It’s perhaps no surprise that if you spend two years taking a production of “Hamlet” to nearly every country in the world, you’ll have stories to tell for days. Dominic Dromgoole squeezes as many as he can into his irresistible new book, Hamlet Globe to Globe.
Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London from 2005 to 2016, writes that the wildly ambitious tour, which staged performances in 190 countries and several refugee camps, began as “a daft idea floated in a bar.” The company set out on April 23, 2014, the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, and returned exactly two years later, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The author dropped in and out, joining the 12 actors and four stage managers in 20 countries.
In a tone that swings from erudite to witty to confiding to earnest, Dromgoole attempts to sum up a massive, unwieldy undertaking that was, at its heart, idealistic: “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,” he writes. He covers the triumphs and the low points, shares some gossip, airs grievances against those who criticized the project (the company’s unsuccessful effort to perform in North Korea generated controversy), and every now and then has an epiphany about the meaning of it all.
Throughout, the play itself remains his focus. The title character, you likely already know, is a Danish prince who must decide how to exact revenge on the uncle who has murdered Hamlet’s father, married his mother, and ascended the throne. Dromgoole, also the author of “Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life,” delves into the play’s history, grapples with its themes, and offers a passionate case for its enduring relevance, arguing that it “speaks to all people in any moment trying to create a better future out of the ashes of a world that breaks their heart.”
The author loves “Hamlet” for its “linguistic brilliance, psychological insight, political acuity, mythic resonance, and simple family truth.” He delights in the fact that its meaning refuses to remain fixed. While he’s amazed that audiences the world over laugh at the same funny moments despite barriers of language and culture, he is equally intrigued that different settings lead the actors to interpret the play in fresh ways.
Dromgoole is affectionate toward and admiring of his company, the gutsy heroes of the journey. On tiny Nauru, an island country where Australia runs a refugee detention center, the actors spend their day off visiting the detainees, one of many examples of their seizing the opportunity to learn about the world they’re racing through. Their privilege is never lost on them; performing for refugees “made the joy and the excitement of our travel look all the more like luxury,” Dromgoole writes. But they’re moved to learn that in several countries, including Iraq, they’re the first cultural visitors in years.
The logistics of the world tour are themselves fascinating, from the difficulty of procuring visas to the caprices of air travel to the pressure of creating a portable production that could be mounted and taken down within a couple of hours. The company faces unanticipated challenges with grace, whether a sudden sandstorm in Jordan or a cast-wide plague of food poisoning in Mexico. Wherever they go, the author marvels, the shows are almost always “full to bursting.”
They witness their share of conflict and sorrow. “It often felt, as we travelled from country to country, that we were in a world filled with hatred, a world without forgiveness, and with an unslakable thirst to honor historic promises of vengeance,” Dromgoole writes. “‘Hamlet’ speaks directly and simply to that world, and that is little but saddening.”
When the author attends the performance in Cambodia, he gives a talk at a university, where students pepper him with various versions of the question “What can this play mean to us now?” The Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide targeted Cambodia’s intellectuals and artists, a vast cultural loss from which the country has yet to recover. “This was not ‘Hamlet’ the literary problem,” Dromgoole notes. “This was ‘Hamlet’ in a place still swathed in darkness and seeking hungrily for light.” How meaningful for Dromgoole and his company, then, to receive this comment from an audience member after the performance there: “I laughed. I felt pain. I lived. My first play and I could not have asked for more.”