Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 73
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 16, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “So Many Journeys,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Cecily Meza-Martinez at NPR in Washington, Neal Roush at NPR in New York and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London.
Read an excerpt from Dominic Dromgoole's Hamlet Globe to Globe on the Folger's Shakespeare & Beyond blog.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Let's say you had an idea. An idea that could never, ever really work. And one night, you're out with some friends. Late in the evening you pose this idea of yours out loud. Your friends all look at you, they think about it, and they all go, “That's brilliant! Let's do it!” Imagine that happened to you, what would you do next?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's Director. In this case, the idea belonged to Dominic Dromgoole, who at the time, was artistic director at Shakespeare's Globe in London. The idea was this: as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the Globe would create a production of Hamlet and then stage it in every single country in the world. And they more or less pulled it off. Two years later, on the anniversary, they had traveled 193,000 miles and performed in 197 countries. A truly astounding effort that Dominic has chronicled in a new book called Hamlet Globe To Globe. We invited him in to talk about this remarkable year, along with Tom Bird, the Globe's Executive Producer, who managed the tour from London, and also traveled to 19 of the countries that Hamlet visited. Dominic and Tom are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BOGAEV: Before we get to this idea of taking Shakespeare to every country in the world, let's start with something just very simple. Why Hamlet? Why that play? Dominic?
DROMGOOLE: It's iconic, and people know it, and there are sort of plastic images within it, like, Hamlet holding up the skull, which translate anywhere in the world. It's beautiful, and it's a joy to do and it's a pride to do. It's multi-faced, so that we knew that we were going to be going through lots of different situations, historically, politically, socially, and we knew that Hamlet could, in some places, console, in some places provoke, in some places challenge. So there was that. But I think the key thing was that it's mysterious and that its meanings are hidden.
BOGAEV: So, you needed something elusive enough that it would keep the actors continually involved.
DROMGOOLE: Continually intrigued, continually digging, continually discovering. And that's the glory of a few plays, not just Hamlet, but a few plays in Shakespeare's canon that they always elude to, and it keeps you hungry. And you know once it's finished that you can come back to Hamlet in five years’ time, or ten years’ time, and you'd still be running to catch up.
BOGAEV: And so the other plays aren't—and it was interesting, I think you wrote in the book that you considered Twelfth Night, but it wasn't robust enough to survive touring. What does that mean?
DROMGOOLE: Well, it's sort of gossamer-fine in tone, it's sort of Chekhovian, and some of the places we were going to were pretty robust and testing, and you don't want to be playing out sort of delicate textures of life when you've got—you're in the middle of a roundabout in Romania, or you've got the waves of an ocean crashing behind you. There's something within the narrative of Hamlet, within the architecture of its narrative, that's very raw and fundamental and clean and linear. And that story could play out wherever we were.
BOGAEV: I'm curious. It seems as if this idea just came up spontaneously on kind of a drinking session during a retreat. And it came from you, Dominic, right? Is this not something that you'd been mulling over and brewing for a long time? Did it really just pop out of your mouth while you were relaxing with the cast?
DROMGOOLE: No, it was relaxing with the rest of the company, the rest of my theatre department. And most of the best ideas pop out, and a lot of the very, very best ideas come out when you're in convivial company and you're all very jolly together. And it's sort of dumb, the idea. It's sort of simple and dumb. And ideas like that tend to have the best ability to travel.
BOGAEV: And you mean dumb because it's so grand.
DROMGOOLE: Well, it's so impossible. I mean, it was impossible, and it was crazy, but also it's like an idea that an eight-year-old would have. Let's take Hamlet to every country in the world. You say it and most of the adult impulses inside of you, and if you were surrounded by adults, everyone would say well, “Don't be stupid.” But the nice thing is—
BOGAEV: Tom, is that what you said? What did you think?
BIRD: No, I thought it was brilliant, you know? [LAUGH]
DROMGOOLE: But everyone started riffing on it quite quickly, didn't they? And why did it seem plausible? Because it did seem plausible, and I'm not quite sure why.
BIRD: It seemed plausible because we'd already a couple of years earlier sort of pulled off a massively ambitious, you know, one of the huge and dumb ideas that Dominic was talking about, when we did the festival for the Olympics in 2012. And I think we were probably a bit drunk, not just on booze, but on the ambition of that, and the sort of reality of having got through that with flying colors. And I think that we—yeah, we were just sort of surfing a wave of being able to do absolutely anything. We'd also developed a model of touring, hadn't we, that felt like it could play absolutely anywhere, and it was sort of no holds barred in terms of the spaces that you could do things in.
BOGAEV: That's exactly what I want to talk about. This nitty gritty of touring, and how you describe it, Dominic, as uh, in planning to stage this play in 190 countries over two years, that you put together a kind of 1930s, socially-progressive touring company. What does that mean?
DROMGOOLE: That's more the aesthetic of the design, is that there were these touring companies throughout the UK in the ‘30s that used to travel the country, sort of in vans and go into unlikely places and play demanding and difficult plays, in trade union halls, or in town halls or wherever. So that was the aesthetic. But actually, the model that we created was something that sort of went back to Shakespeare's day, the model of how we moved shows around. Tell everyone about that, Tom.
