Late November, England
My editor at The Independent rings to tell me that a British theatre company is about to take some productions of Shakespeare to the Middle East. Am I up for filing a report? Great story, I think, entertaining visions of Taliban-sympathising goatherds with AK-47s being soothed into calm and pacific ways by the beauty of the Bard's iambs. Count me in. "You must be out of your mind," says one friend. "I wouldn't go near the Middle East these days for a small fortune." "You must be out of your mind," says another, "I wouldn't spend two weeks shacked up with a bunch of luvvies for a small fortune." I secretly start to hope that the whole thing will be called off.
Early December, England
It hasn't been called off, though some details have changed. A newish outfit called British Touring Shakespeare will stageTwelfth Night and Hamlet outdoors by the sea, on the lawn of the swanky Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai – not for Islamic fundamentalists, but for affluent European and American expats, who will be forking out £75 each for a hot buffet and a shot of culture. So: no major rucks with the Bin Laden boys, no hands-across-the-civilisations gestures of cultural exchange, but maybe a nice colour piece and definitely a few quiet days of rest and private study by the pool. (I understand that students of the theatre regard the construction of self-reassuring fantasies by the about-to-be doomed as one traditional form of dramatic irony.)
Friday 7 December, Dubai
It is blisteringly hot, the flight by Air Qatar (aka "Air Guitar") took about 11 hours, and I am sleep-starved, dehydrated and dyspeptic, yet strangely content. I have now met the cast and crew, and far from being luvvies, they are ideal travelling companions. They smoke like fiends and drink like journalists; they take the mickey out of each other – and me – mercilessly; they do funny impersonations, notably of Tony Hancock, and tell funny stories; they are, in short, a damn fine bunch of young folk (average age: 23 to 24), fizzing with talent. What we all need now, though, is sleep.
Thanks to the panic post-11 September, Dubai's tourist industry has gone into free fall. So we have the Ritz Carlton virtually to ourselves, and the actors – who are used to spending their tours under canvas, washing in streams and eating nasty meat pies from petrol stations, are stunned by the luxury of pools, jacuzzis, room service, and almost exhaustingly friendly staff.
Today there is only one task for the gang: to stage some open rehearsals of scenes from Hamlet for A-level students at Dubai College. For me, this is a good chance to start connecting actors with roles. There are the three Toms – Tom Mallaburn, who plays Hamlet, barely looks a day over 17 and has almost comically good looks; Tom Cocklin, the Hancock fan and fine verse-speaker, who doubles as Claudius and Sir Toby Belch; and Tom Walwyn, who tackles several roles and is even funnier offstage than on.
Then there are the three women: Sarah Chalcroft (sexy as Gertrude, statuesque as Olivia), "Boo" Pearce (Viola) and Keely Tauman (Ophelia/Maria). Joel Wilson doubles as Aguecheek and Laertes; Jamie Campbell as Malvolio and Fortinbras. The cast is completed by Asa Joel (Polonius), Daniel Fisher (Guildenstern), Simon Davies (assorted blokes), and Tobias Beer, who is an affecting Horatio onstage and, offstage, one of the most inspired mimics I have ever met. Miles Lattimer-Gregory is the director both of these two productions, and of the BST company itself: a New Zealander by origin, he is an energetic, perfectionist manager, and everyone agrees that if it were not for him, none of this would be happening.
Tonight is the first dress rehearsal for Twelfth Night. It starts more than two hours late, because the construction crew hasn't finished building the set. I watch from various angles, take photographs, and, like everyone else, struggle to hear, because the sound system is a nightmare of echoes and feedback. By now, I like these people so much that I long for them to triumph; I go to bed in slightly glum mood.
Tonight's dress rehearsal is much better. Miles warns everyone to go to bed early and take it easy, so naturally we stay up all night boozing and playing silly games.
There was a major leak on our floor last night, and Simon took a nasty skid on it, injuring his right arm. Since he can no longer lift Ophelia's bier, the production is in desperate need of a Third Gravedigger, a little-discussed but crucial role. Unless he recovers, the part falls to me. I am tickled and terrified in equal measure.
