On April 23rd Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre kicked off its celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth by embarking on what will be a two-year tour performing Hamlet in every country in the world (all 205 according to the Globe’s last count). On the 27th and 28th of September, they arrived in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan (otherwise known as country number fifty).
In the performance program, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole refers to the Globe’s “transportable production of Hamlet,” a fitting epithet considering that most every aspect of the production, from the props to the costumes to the music, highlighted a traveling troupe theme. Dromgoole does his best to make this theme explicit. The program reminds audiences that “English theatre used to be about touring and nothing else,” while actor Tom Lawrence announces just as the show is about to begin that the house lights will remain on for the duration of the performance as a way of mimicking the outdoor atmosphere of the Globe. The effect of such a choice, though, is less an invocation of the Globe’s inimitable ambience and more a reminder of the fact that we are here, in this very different place and part of the world. Such a choice reminds us that we are watching an itinerant troupe making due in a venue that is not its own.
The role of Hamlet was shared by Ladi Emeruwa and Naeem Hayat. I can not comment on the former’s performance since Mr. Hayat had the privilege of playing the lead on my night. So many actors fall prey to overacting crazy, and the many young Hamlets of not-so-distant memory are no exception. But Mr. Hayat did not. I would not want to limit his artistry by implying that he had any specific performance in mind as a counterweight, but at times it felt like his Hamlet was the anti-Kenneth Branagh. What a breath of fresh air it was to hear those impossible six words—the most famous in the English language according to the British Ambassador’s opening speech—unburdened by all that baggage they have been loading onto their shoulders the last four-and-a-half centuries. While Branagh’s throaty exhalations turned “To be or not to be” into the least believable line in his film, Mr. Hayat’s rendition made of it into a running start, as though implying that there is something much more exhilarating—or worrisome—to follow (and isn’t this the point of that soliloquy?). I found it to be in marked contrast to the way Hamlets like Branagh’s turn the line into celebratory spectacles not unlike the kind that break a bottle of Champagne on a ship’s departing bow.
The other actors were just as good. Jennifer Leong as Ophelia, like Mr. Hayat, brought a bit of understatement to that equally impossible role. Even John Dougall as Polonius understated the pretentiousness of his character, though without losing what makes Polonius such a potentially funny performance. In talking to those students of mine who saw the performance on the following day, it was Mr. Dougall’s Polonius that garnered the most unrivaled acclaim. I do not want to dwell on his performance for too long though, but only because I feel like it would do an injustice to Miranda Foster as Gertrude and Keith Barlett as Claudius, both of whom also performed as their respective doubles in the play-within-the-play, while Mr. Barlett also incarnated the ghost of Hamlet’s father. With the exception of Mr. Hayat as Hamlet, all the actors took on the responsibility of playing multiple roles, as well as serving as the musicians who accompanied much of the action on a drum, a recorder, or the stringed instrument played by Ms. Foster that seemed to me like a cross between a banjo and a mandolin.
The music contributed an important part to the production’s “transportable” theme, imbuing it with a spirit that was vaguely reminiscent of vaudeville. Likewise with the props and the stage overall. The production stripped down the set to nothing more than a curtain hung on a couple pieces of wood and a series of traveling trunks that were moved around, opened and reopened, and shuffled into ever-changing combinations, almost as though pretending it were possible to turn one’s luggage into chairs, at times, walls at others, or even the grave from which a pensive young man pulls out his old jester’s skull. As though the boxes on our backs could be used to bring to life the world we have just left behind.
The remarkable nature of this aspect of the staging is that it stripped the play of the gravitas that has always seemed so fundamental to Shakespeare’s tragedy. If part of the difficulty of staging Hamlet derives from the distance between the world it depicts and our own then you would think that a Hamlet so dependent on luggage and rope would lose something vital. But this was precisely where the directors, Mr. Dromgoole along with Bill Buckhurst, laid their greatest claim to insight. If Hamlet is really just the Orestes story modernized through introspection—as the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello said—then its modernity should be able to withstand a setting that would make of its prince into a traveling pauper. I wondered if Mr. Dromgoole and Mr. Buckhurst had in mind Pirandello, considering that their rendition of the play-within-the-play included a very puppet-like mimed introduction (Pirandello likens Hamlet to Orestes in his discussion of a marionette production of the Orestes story, during which the paper sky of the miniature theatre opens up to reveal a puppet master’s hand).
