignitaries. The crew remembered enough of the play from what they had seen at the Globe to shamble together a show. Within ten years of its first performance, groups of English actors, known collectively as the English Comedians, were performing it across northern Europe in abbreviated, action-packed adaptations. Since then it has played everywhere, in theatres, fields, caves, hovels and palaces.

It has tested thousands of actors and actresses, leaving some exhilarated with triumph and some desolate with failure, and all hungering for more. It has been recorded, televised and filmed over and over and over again. The performances of actors from Sarah Bernhardt to David Tennant, from Mel Gibson to Maxine Peake have been captured for posterity, and the sheer inclusiveness of that brief list says much about the play’s openness to interpretation. It is recited in schoolrooms, quoted in boardrooms, mumbled by lovers, pondered on by sages, argued over by critics, passed on from parent to child, cursed by students, and wept over by spectators. In silence, it is stored in the heart as a fortifying secret by millions of us afraid of the bruising world. It is part of the fabric that surrounds us and sits within us. It has become, in large part, us.

In honour of the transcendent ubiquity of this play, on 23 April 2014, 450 years after the birth of Shakespeare, the Globe theatre, in response to a daft idea floated in a bar, set out on an artistic adventure almost as unique as the play we were honouring. To tour Hamlet to every country on earth. All 204. Or 197. Or however many were deemed to be countries at that particular moment. Unprecedented chutzpah and a healthy quantum of stupidity helped launch the mission. Beyond that, more practical factors made it possible. Over nine years, the Globe had formulated a style of touring as portable as the style in which actors travelled from the first Globe 400 years earlier. We had built up a network of international relationships with the Globe to Globe festival, which meant there wasn’t a corner of the world where we could not phone and find a friend. But more importantly, technology had come to a point with air travel and information hyperlinking where it was now possible to move a theatre tour across the globe at a plausible speed and prepare satisfactorily for every arrival.

The marriage of globalisation and modernity sometimes seems to transfer little more than paranoia and violence. But we looked at the possibilities thrown up by that modernity, and instead of saying ‘Why?’, we thought ‘Why not?’ Why not use the potential of the world to transport not terror or commodities, but sixteen human souls, armed with hope, technique and strong shoes, their set packed into their luggage, the play wired into their memories, and present to every corner of the world, with a playful truth, the strangest and most beautiful play ever written. Why not?”

HAMLET GLOBE TO GLOBE 2017 by Dominic Dromgoole. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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