Book Review: Hamlet Globe to Globe
Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play
by Dominic Dromgoole
Grove Press, 2017
At one point late in his enormously satisfying new book Hamlet Globe to Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe Theatre, is talking about putting on Hamlet in Lima, Peru, in the literary home of magical realism, and he charmingly makes the case for the ways his production can speak to that tradition:
Hamlet, and indeed most Shakespeare, happily qualifies to share space within the magical-realism tradition. There is no shortage of levels. You’ve got a Ghost, who pops up on three occasions; you have streams of consciousness and songs of confusion and need expressed through blank verse; you have politics, both in the regime change which precedes the play and the revolution that continually threatens it; you have the ludic shifting of different realities with the play within the play; you have the classical backdrop with the speeches on the fall of Troy; there’s a bit of broad clowning humour with the Gravediggers, which actually manages on occasion to be funny; you have a love story, both domestic and epic; there’s family politics; there’s fabulism and stories folding into other stories; there’s even a generational saga element with the Fortinbrases and the Hamlets fighting it out through time. It’s hard to imagine a Garcia Marquez or a Vargas Llosa or an Allende that manages to stuff in more, or that takes greater pleasure in the telling.
Even so brief an articulation of play’s appeal makes one thing obvious: that appeal certainly seems to move well
beyond a concern about magical realism – looks multi-legged enough to be universal. And in honor of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the Globe decided on the most epic, exhausting, exorbitant test of that universality imaginable: to take the show on the road and bring Hamlet to every country on Earth. And the resulting book is a treasure not only of travel writing – naturally, Dromgoole and his fellow players have all the misadventures you might expect in the course of such ramshackle adventures – but of Hamlet insights that snap with the energy of an insider who’s been working with this material for years. In the course of the book, all of the play’s most memorable passages are worked over in this way, including the most famous of all, the “to be or not to be” soliloquy:
Those six grave yet flighted syllables, the bareness and the directness of them, an arrow of expressed thought. A hero, with all that Shakespeare’s audiences had come to expect from heroes, a hero who has the courage to ask the simplest question of all, and to ask it in its simplest form. Six syllables, thirteen letters, and everything packed within them. A question, not a statement. With no certainty in the right response. Hamlet has carried us thus far, we are in part him, in part his friend, and now he asks on our behalf the question that sits at the centre of our lives. The speed at which it is presented wrong-foots us.
It’s illuminating, watching Hamlet shift and change in reaction to both the moods and trials of the company but also in reaction to the wildly different places where the scene is laid, from English-speaking countries where the play is routinely taught in school to far-flung foreign cultures that know nothing of the original literature and concentrate instead – always to fascinating effect – on the raw essentials of what’s happening on the stage. And always Dromgoole is quick to notice the resonances that are special to each locale, like the performance in Kiev attended by the President-Elect of Ukraine:
Most of all, I was happy that this was a bright Hamlet, a renaissance Hamlet, a celebration of his energy. On this bright evening for this town, it would have been impertinent to come from western Europe and sulk and moan and pule in their general direction. To joy in this remarkable Prince, and in his desire to find a modern, and a new, in a world that stands stiffly and uncomprehendingly against it, felt right. It felt like a due tribute to the moment we were in. Much didn’t land, much did, and yet at the end, the audience erupted and cheered.
Hamlet Globe to Globe will likewise have its audience cheering; this is the best, most consistently fascinating Hamlet book to appear in many publishing seasons.