On April 23, 2014 — William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday — a troupe consisting of 12 actors and four stage managers from Shakespeare’s Globe in London launched a tour that aimed to play Hamlet in every country in the world. Dominic Dromgoole, then the Globe’s artistic director, staged the production, along with an associate, Bill Buckhurst. Two years later, to the day, the Globe celebrated the return of their wandering players. They’d performed the tragedy at stops in 190 countries, as well as at camps for refugees.
In Hamlet Globe to Globe (Grove Press, 2017), the book Dromgoole has written about this ambitious project, we learn that the tour originated as “a daft idea floated in a bar.” That seems apt. Throughout this book, Dromgoole comes off as a man who thoroughly embraces the carousing, never-say-no-to-a-pub tradition of British acting troupes, a heritage we can imagine stretching back to at least 1601 when Hamlet first hit the boards. Wouldn’t a road trip like this be the ultimate fantasy of any Shakespeare-mad lad or lass who has somehow miraculously transformed a rambunctious love of Elizabethan cosplay into a paying job?
Bats, cockroaches and lousy acoustics.
While’s he’s modest about what, if anything, the tour accomplished, Dromgoole nevertheless plays up the inherent romance of the endeavor. The Globe actors endured a flash flood, bats fluttering about onstage, lousy acoustics and a series of cockroach-infested lodgings. They seemed to have been in actual mortal danger when a sand storm interrupted a show in Zaatari, a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, but eventually the trouble subsided and the show went on.
Dromgoole was actually with the company during only 20 of the stops on the itinerary, but he was clearly the right person to tell the story. His book is a joy to read, not just because he is so passionate about his subject, but also because that passion manifests itself so eloquently. There are passages in the book that I stopped to read over a second time because they contained such splendid bursts of language.
The book is not just about the tour. It’s also an exploration of Hamlet itself and the ways in which the play continues to engage and move audiences. Hamlet wasn’t the only title that the Globe company considered. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet were other candidates. But the tale of the Danish prince proved to be the ideal selection. The thematic content of Hamlet almost always hit a nerve (though not necessarily the same nerve) wherever it was played. That, Dromgoole suggests, is because the play’s quick-witted and earnest protagonist encounters obstacles that are universal to the human experience. Hamlet’s journey highlights “the confusion we know at all ages — the manifest injustice of the world — that something capable of creating patterns of such beauty is so often inclined to moral ugliness.”
Wherever they went, the Globe’s company worked to ensure that the play would be seen by ordinary citizens and not just by government officials or embassy hangers-on. By and large, they succeeded. In many countries the production was a free ticket — and it was often also a hot one. Still the tour wasn’t without controversy back home in London. Pushback came from those who felt that the notion of taking the play to North Korea (a plan that never came to fruition) was ethically misguided. Also, certain academics viewed the tour as an instance of cultural imperialism. In one chapter, mid-book, Dromgoole deals at length with his frustrations over such objections.
A free ticket — and a hot one.
Some of the essays have more heft than others. Two stood out to me as being particularly rich.
The first is a study of the question of madness in Hamlet, sparked by an incident during a performance in Mexico City in which many if not most of the Globe players (along with Dromgoole himself) were stricken with a severe case of food poisoning that induced not only gastrointestinal panic but also hallucinations. The show proceeded, but things eventually turned surreal. (“Everything is starting to melt: the swags of plastic sheeting into the scaffolding, the actors into the audience, English into Mexican, the play into reality….”)
The other chapter I found memorable focuses on the two engagements in Jordan: the first in ancient Ammon, the second in the aforementioned Zaatari refugee camp, where that severe sand storm wreaked havoc. These episodes prompt Dromgoole’s discussion of the ways in which time and nature erode human accomplishments, making nothing seem as though it is of lasting consequence. If anything has the power to survive, he suggests, it’s not Ozymandias-proportioned monuments but rather human words:
Here in Zaatari, the audience may not all have been listening, the stage may have been beyond makeshift, the context may have been bigger and more tragic than we could ever hope to match, and nature itself may have been trying to call a halt, but here we were merrily tossing out these gorgeous words into the void. However words survive, on stone on paper, in books, in mouths and ears, in the air itself somehow, and even in the minds of young children who have come to hear a play presented by some batty foreigners, somehow we were contributing to that ineffable daisy chain in the ether.
Live theater can seem hopelessly ephemeral. And we may find only cold comfort in the unlikely proposition that words are somehow magically indelible. But for “agnostics on the hunt for more,” cold comfort is better than no comfort at all.