Travelling Hamlet players wind down their world tour

A cast of eight to 12 actors has been touring the world, performing a stripped-down version of Hamlet in small theatres.
A cast of eight to 12 actors has been touring the world, performing a stripped-down version of Hamlet in small theatres. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

SLIEMA, MALTA • Minutes before the curtain was set to rise on a production of Hamlet at the Salesian Theatre here, two buses carrying about 25 migrants in all pulled up in front of the century-old building.

Mostly young men from Africa, wearing hoodies and baggy jeans, they hustled into the theatre and took their seats to curious stares from some of the older Maltese audience members.

The lights dimmed and the actors playing the guards at Elsinore began reciting their familiar lines, just as they had well over 150 times in the last two years, as part of Globe To Globe Hamlet, a project by the London-based Shakespeare's Globe theatre to present the play in every country in the world.

Often playing in small theatres and to audience members who may never have seen a professional production, the Globe is presenting a stripped-down Hamlet with eight to 12 cast members, light live instrumentation and a spare set.

The tour started in 2014, on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, and will end next month in London - after about 200 countries - to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death.

Along the way, the mostly young, multicultural cast has endured the usual inconveniences of life on the road, including visa problems, lost luggage and endless takeaway food. The actors have also performed during a riot, encountered racially charged comments from audiences and narrowly missed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

A world tour is in keeping with the Hamlet tradition, said Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, noting that Hamlet was performed on a ship off what is now Sierra Leone just five years after its London debut, which occurred around 1600.

"Shakespeare not being the possession of one country or one culture has always been part of the stories," he said.

Because Libya was among the locations the company had to forgo, they had hoped to play to Libyan refugees who have been arriving steadily in recent years. The effort was not entirely successful.

At the advice of a local government agency, the Globe brought migrants to the theatre, rather than going to the centres where they live - many behind guarded gates in modular metal units. Seventy seats had been reserved, but just two dozen showed up, few of them Libyans. The young men who came, mainly from Senegal and Gambia, listened quietly. During intermission, the group decided, in a flash, to leave.

Outside the theatre, two French-speaking men from Senegal explained that they were having fun but had trouble understanding. In addition, the migrants were tired, the agency worker accompanying them said, and some had work early the next day.

Hamlet drew a standing ovation from those who remained. The cast members said they thought the performance had gone well, though some had not noticed the migrants leaving. Within 45 minutes, they had packed and left the theatre. The next day, they flew off for a performance in Brussels.

The Hamlet tour grew out of the company's Globe To Globe festival in 2012, which brought troupes from across the world to London to stage Shakespeare's plays in their own languages.

Before its return to London, the group will make a penultimate stop in the real Elsinore (Helsingor in Danish).

When the tour ends, said Naeem Hayat, 27, one of the two Hamlets in the company, "we'll have an eternity of sort of crazy memories and old-man anecdotes to tell at dinner parties" .

In Mexico, spectators scurried up lamp posts and trees to get a view as the cast performed outside a colonial cathedral. On Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific island, the show was presented alongside a road that doubled as the island's runway and its main thoroughfare.

The audience in Kiev, Ukraine, the night before the 2014 presidential election, included the candidate who would win, Petro O. Poroshenko, as well as people prominent in the citizens' uprising that ousted his predecessor.

"It was the most glorious, electrifying night," Dromgoole said. "It was thrilling to be in the room just as they were forging a new future for themselves."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Travelling Hamlet players wind down their world tour'. Print Edition | Subscribe