The Bard Abroad

A MOST AUDACIOUS THEATER TOUR Dominic Dromgoole wants us to know that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is more than a story about “a melancholy Dane,” a young man bereft because of the murder of his father and the all-too-sudden marriage of his uncle to his widowed mother. The play is certainly about that, though some critics have suggested that the hero is more robust and life-affirming than indecisive and suicidal. Dromgoole’s point is that it is a multi-faceted play, exploring themes such as revenge, father-son relationships, the vicissitudes of love, friendship and its betrayal, education and its power to affect change, revolution and its aftermath, and the art of diplomacy.

Shakespeare’s interweaving of these multiple themes is a large reason why the play, first produced in 1609 was popular among the playwright’s contemporaries and why it remains a frequently produced play today and the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s achievement in, as critic Harold Bloom says, the creation of the human.

Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Globe theatre from 2006-2016, has produced a wonderful book that is as multi-layered as is the play that is at the very center. After leading the 2012 effort to bring to the Globe 37 different theatre companies from around the planet to stage productions of a Shakespeare play, Dromgoole and his associates have the audacious idea to take a production of Hamlet on the road in 2015 and 2016 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), not to a few regional theatres in the English speaking world but instead to 197 countries. Its goal was to bring Shakespeare to places where his plays had never been produced before and to ordinary people rather than to the political and cultural elites of the country. The play was performed in many different venues, on a rampart at Prague castle, on a makeshift stage in Chile with the Pacific Ocean in the background, at a refugee camp for displaced Syrians in Jordan, in claustrophobic government buildings in equatorial Africa.

Hamlet Globe to Globe: Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play is an account of the challenges of staging a play in these various locales in front of a variety of different audiences while trying to discover the ways in which the drama connects to the culture and present needs of the host country. The logistical challenges of transporting a troupe of 25 and cartons of props and costumes is enormous and sometimes beyond the accomplishment of the company. Even when some actors miss a connection or the paraphernalia is late in arrival, the show must go on. While most hosts are welcoming and well-prepared, occasionally the preparations are makeshift and the accommodations threadbare and the venues not suitable for vocal projection. While most audiences are large, enthusiastic and appreciative, some audiences are small, bewildered, and combative. Keeping the cast healthy and safe is constantly on the minds of Dromgoole and his assistants.

The work is a paean to actors, to the multi-cultural cast who appropriately come from around the world, actors with names like Beruce Khan, Amanda Wilkins, Rawiri Paratene, Ladi Emeruwa, Jennifer Leong, and Matt Romain. Given the length of the run and the possibility of sickness or injury, these actors learn a variety of different roles (there are six actors who play the role of Polonius at various times). And there is no space for the prima donnas because of necessity that the actors must help the small crew in setting up and striking the modest set. I’ll take Dromgoole at his word that the highly adaptable and harmonious company constantly subordinated their individual goals to the larger goals of the production and to the needs and responses of the audience.

The work is also a work of focused theatre history for Dromgoole is as much scholar as tour director. His account is peppered with mini-lessons about the rise and fall of Shakepeare’s reputations, the various approaches to his plays across the centuries, the noteworthy and trendsetting productions of Hamlet, the spirit of the Elizabethan age, and celebrated actors made famous in part by the particular stamp that they put on arguably Shakespeare’s most famous character.

A book which covers so much territory is of its nature a travel book, and Dromgoole is the inheritor of a rich tradition of British travel writing, especially when it means excursions into some of the remote and forelorn parts of the planet. Although he doesn’t tip his hat to Graham Green, Jan Morris and Bruce Chatwin, they are very much in the shadows of this book. Dromgoole has a keen eye for people and places, from petty Djibouti bureaucrats to zealous thesbians in Kiev, from the shabby capital cities in former Soviet Republics to vibrant outdoor markets in Quito. Going into some of the most war-torn places on earth, Dromgoole frequently despairs at the human costs of tribal conflicts and neo-colonial greed. And he’s struck by the absurdity of offering Shakespeare in places where the needs are more elemental. To his credit Dromgoole makes no claims that the flowering of British culture is surefire humanitarian intervention that will leave all that it touches transformed.

The most interesting parts of Dromgoole’s account are where he finds ways in which Hamlet speaks to a local condition. A captivating solo performer in Bogota, talented in the creation of many voices, is an entree into a chapter devoted to Hamlet’s famous soliloquies. A performance on the only campus in Saudi Arabia where female students study is an opportunity to talk about the famous actresses of the 19th century who played the role and to talk about the role of Wittenberg, Hamlet’s university, in the Age of Enlightenment. A trip to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia invites a wry comment on Hamlet’s ruminations on the skull of Yorick.  Dromgoole relates the character of Polonius, variously seen as a doddering fool to a crafty statesman, to the self-important career diplomats of the United Nations, one of the least favorite places where the company produced the play. And, of course, the death by poisoning in the play speaks to the situation in the Ukraine where opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned in 2004, allegedly a plot initiated by Putin.

It’s easy to imagine that the talented director has been made even wiser and more compassionate as a result of his life-long devotion to the dramatic arts.  It’s easy to see that our tour guide is a restlessly curious as is Shakespeare’s hero and that like Hamlet he has been able to find the right balance between action and contemplation. This is a highly entertaining, hybrid work that makes the argument for the value of the humanities in a variety of different ways.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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