Taking Shakespeare to Every Country in the World
I’m going to end the year with a recommendation for your reading lists in 2017. Although it won’t be published until April, this book offers an optimistic note of hope to banish the darkness of what has, by any stretch of the imagination, been a bleak year. The context is this. Back in 2012, Shakespeare was at the heart of the cultural festival that accompanied the London Olympics. The main feature was the ambitious Globe to Globe festival, during which every one of Shakespeare’s plays was performed, each by a company from a different country, each in a different language. Buzzing from the success of that project, the team were looking for their next big adventure. And it was Dominic Dromgoole, then director of the Globe, who came up with a crazy idea during a genial away day. Why not tour Hamlet to every country in the world?
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?
And so, on 23 April 2014, 450 years after Shakespeare’s birth, a skeleton company of sixteen people set out on their great journey. Exactly two years later, on 23 April 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the same company returned to the Globe. They’d visited 190 countries and performed in Roman amphitreatres, refugee camps, cavernous theatres and city squares to people of 197 nationalities. I followed the journey at the time via the Globe’s blog posts and was excited to think of this little band of brothers (and sisters) travelling across the continents, free of political or diplomatic impetus, simply filled with the ambition to travel, to meet and to tell a story.
Dromgoole had the idea, but he emphasises throughout that the project was a huge team effort. He didn’t go on tour himself, though he frequently flew out to join the actors and to catch up with their stories, and so his book is full of admiration for those who helped to keep the momentum going. Sometimes that’s the audiences, full of a rowdy, passionate engaged sensibility which would be frowned upon in stiff London theatres. Sometimes it’s the facilitators: young, excited British Council representatives or local theatre directors who help arrange a place to perform. Sometimes it’s the stage managers, those doughty stalwarts who build the ‘scaffolding’ that helps the glittering fantasy of Hamlet come to life. But primarily it’s the cast. Dromgoole writes with affection and admiration about his colleagues, who remained together for two years, each capable of performing several different parts, which kept the combination of characters fresh. He admires their resilience, their compassion, their generosity and their openness to new things. The book conveys a delicious charge of energy as the Globe company throw themselves with gusto into whatever’s happening, whether it’s a dance of welcome, the local club or simply using gesture and smiles to communicate with their audience.
And the wonderful thing is the appetite for this play. Even when people don’t understand the words, Dromgoole shows them captivated and transported by the story. He notes that ‘Hamlet, with his restless desire to dream up a new sensibility, speaks to all people in any moment trying to create a better future out of the ashes of a world that breaks their heart.’ And in so many parts of the world at the moment, there are painful parallels for murderous kings and revolution, regime change and confusion. There are too many places where people can emphathise with this tortured young man and understand ‘the swirls and eddies of a spirit in grief, of a personality whose keystones and foundations have been ripped away‘.
Dromgoole doesn’t just write about the tour, which I suppose is what I was expecting – a diary of the trip, full of amusing or moving incidents. His chapters are structured around a variety of themes suggested by the play or its characters, and he deftly builds up three interwoven strands of story: the tour itself; the story of its creation; and a thorough critique of Hamlet as a play. His passionate knowledge of the language and period is a delight. I don’t read much theatre criticism and it was wonderful to be guided around the play by someone so steeped in its subtleties. Yes, there are moments when Dromgoole shades into luvvieness. But for the most part he is a sharp, funny, self-deprecating, enthusiastic narrator.
And what comes across most strongly is his deep feeling for this play, this ‘perfect dance of thought and word‘. He writes that, from the very beginning, Hamlet was a play that had an international appeal. In 1608 it was performed from memory by a group of sailors off the coast of Sierra Leone, to entertain visiting dignitaries. Bands of roving actors, the English Comedians, included it in their repertoires in the 17th century as they crisscrossed the courts of Europe. In going out on the road, the Globe is being faithful to its itinerant predecessors, and the benefits of the adventure are twofold: sure, they bring Hamlet to the world. But they also bring the world to Hamlet, with all the new shades of perception that their experiences have offered.
And yet, for all Dromgoole’s bonhomie, his story has its villains. These are the self-regarding directors of modern theatre who seek to impose conformity on their actors, rather than allowing those actors room to know the characters; they are the dull, faceless bureaucrats of modern government, who can only see culture through the guise of economic return; they are the academics who claim that Shakespeare should be open and accessible, but in reality grow offended with the Globe’s openness, dismissing it sniffily as something for tourists and schoolchildren. Dromgoole robustly dismisses them all:
We come into the theatre for the simple pleasure of giving joy and sharpening insight and honouring truth. It is easy to get diverted from that. We went on the road not only to risk our dignity, but actually to lose it. If you can’t risk your dignity, you are lost as an artistic institution, and if you can’t happily give it away, then you’re lost as a theatre.
As I mentioned earlier, this book wasn’t quite what I imagined it’d be. I thought it’d be a simple chronicle of the tour and was impressed to discover its richness and breadth of reference. It is long, and there are times when Dromgoole’s exuberance runs away with him a little, but his excitement is easy to forgive. This is a firm and passionate defence of theatre as joy – theatre as the ability to transport people through a simple story – theatre as a way to share a story even when the words might not be comprehensible.
And in these days, when it’s so tempting to see darkness, corruption and destruction everywhere we turn, Dromgoole has a life-affirming vision that asserts the importance of the arts as a way to engage with other people. If you have the slightest interest in the Globe’s mission, or in Shakespeare’s plays and characterisation, then do consider this lively, glowing – if slightly sprawling – book. We are profoundly in need of messages of hope and, while Dromgoole isn’t arrogant enough to imagine that all wrongs can be righted with a good course of Hamlet, he does argue for the importance of being ready to go out, unhindered by the moral thicket of the modern world, and simply face the world with compassion, ready to share and ready to learn in return:
We are aware that … innocence is compromised, that the world is full of different shading, and that there is no shortage of folk waiting to exploit and manipulate such innocence. But what can you do in the face of all the world’s squalidness and impurity? Try to absorb and answer all of it, every detail in its immensity, acknowledge every shred, and then what? Adapt your work to answer each and every one of the world’s critiques and concerns? I have seen the results of that approach, the despairing attempts to pre-emptively self-exonerate in the face of all possible attacks. It leads to work that is so at pains to be morally upright that it is artistically inert. An aesthetic and moral paralysis, terrified into stasis by the imagined judgement of others. Or do you absorb and understand as much as you can, and then walk forwards, your heart and your laughter pushing you on, and try to show the world something new? … We moved forwards.
What an adventure it must have been.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.