It has, it’s fair to say, been a turbulent 12 months at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, with almost as much drama offstage as on. The widespread joy at the fact that the theatre had hired its first female Artistic Director, Emma Rice, was soon tempered by the news that Rice would be leaving the post after only her second season this summer.
This was due, it seems, to Rice’s clashes with the Globe’s Board over her use of sound and lighting effects in productions such as her (terrific) opening, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While the complete picture may be more complicated than the simple “radicalism-versus-traditionalism” terms in which it has been gleefully framed by the media, the prospect of Rice’s premature departure is nonetheless extremely dispiriting.
In this context, the newly published book Hamlet: Globe to Globe seems to offer a window on a decidedly more benign and praiseworthy moment in the theatre’s recent history. Written by Dominic Dromgoole, Rice’s immediate predecessor as Globe Artistic Director, the book recounts one of the major feats of Dromgoole’s tenure: namely, the worldwide tour of Hamlet that the theatre undertook between 2014 and 2016, as a celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (and a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death).
As Dromgoole outlines with characteristic frankness in the introductory chapter, the idea for this ambitious project arrived not in the process of a sedate and considered meeting, but rather during the “bleary mayhem” of a “merry drinkathon” (p.2). (One senses that Falstaff would approve.) The idea to choose this particular play for the tour was spontaneous, too, but one that nonetheless proved a sturdily reliable choice: as “a statement about what it is to be human that has never been surpassed” Hamlet, Dromgoole contends, “is one of those rare documents that can be said to have brought the world closer together” (p.6). As such, Dromgoole defines the tour itself as “a small act of binding, a modest attempt to pull geography and history into a shared light, the light shed by an old play” (p.370).
What Hamlet: Globe to Globe is not, however, is a comprehensive, place-by-place diary account of the tour. It can’t be, since Dromgoole only flew out to join the 16-strong company at certain venues, being necessarily occupied with various matters back at the Southbank base. But while this results in some significant omissions, Dromgoole evidently managed to experience enough of the tour to give an account that is variously funny, moving, insightful, and sometimes subversive.
Proceedings begin limply, with Dromgoole indulging in some rather embarrassing fawning as he welcomes “the least disappointing man in the world”, Barack Obama, to the theatre during the president’s visit to the UK. But the book starts to hit its stride when Dromgoole turns the clock back in the “Setting Out Through the Baltics” chapter, which very interestingly places his touring company in the context of its travelling player predecessors.
Internationalism, Dromgoole reminds us, was deeply embedded in the culture of Early Modern theatre, with the “Comedians of England” collective presenting plays all across Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Indeed, Hamlet itself was performed onboard the Red Dragon ship off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1608. While Dromgoole doesn’t overlook the shadier side of this particular performance — the Red Dragon was, after all, one of the first ships of the East India Company, “the mother of all psychopathic corporations” — his evocation of the speed with which Shakespeare’s plays travelled is a vital reminder that the Hamlet tour was a way of reviving “the first Globe’s practice of going out on the road” (p.52).
This point leads into a discussion of Hamlet itself as “a play full of broad international awareness” (p.56), thereby establishing the thematic structure of the book. Dromgoole essentially organises Hamlet: Globe to Globe as a series of reflections on various aspects of the play — the revenge theme, friendship, depression, the concern with “the smoke and mirrors of state” (p.114) — and teases out the way in which these elements are reflected or refracted in the world as he and the company experience it on the tour.
“There were always moments on our travels,” Dromgoole writes, “which brought the company up short, moments when the reality of a line would suddenly become apparent” (p.273). A uniquely surreal performance in Mexico, with the cast suffering from food-poisoning, inspires a chapter on the play’s own radical instabilities. A taut performance in Ukraine on the eve of an election finds the play’s politics freshly illuminated. The scars of Pol Pot’s brutal regime give the play’s multiple killings a particularly charged resonance in Cambodia. A historic performance in Saudi Arabia (the first time that men and women had shared the stage there) leads Dromgoole to reflect illuminatingly on the tradition of female Hamlets, on gender and education, and the significance of the protagonist’s status as a student.
Elsewhere, the intersections of climate and culture are powerfully evidenced, as in the beautiful account of a storm-threatened Prague performance, or the sandstorm that erupts during a particularly emotional episode in a UN refugee camp north of Jordan, where the company performed to an audience of displaced Syrians.
As an author, Dromgoole can be a pushy presence, sometimes prone to over effusive description and a certain ‘look-at-me-being-a-writer’ self-consciousness. A group of Ethiopian actors reciting their traditional verse is described as “exhaling a coffee richness in their mouths” (p.46), for example, while, in Saudi Arabia we are told, “explosions of flower-dazzle burst out like camp fireworks from the earth” (p.216). Some of his more general and digressive State of the World musings can also grate. Luckily, Dromgoole’s humour (he’s nicely acerbic about the British media’s scepticism regarding the tour, and hilarious when describing a face-off with some academics on the radio) and wry observations (such as the account of a misbegotten Gdańsk banquet featuring curling sandwiches, a woman dressed as Nefertiti in a Yogic position, and a pleasing encounter with Andrzej Wajda) keep the reader on board.
And, as suggested above, the book hits some profound notes when the author is not straining for effect, particularly in its appraisal of the ways that Hamlet can speak to contemporary experiences of terror and fundamentalism. “[C]onflicts, local, regional and international… 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 honour historic promises of vengeance” (276), Dromgoole writes.
Within this context, the staging of Hamlet may seem more of a futile than an essential endeavour. However, this play, which so fully “resists certainty” (p.135), which presents “doubt as a duty, procrastination as a virtue not a vice” (p.361), serves as its own kind of counter to fundamentalist rhetoric. Moreover, perceptions of the world’s pain and suffering are offset throughout the text, especially in the radiant “Friendship on the Road” chapter. Here, Dromgoole’s shrewd account of the status of friendship in the play (take a bow, Horatio) is combined with a wonderfully warm (though unsentimental) appraisal of the company’s trust and solidarity in one another, and an evocation of the richness, multiplicity and “openness” experienced during their time in South America, which breathlessly carries the reader along for the ride.
Indeed, as well as a loving testament to the enduring ability of Shakespeare’s play to connect in myriad ways across countries and cultures, Hamlet: Globe to Globe also succeeds as a deeply felt tribute to travel and the touring life. “Touring sharpens the pleasures that life in the theatre naturally affords,” Dromgoole notes, “the sense of fleeting connection, of families created that are intense and short-lived, and all the more intense for their shortness” (p.60). (It’s to be hoped that some of the actors’ accounts of the tour will also be published.)
Concerned by what he perceives as “the erosion of a benevolent internationalism… the idea that people talking to people, and culture talking to culture… was one of the best hopes that we had” (p.366), the tour becomes, for Dromgoole, something of a reaffirmation of faith in the power of story-telling to build bridges. “That is what we were testing when we took Hamlet to every country on Earth: how far a group of people could get, telling a story about people. We made it all the way around” (370). Hamlet: Globe to Globe stands as a testament to the value of all such ambitious collaborative ventures.