Hamlet comes home after epic world tour
One play. Two years. 197 countries. Twelve exhausted actors. On Sunday, the most ambitious project in theatre history came to an end. Was it a stroke of genius, or just madness?
‘All the world’s a stage,’ wrote Shakespeare in 1599. Four centuries later, one theatre group took his words literally.
In April 2014, the Globe to Globe company set off on the most ambitious theatre tour in history. The plan? To perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet in every country on earth. Over two years, they travelled 186,000 miles across 197 nations, before coming home for a final show at London’s Globe Theatre last Sunday.
There were triumphs along the way. The actors performed for Barack Obama, the United Nations, and the Danish royal family – in the very castle where Hamlet is set. In Sudan, they played to a passionate audience of 3,500. In Saudi Arabia, they made history by staging the first ever mixed-sex play.
But the company had plenty of mishaps too. A sandstorm hit their stage in Jordan; their bus broke down in Guinea-Bissau; they struggled with altitude sickness in Bolivia. Their performance in Calais’s jungle migrant camp ended early when audience members began to take out knives.
Globe to Globe’s tour may have been unprecedented, but it was in the spirit of Shakespeare’s time. Soon after its première, Hamlet was being staged around Europe; in 1608, it was performed on a ship off the coast of Yemen. ‘Shakespeare can speak to anyone,’ as Dominic Dromgoole, the tour’s director, put it.
Dromgoole’s aim was to bring Hamlet to the widest audience possible. But this brought its share of problems. In countries where English is not widely spoken, the richness of Shakespeare’s language was lost on the public. In some places, the audience was dominated by expats. And the need to keep ticket prices low ended up costing the Globe a bomb.
Overall, then, the tour had its ups and downs. It was praised by some, criticised by others. In Dromgoole’s own words, it was ‘stupid’, ‘preposterous’. Was it worth it?
To tour or not to tour?
The whole thing was just an attention-grabbing stunt, say critics. Often, the audience could not grasp the intricacies of the play. At worst – as in Calais – they were downright hostile. Measuring the success of a play in terms of the number of countries visited is reductive, and brings unnecessary dangers and difficulties. The tour may have generated publicity for the Globe, but it shouldn’t be repeated.
Nonsense, reply others. Dromgoole is right: Shakespeare does appeal to everyone, even if they don’t understand every word. Take Calais: the migrants would surely identify with Hamlet, a depressed, frustrated man who is trapped between different courses of action. This tour was a noble attempt to bring the world together through art. As one Kurdish academic told Dromgoole, ‘from Shakespeare, we learn that everyone is important’.
- Which country would you most like to visit, and why?
- Are the best works of art the ones that speak to everyone?
- Choose a short passage of literature that means a lot to you. Read it to the class, and explain why you picked it.
- Write a 300-word review of a work of art – it can be a film, play, exhibition, music album. Explain what you think it sets out to do, and give your thoughts on whether it succeeds.
Some People Say...
“A work of art has no importance to society – only to the individual.”Vladimir Nabokov
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why do people still care about a 400-year-old play?
- Hamlet may be a centuries-old play about a Danish prince, but it deals with timeless, universal themes. For example, the way in which Hamlet hesitates over whether to avenge his father’s murder will make sense to anyone who has experienced deep uncertainty over a course of action. Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time: not only are they still performed, but they continue to be reimagined in interesting ways.
- Any examples?
- Plenty. Disney’s The Lion King, for one, appears to be based on Hamlet. The musical West Side Story wouldn’t have existed without Romeo and Juliet. Some have even argued that the Star Wars saga borrows plot details from Shakespeare’s so-called Henry plays. The list goes on.
- All the world’s a stage
- This line opens a famous monologue from As You Like It, in which Shakespeare compares the seven stages of a person’s life to acts in a play. In his work, theatre often serves as a metaphor for life.
- 197 nations
- In the end, Globe to Globe had to skip a few countries – such as Syria and North Korea – due to security issues.
- Globe Theatre
- The original Globe was built in central London in 1599 by Shakespeare’s theatre company. It was famous for its distinctive round shape, and staged the premières of many of the Bard’s plays before burning down in 1613. In 1997, the theatre was rebuilt near to its original site. Tickets now sell for as little as £5.
- Mixed-sex play
- In Saudi Arabia, a very conservative Islamic nation, genders are strictly segregated in many aspects of public life. In many restaurants, for example, men and women eat apart.
- Jungle migrant camp
- A shanty town of a few thousand migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, who are attempting to enter the UK. Living conditions are poor, and residents frequently clash with the police.