Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole

Reviewed by Harriet

Dominic Dromgoole was the Artistic Director of London’s Globe Theatre from 2005 to 2016. During this successful period he initiated many memorable achievements, including a 2012 festival in which all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays were staged by companies from all around the world. It went supremely well, but the departing euphoria left a vacuum demanding to be filled, and into it popped an even bigger idea: ‘With barely a pause for thought, I said let’s take Hamlet to every country in the world’. And so it came about that a project came into being that had started like this:

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.

So Dromgoole set about recruiting a wonderfully diverse group of actors, all of whom learned up to six roles in the play and switched between characters in each performance. Their energy and enthusiasm, not to mention stamina, must have been breath-taking, considering the demands of travel, frequent illness and just plain exhaustion. But the group stayed together through thick and thin. Two years later they returned, having given performances in 190 countries, in venues ranging from theatres to refugee camps and taking in bars, beaches, stadiums, amphitheatres and roundabouts. Sometimes the audiences were huge and people had to be turned away, occasionally only a handful of people turned up. There were times when the audiences didn’t understand a word of the play, but received it none the less with enormous enthusiasm. Most countries welcomed the tour with open arms, but there was a potential political incident when they announced their intention of playing in North Korea – they were heavily criticised for this, but in the event it didn’t happen because Kim Il-sung withheld his permission.

Hamlet: Globe to Globe is structured in 18 chapters, each one of which describes Dromgoole’s experiences of one of the countries he managed to visit during the two years duration of the tour. This is fascinating in itself, but the book is far from being simply a travelogue. In every chapter, memories of the circumstances of that country’s performance of the play are blended with reflections on the prevailing political or social circumstances, which in their turn are blended with close reading and analysis of different aspects of Hamlet and with Dromgoole’s own very personal reflections, both on the play itself and on the nature of the world we live in.

Indeed, despite having been written more than 400 years ago, Hamlet, as Dromgoole interprets him, has extraordinary relevance for the world of today.

Hamlet, with his restless desire to dream up a new sensibility, speaks to all people in any moment trying to create a better future out of the ashes of a world that breaks their heart.

Watching a street performer in Quito sets him musing on the importance and purpose of the soliloquy; a visit to Moscow and thoughts on the political situation in Russia leads to a consideration of Hamlet as a revenge tragedy; a performance on a campus in Saudi Arabia makes him think about Hamlet himself as a university student; and so on.

Hamlet fitted in everywhere. Hamlet the icon of restlessness for a world that never seems able to settle. Hamlet who is restless for truth, unable to bear the lie his present moment is based on…

But despite this firmly held belief in the contemporary relevance of the play, Dromgoole admits that he and his company had to relinquish two delusions they had at the start of the tour. The first concerned the play itself – the delusion that ‘Hamlet is a journey towards peace, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel’ when in fact Shakespeare is too great an artist not to acknowledge that the world remains a messy place. The second, ‘embarrassingly huge’ delusion, was that this world tour of the play would ‘have a benevolent effect, spread a little world peace’. But no:

Hamlet was not put into the world to settle it into a somatic calm. He was given us by Shakespeare to engineer a little change. To remind us to stay restless, and to keep pushing forward towards the something or other ahead of us. To keep making all sorts of trouble for an all sorts of world.

Of course not everyone will agree with Dromgoole’s views or his interpretation of the play. But no one, I believe, could fail to be touched by his passionate, life-affirming vision. Frequently self-deprecating, not afraid to show himself in a less than perfect light, he nevertheless shines through his text as someone with immense optimism and a lively, positive vision of possibilities. Here’s what seems to be his personal philosophy of life and work:

absorb and understand as much as you can, and then walk forwards, your heart and your laughter pushing you on, and try to show the world something new.

Lively, funny, humane, deeply engaged, immensely readable, this is a hugely attractive book and I loved every minute of it.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Dominic Dromgoole, Hamlet: Globe to Globe (Canongate, 2017). 978-1782116905, 400pp., hardback.

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