On 23 April this year, to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a company of 12 actors from London’s Globe Theatre set sail on an epic journey.
Their mission: to take the world’s most famous play – Hamlet – to every country in the world. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst, the production sees the ensemble cast swap between roles during the two-year-long tour, which concludes in Denmark in April 2016. And if it sounds an audacious project, it’s worth remembering that the play has a long history of international touring: within a decade of its being written, Hamlet had been seen in Holland, Germany and Poland – and even performed on a boat off the coast of first Sierra Leone, and then Yemen, in 1608. Taking it back on the road was Dromgoole’s idea, building on the success of the Globe to Globe Festival as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when 37 international companies visited London with their own Shakespeare productions.
Now, it’s the Globe’s turn to return the visits. The company has already performed in 64 countries across Europe and the Americas, true travelling players with their set, costumes and instruments packed in suitcases. Here, in personal diary entries, the players reflect on some of their experiences so far. (Holly Williams)
27 April – Sail on the J R Tolkein, London to Amsterdam
“Heading off down the Thames on our trusty tall ship, we are soon on the North Sea. The easterly winds are too light to sail, but the seas are kind. The group is already well bonded; at one stage we all go up on deck and lie gazing up at the night sky. I meditate on the players in Shakespeare’s time that Dominic [Dromgoole] told us about, who made this very journey … the adventure of a lifetime begins.”
Tatty Hennessy (assistant director)
10 May - Turku, Finland
“There’s a word in Finnish – ‘sisu.’ It’s largely untranslatable, but the nearest and best approximation is ‘grit.’ A willingness to roll up your sleeves and get on with it, whatever the circumstances.
The company already look like old hands at travel – if more bearded and bedraggled than before. The show’s been on tour for two weeks now, but tomorrow four of the company will be performing their roles for the very first time, and we have less than 24 hours to rehearse.
It’s one of the many unusual things about this tour and this company. We have two Hamlets. And three possible Ophelias, two of whom are also Gertrudes, three Laertes (Laerteses? Laertiae?). Apart from our Hamlets, the company switch and swap roles every night. The actor who eulogises Hamlet at the matinee could very well kill him in the evening.
There are a whole host of reasons why this doubling (and tripling…) of parts is a good idea. It allows for nights off. Part of the appeal of theatre has always been its unrepeatability; with this production, that’s truer than ever. It also means this company know this play both widely and deeply. Nobody has exclusive ownership of any one part. Everything is shared.
The four new roles go smoothly, and we have a much needed post show drink. A huge group of Finnish and Swedish actors are waiting to congratulate us in the bar. One woman explains to me the Finnish concept of ‘jokamiehenoikeus’. It means ‘every man’s right.’ It’s the idea that the land of a country, its forests and lakes and open spaces, belongs to everyone in it, to be enjoyed freely and communally. I think about this, and I think about sisu. I never thought I’d need to speak Finnish to talk about Hamlet.”
24 May – Kiev, Ukraine
“The reason I think Shakespeare is so revered (as well as for his beautiful poetry) is that his plays have had relevance throughout the ages, echoing the situations people find themselves in. This proved to be the case in Kiev.
On the eve of their presidential election, with turmoil in the country, we played to a packed house at the Mystetskyi Arsenal. Many VIPs turned up including the favourite for the presidency, Petro Poroshenko, and next to him the new Mayor, Vitali Klitschko. There was an expectation that the people of Ukraine were about to experience a regime change – just like at the end of our play, as Hamlet utters his dying words to Horatio when he elects Fortinbras to take over the state.
Looking out at the people of Kiev in the play’s final speech, I realised that I didn’t need to go back in time to know my character. I had experienced it in the past few days: visiting the Maidan, speaking to the people of Kiev, and having the people who hoped to be in charge of the country right there in front of me.
There are words, feelings, themes in Hamlet that are relevant to everyone on this planet. I speak for everyone in our company when I say that we all feel unbelievably privileged and blessed to be able to deliver these.
Addressing Vitali Klitschko with the threat of fisticuffs during one scene is something I shall never forget ....”
7 June – Bitola, Macedonia
“A few of us decided to head over to the Roman amphitheatre where we were to perform that evening. On our journey through the town, we met with curiosity, bewilderment and sometimes (sadly) open hostility [to] such an ethnically diverse group. There was graffiti of swastikas and white power slogans on the walls.