9pm The Dubai premiere of Twelfth Night – possibly the first in the recorded history of the United Arab Emirates. Apparently,the production company is exploiting a loophole in the laws of Ramadan – concerts are forbidden, but there doesn't seem to be any objection about mounting plays, and the word is that Dubai's royal family will attend all four shows. (We wonder whether a drama about regicide and incest is altogether the right thing...)
The diners love the Aguecheek and Belch routines, as well they might, since Joel and Tom C are brilliant in the parts; but they also sit attentively through the lyrical passages. The company is a hit!
A really tough day today, starting with a full dress rehearsal of Hamlet under a brutally hot sun. With stops and starts, it goes on for about four hours, despite being a cut version. Then, after sundown, the second performance of Twelfth Night, which goes even better tonight – the audience may not be laughing so hard, but it is listening closely. I have rehearsed my role as Third Gravedigger with Simon and Tom W, but something tells me it ain't gonna happen...
Another arduous day. Simon's shoulder is better today, so I will not play Third Gravedigger after all. Only the gods of theatre know what a loss to civilisation this may ultimately be. But everyone is chuffed by a review in the Gulf News headlined "A Superb Night".
7pm The atmosphere in the dressing room – well, dressing tent – is understandably tense, though all the auguries are good: there is now a very strong rumour to the effect that the company will be brought back next year, and possibly hired for a tour to India and Canada, too.
The kitchens have laid on a revolting plateful of smelly fat and offal for the play-with-a-play scene, which in this production takes place during a dinner party. The robust joke about it; the fastidious shudder.
9pm The BTS Hamlet begins with spooky music and a short, silent film depicting the dumb-show of the Player King being murdered. It's clear that the cast have got a real grip of the play, and Tom's Hamlet is intense and commanding. The audience is satisfyingly quiet and attentive – which is more than can be said of the assistant sound engineers, who are silent and asleep. (One of them spent five years on the road with Ozzy Osbourne, so unless Tom M bites the head off a live bat, he doesn't stand much chance of getting this geezer's attention.)
My mission for tonight is to eavesdrop on the audience during the interval. Most of the talk I hear is directed into mobile phones and has more to do with the oil industry in Texas than dysfunctional aristocrats in Denmark. Still, a good 90 per cent or more makes it back for the second half, and, later, we all agree that holding this crowd with such bleak matter is a far more distinguished feat than tickling them with one of the most delightful comedies in the language. It seems essential to head back to my room, break out the gin, and discuss these weighty matters until 6.30am.
Hours of well earned relaxation by the sea, of idle chat and the nursing of hangovers until darkness falls and it is time for the final show. We all assumed that a fresh plate of meat would be supplied for the "Mousetrap" scene: no hope. After a day in direct sunlight, last night's joke is today's health hazard; when Ben experimentally poles the seething mass with a fork, a swarm of flies races out. But the show goes on, and much faster than last night. What's more, the royal family is finally here – two princes and their four wives, robed and serious in the front row. They stay put for the entire first half, which is quite a coup.
At the interval I mingle and eavesdrop again, and tonight some of the punters are actually talking about the play. "I love this play, it has so many quotes," enthuses one lady, "though my favourite line is in King Lear – 'My kingdom for a horse!'" Another tries to explain the plot to her baffled escort: "You see, the man kills the woman and then she marries the other man..."
By just after 12.30, the play is done – 25 minutes lopped off the running time, thanks to a couple of cuts and some swift playing. The applause is not torrential, but it is loud and blessedly protracted through several bows. We pool our last dirhams for a round of lagers and head back to one of the rooms to polish off the last of the duty free and blow off steam. In about 30 hours' time we will be back in Heathrow. Quite an eventful journey, as it happens; but I'll sign off with a detail that seems to me emblematic of this gang's enterprising attitude. When the pop music on the hotel radio service suddenly goes off, Joel – scarcely missing a beat – starts to pound out a familiar rhythm with his fists, and within seconds we are all joined in a ragged but rousing version of a Rolling Stones song. No music? What the hell, we can make our own. Or as the saying used to go: let's do the show right here!
British Touring Shakespeare is at the Westminster Theatre in London from 14 Jan-2 Feb (020-7834 0283); Joel Wilson and Jamie Campbell appear in 'Alt-TV' on Channel 4 this Friday at 7.30pmReuse content