Pirandello said this in a novel from 1904. It seems then, that in 2014, Hamlet is a fitting venue for bringing back bygone theatrical productions like puppet shows. Though I have no idea if the directors had intended this. Maybe they were thinking more of Commedia dell’arte and its own noble tradition of itinerant showmanship? I’m not sure, but their Hamlet was certainly reminiscent of this tradition. By harping on the itinerant roots of English theater, they are certainly invoking a time when audiences were used to seeing Kings reduced to jesters and Queens to puppets. This Hamlet though, as I said earlier, seemed to want to turn its heroes into vaudeville performers. All the actors were dressed in the kinds of slacks with suspenders and boots that made them seem more like extras from O Brother, Where Art Thou? than Elizabethans, even if their costumes were consistently being touched up with articles from the period. Before this performance, I had never imagined just how well a a pair of overalls could be complemented by a Renaissance doublet. Likewise, I never imagined an accordion could accompany a soliloquy so well. If the show was a bit of vaudeville, it was vaudeville meets Marlowe, with a mad prince uttering vaguely recognizable lines throughout.
And the audience definitely recognized Hamlet, even if it didn’t always understand it. After all, its fame precedes it perhaps like no other work of art in the world. The shows sold out at least a month before the performances, though it became increasingly clear that part of the reason had to do with corporate bodies buying up large chunks of tickets. Which is why when only a couple weeks before the shows emails began to circulate amongst my colleagues, we were more than a bit disheartened to learn we didn’t have a shot in Hell at getting tickets for our students, let alone for ourselves. And then a miracle happened. The week of we learned that our university was one of these greedy corporate bodies. In a rather atypically just fashion, the school even (correctly) determined which students would most appreciate the tickets and distributed accordingly. That I myself got to see it through a friend of a friend was sheer, wonderfully dumb, luck.
The evening, though, was not without its road bumps. Despite the fact that no one I knew had any luck trying to buy tickets, about a quarter of the seats were empty when the show began. By the time the actors returned from intermission, that number had swollen to about a third. Perhaps much of this had to do with the inordinately bad weather that night, bad even by Astana’s standards. A student of mine told me during the intermission that though she had bought her ticket independently a month earlier, she considered not coming because of the rain. Though it was disappointing to see so many empty seats, especially after the break, perhaps it’s unfair to judge. It is Shakespeare after all. The friend of the friend who sold me my ticket turned to me during the intermission and said she never realized before how bad her English was. And this coming from a woman whose conversational English is flawless. I had assumed that the audience knew beforehand the extent to which Shakespeare’s language is not ours, just like I assumed that linguistic barriers were beaten down to a minimum because of the Kazakh and Russian titles that were being projected above the stage. “To be or not to be” may be the most recognized six words in the English language, but there’s a whole play that surrounds them that are decidedly less easy to decipher.
This is why I wish they had shut the house lights. I understand what the directors were aiming for, but there comes a moment in the play when the photographer snapping to your right and the children playing with their toys to your left affect every aspect of the performance, including your sympathy for the actors. I kept thinking: “They traveled this far to perform in a theatre this empty.” When we returned from the intermission I knew they knew that the theatre was more empty than before. I worried it would affect their performances. I worried that it would, of all ridiculous things, hurt their feelings. How could one guy in the audience, no matter how enthusiastic, be able to make up for two rows of seats that weren’t empty just an hour and a half ago? It didn’t affect their performance, though, or at least, it didn’t in any way I could discern.
However, I do not want to give off the impression that only students and literature professors could have possibly enjoyed the show, because there were moments that seemed to transcend any and all barriers erected by the language. Two in particular:
The first came by way of that mimed introduction to Hamlet’s play within his play. Before the troupe recited The Mousetrap, the actors playing the actors who are about to soliloquize the betrayal and murder of Hamlet’s father performed the whole thing through an exaggerated comic mime. The duped King walks out like a wooden mannequin and lies down to meet his death. The duplicitous queen gasps with feigned shock at the crime to be committed by her lover, who has just emerged like some hobo Mephistopheles, prancing about with a prop meant to mimic the container from which he will pour the poison into the king’s ear, but which doubles as a kind of castanet. This is because the entire charade is played to the consistent beat of a lone drum being played by a member of the troupe. As the murderer pours out the poison, he shakes the castanet-like instrument downwards in rhythm to the beat. The King then dies a comically-exaggerated death reminiscent of a puppet doing a tragically-exaggerated Shakespearean death. One leg shoots upwards, he sits up like a Jack-in-the-box, then his head swivels to the side. One arm is lifted up, then down, followed by the other, as though he were on strings. And when it’s all done, the Queen and her murderer take to the front of the stage in a hilarious pas de deux that had the audience applauding uproariously. Did you ever think Hamlet could be funny? I sure hadn’t.
