That Shakespeare eh? What a genius, the finest poet/playwright that Britain has produced, and surely one of the very best the world has ever seen. Or at least, that’s the consensus opinion. But whatever your personal opinion of the Bard, there’s no doubting that his body of work is esteemed and renowned the world over. And if Hamlet – with its ‘To be or not to be’ and skull-holding ‘alas, poor Yorick’ soliloquies just two of many moments enshrined in the literary canon – is not the very best known of his works, then it certainly is one of them.
The Globe Theatre, the reincarnation of which sees his plays performed within its walls on the South Bank of London, decided to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by taking Hamlet to every country across the globe on the ultimate, two-year-long world tour. Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe at the time, is the first of the company involved in the endeavour to write a book about this wildly ambitious undertaking.
He is keen to point out early on in proceedings that this is not, nor ever could be, the comprehensive story of the journey to nearly 200 countries. “Each gig,” he writes, “offered up so much material, so many intersections with politics, culture and history, that each visit could prompt a book.” That, and he himself only experienced 20 of the venues where the group performed.
Instead, he takes the rather nifty approach of divvying up the structure of the book in to thematic chapters which, whilst by and large written in chronological order, feel all the better for being liberated from the obligation to include something from every part of the trip. And why not? This is a travelogue, yes, but it isn’t in a ‘first and foremost’ sort of way.
Fear not, there is plenty of observational anecdote and analysis of the people, places and things encountered along the way. But Dromgoole, being a true Shakespeare nut through and through, never loses sight of the fact that this book is, quite rightly, grounded in Shakespeare’s play. He is always sure to sew the narrative thread back to Hamlet, and how it relates to the human condition and experience, regularly quoting directly from the play to support this.
For example, when food poisoning induced madness strikes in Mexico, we have a discussion of the ‘antic disposition’ (feigned madness) Hamlet himself puts on as part of his grand plan to avenge his father. And when the group encounter refugees displaced by ISIS in a camp a mere thirty kilometres from Mosul (until very recently held by ISIS), the anger and thirst for revenge in the air reminds Dromgoole of the lust for vengeance of not only Shakespeare’s protagonist, but also Fortinbras, hell-bent on reclaiming lost lands.
A simple and straightforward approach, yes, but a mightily effective one that ends up making Globe to Globe such a compulsive read. Some might argue that, in sweeping from country to country as they did, the insight in to the cultural idiosyncrasies of each place is rather limited. But that’s not what this book, in contrast to more conventional travelogues, is trying to do.
I will illustrate what I mean by now revealing that I was actually fortunate enough to watch an early tour performance at the Globe on 23rd April 2014. I remember the vitality and joie de vivre inherent in the production, from the relaxed introduction to the audience from one of the actors (‘it will probably rain!’) to the closing dance performed by the cast – including those who had mere moments ago strewn the stage as corpses. I remember thinking as we filed out that, hey, what they’re doing here might just work. It might just travel.
Which, triumphantly, it did, and this book is a wonderful testament to and summation of precisely how and why it did (though a mention must also be given to the exceptional hard work of all involved!). It’s because, as Dromgoole himself puts it in the conclusion, we are all compelled by Hamlet precisely because we are the titular protagonist: “Looking at Hamlet, aren’t we just watching ourselves naked?”
It’s ultimately a convincing case not only to prove that Shakespeare is for people other than fusty academics, but also that, in the words of the French writer Alfred de Musset, “Great artists have no country.” Which makes this thoughtful, highly readable book a very welcome, and refreshingly original, addition to the literary genre of travel writing, precisely because it so comfortably belongs to several others as well.
Featured image courtesy of Kevin T.Houle