However, the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience later that day was a lovely counterbalance. We received a standing ovation from a crowd of 1,500; an incredible mass of people. The amphitheatre, one of our first outdoor venues, was also perfect. And when the audience is really with you there is no better feeling in the world.”
15 June – Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
“We happen upon a tiny coffee shop in the old town and are served by the owner; she recognises one of our group from the Sarajevo news. ‘So, to be or not to be?’ she asks. ‘To be’ I reply with a smile, though she seems unconvinced. ‘For me, sometimes to be’, she says, ‘sometimes not to be. Today: to be’.
The Sarajevo National Theatre is an impressive building with a network of corridors that make navigating quick costume changes tricky. Cigarette smoke lingers in the subterranean passages; the auditorium itself is stunning, decorated with decadent gold and deep red velvet.
The opening speech brings the house down. After his customary greeting in the native language of our audience, Tommy [Lawrence] adds ‘Ajde Zmajevi!’ (“Come on you Dragons!”), wishing [their football team] luck in their first ever World Cup match this evening. The crowd goes wild, the atmosphere is electric and the stage is set for an exciting show.”
Amanda Wilkin (Ophelia/Gertrude/Horatio)
7 August – Havana, Cuba
“I want to say firstly how proud I am to be taking this play around the world, and with such a diverse cast. Our heritages are from all over the planet and I believe that this illustrates how Shakespeare is for everyone.
The theatre, Teatro Mella, was huge - very wide with a high white balcony. Our set looked pretty small onstage. The water was cut off during a few hours of the day, so that made for a very interesting backstage toilet for us all! I tried speaking a little Spanish with a lady backstage, told her my Grandad was Cuban and her eyes lit up… it was very surreal and special to be here for the first time performing.”
9 August – Merida, Mexico
“Our new venue is an outdoor platform in the city’s main square. Steeped in history, it was once the site of a Mayan temple, whose ancient stonework can still be seen in the Spanish colonial-era buildings that surround it. The second-oldest cathedral in all the Americas imposed itself in front of a beautiful park, and it was in front of the cathedral that our stage was erected. Chairs are wrapped around the stage, but the audience still extended into the park beyond. There were even people who’d climbed trees to find the best seat in the house.
There was a buzz of intrigue and people would stop to watch as they walked past; the life of the square, with its traffic and sirens and birdsong and bustle continued, lifting the show with its energy. It felt momentous and it felt alive, free of the stuffiness that a theatre auditorium with its dimmed lights and lofty etiquette can (sometimes) bring.”
16 August – Copan, Honduras
“As it’s the rainy season, we are always on the lookout in outdoor venues. Rain wasn’t forecast but during the first scene in Copan the heavens opened. Coming from Shakespeare’s Globe we are no strangers to rain during a performance and are proud of our loyal audiences who brave it without mention. We were thrilled to see that our audience in Honduras did the same, and what better atmosphere for the Ghost’s entrance than the sound of distant thunder?
After the show we met a group of 20 young actors-in-training who had travelled for eight hours to see us. They arrived without tickets, and Paola [from the Board of Tourism] managed to fit them in even though the show was sold out. Such dedication is always very touching.”
Jennifer Leong (Ophelia/Rosencrantz/Horatio)
22 September - Gdansk, Poland
“We arrived here in Poland for the opening ceremony of the beautiful Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, with the honour of our Hamlet as the inaugural performance. I felt incredibly privileged that the Globe company were invited, celebrating the fact that Shakespearean actors from London first set foot on these shores over 400 years ago, uttering the same lines.
The smell of new leather and paint, the murmurs of excitement as the audience settled down, the flurry of activity backstage, all made these performances special. This stage will witness many great endeavours and accomplishments, and to be there when it all began is something we will take with us as we journey on, taking the Danish Prince to other parts of the world.”
9-11 November – La Paz, Bolivia
“The lack of oxygen hit us as we stepped off the plane, and instead of hoisting our own heavy trunks, our hosts did all the hard work, warning us of the dangers of altitude sickness.
The theatre is a beautiful old colonial structure - ornate but still intimate. Tickets were free and the audience’s energy was much needed during a tough show, the thin air causing breathlessness at unexpected moments. We had oxygen tanks in the wings and between scenes we squeezed a few gulps into our lungs before bursting back on. I felt rather lucky not to be playing Laertes tonight; knowing how out of breath the fight in Act V usually leaves me, I didn't envy Beruce having to do it at this altitude. But he coped admirably, as did everyone.”
For more information on the Globe to Globe Hamlet journey, see globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com