But this is nothing compared to how the directors ended the production. You will recall… everyone dies. Everyone (pretty much at least). Which is why I was surprised that the play the Globe chose to travel the world with would be this most talkative of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies. Why not a comedy? Something to leave the audiences from those 205 countries in a better mood at the end of the night? Even if, sure, a line like “To thine own self be true” is more well known than anything a character like Puck ever uttered.
It seems though, the directors did not feel that they had to make a genre choice for their finale, because they refused to allow their audience any opportunity to appreciate the ending as tragic. Picture the stage as it always is when Hamlet ends: Laertes undone, Claudius run through, Gertrude as dearly departed as our mad prince—a stage glutted with carnage. Isn’t this how it has to be for Hamlet to end correctly? Apparently not so, for not five, not ten seconds after Fortinbras and Horatio have finished lamenting the bodies strewn around them than something unexpected happens. A fairy comes out. Then another. Now, these are not real fairies. They are the other actors whose own untimely ends earlier in the show have left them backstage this whole time. Thus the actress whom we’d just mourned as Ophelia is back, almost ethereal, dancing across the stage to the rhythm of a tune being played by other actors. The audience has not let out a sound, mind you. How could it? For there is no way anyone expected this. They didn’t even allow us time to applaud all those deaths! Instead, we get… a nymph’s forest dance. She waltzes between the strewn corpses and curtseys downwards as though she were Cinderella’s godmother, and though she has no magic wand, a slight touch on the shoulder of one of the fallen others wakes him up, almost as if from the dead. Soon the actor who had been playing Laertes is part of the dance. He touches Gertrude. Soon she is part of it too. The music gets more assertive. Around and around we go, the stage slowly denuding itself of carnage and filling up with what seem like the leftovers from last season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Soon the music is louder than it has been all show. Hamlet is up now too, and he, along with every single person sitting in the audience, is enthusiastically clapping along to the beat that has overtaken the theatre. This goes on for some time, and brazenly so. Don’t these actors realize we just sat through two hours and forty minutes of murder, suicide, and betrayal? Of a kingdom’s slow unraveling? Don’t they understand we want to applaud everyone’s demise and leave so we can go have our dinners?
This is when the performance took on something unexpected for me. The traveling troupe theme makes sense, makes so much sense that I’m sure I would have foreseen it had I bothered to think about it beforehand. How else are you going to take a show to every country in the world? That the actors would be stupendous… why should that have surprised me at all? But to have taken these itinerant professionals and turned them into the vaudeville performers, the Commedia dell’arte troupes and shadow puppets of theatre history, and to have done so in such a way as to give Hamlet an ending more apropos of one of Shakespeare’s comedies? To imply that the spirit of tragedy should not be one of death but of resurrection?
Hamlet was part of an unusually busy theatre weekend for me. The night before I saw a performance by British actors of the Kazakhstani playwright, Dulat Issabekov’s play The Transit Passenger. At a certain point in that performance the lead actor expatiates on the extent to which Kazakhs are connected to their homeland. Or at least, the extent to which they used to be:
I doubt whether anyone’s as attached to their homeland as we are, the Kazakhs. I remember when I was a child, two of our relatives decided to move away. What a fuss, when they loaded their modest belongings onto the carts! Practically the whole village turned out, the men had tears in their eyes and the women were keening and lamenting. Those relatives said their goodbyes as though they were going to their deaths. But they were only going to live some seventy versts from us. That’s the Kazakhs for you! But I live on the edge of the world, as you pointed out so accurately.
How interesting, to be in Astana and hear these words spoken through a thick British brogue, and then a night later, in the same city, to hear the four hundred and fifteen-odd-year-old words of an Englishman who in his whole life barely traveled 100 miles from his home town (that’s a little over 150 versts). Because Astana, to so many people, both from here and not, seems like the edge of the world (in an age of mass transport, wouldn’t the edges of the world have needed to move more inland?). Personally, I don’t think Kazakhstan feels like the edge of the world, which is part of why I cannot sympathize with the sentiment of the villagers from above. What a fuss! For what? Isn’t the quickest way to get home to go around the world first? I got the sense that taking Hamlet Globe-to-Globe is really all about this, which is why the comic ending of the world’s most famous tragedy is making more and more sense to me these days. If Hamlet and all his minions had stayed dead, we wouldn’t be clapping along in a theatre in Central Asia. At most, we’d be picking at their bones like some long-winded brat with too much time to kill and nowhere to go.