BIRD: Yeah, I mean, what...
BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Thank you, Dominic.
BIRD: [LAUGH] What's incredible is that we know that touring companies in Shakespeare's day didn't just play the playhouses on Bankside. There's evidence that they went right across Northern Europe. You know, they went as far East as Riga and Latvia, at least, which must have been an incredibly intrepid thing to undertake at that time. There's some fantastic stories about those touring companies doing things like writing to the town council in Gdansk in Poland saying, can we come back and use the fencing school in Gdansk as a theatre again this summer, and the town council will write back, “Well, yes, but only if you behave better this time.” And that whole touring model and then it's sort of the ultimate realization of it in the Hamlet tour, was a sort of tribute, in a way, to that light-footed model of being able to play in market squares. But also to their ambition, because going to Riga, you know, in 1599 was, in a sense, I suppose like going to Somaliland now.
BOGAEV: Right, and part of this involves having a rotating cast, where everyone learns multiple roles. And apparently this rotating cast approach also dictated a unique rehearsal process: that you weren't rehearsing a team, you were rehearsing a squad, as you put it in the book. And Dominic, you came up with a kind of carousel, a round-robin system for rehearsal. I imagine that like actors tapping in, like in improv.
DROMGOOLE: It was sort of like that, yeah, it was a system created out of necessity, really, because we knew that we had to have cover for every role, and that we wanted to share every role out. And that meant that when you're rehearsing a scene, you had the three or four people who are in it, and then another six or seven people on the outside. Any of them can play any of those three or four roles. So you tended to do a scene, and then when you repeated it, one person would drop out, another person would come in, and on and on and on. And it was rather thrilling, actually, because the actors are incredibly generous with each other. And in a way, it created the spirit of the show being a communal endeavor from the beginning. But also it meant that at one moment they were within the scene, full of feeling and imagination and empathy, and all of the stuff that you get lost within when you're actually playing something. And then at another moment, they were outside seeing other people handling the same human material, which gave them a critical detachment. And, you know, in some people's view, that's sort of ideal of how you approach making a piece of theatre. And it did sort of work out accidentally, rather thrilling.
BOGAEV: So does that mean down the line, that during performance it's much more fleet, and every day is a little different and people borrow and steal from each other?
DROMGOOLE: Yeah, you know, I think within the first year, they only repeated the same pattern of playing twice. It was a sort of odd mixture, wasn't it Tom, because the structure was steady, but then the flesh around the skeleton was constantly shifting.
BIRD: It was interesting that the actors, I suppose about a third of the way through the tour, sort of start to learn roles themselves, that you know, I don't think you or we had actually cast them in at all. And obviously, you know, there were the lads who wanted to have a go at Hamlet, but the two boys who were already playing Hamlet sort of chuckled to us that they’d learned Osric, you know, a small character from the end of the play, about halfway through the tour and started to have a go at that. And everyone wanted to sort of, you know, achieve the full cast list by the end, which didn't quite happen.
BOGAEV: Well, you mentioned spare costumes were also part of the design, and that must have been really key later on, because you describe in the book, often, especially throughout the South Pacific that luggage kept getting lost. Tom, how did the cast deal with that?
BIRD: Oh, they were so resourceful. I mean it's absolutely incredible to look back on the photography from places like Micronesia and Kiribati and Palau and Nauru, where the airlines in the South Pacific just kept losing all the costumes, all the props, all the weapons, and so they were playing using anything sort of vaguely spherical as a skull, and lacrosse nets as fencing swords, and, you know, goodness knows what else. So they just sort of picked up sort of magpie-like whatever they could get their hands on.
BOGAEV: And the flexibility in the casting must have really come into play in Mexico City. Dominic, you were there. What happened?
DROMGOOLE: Mexico City was one of several events when illness sort of struck the company. It was very particular in Mexico City because there was a ferocious outbreak of—what's the term for it? There used to be a term for it. But anyway...
BOGAEV: Montezuma's revenge is what they used to call it, which is very un-PC.
DROMGOOLE: That's right, Montezuma's revenge, when the chicken bit back at everybody. But the idea was that there was always a system of cover, and we’d—
BOGAEV: Wait, wait, wait, you're not getting off that easy with Mexico City. [LAUGH] What really happened, right, was that Horatio was not going on at all. Apparently he was locked up in his room.
DROMGOOLE: No, I had to get on and do some narrative cover. And I was coming down with fever myself and was in the throes of the early stages of fever, when everything's a bit hallucinatory and a bit strange, and I went on.
BOGAEV: So, there was just no Horatio onstage, and you would come out.
DROMGOOLE: No, there was me, the director of the play, turning up to be the narrator, which I thought would revive thrilling old traditions of storytelling.
BOGAEV: That's a brilliant idea.
DROMGOOLE: Well, I took out a translator with me. Unfortunately, there was a little bit of a misunderstanding between me and the translator over certain key words. So we then got into animated discussions, and the audience joined in and tried to suggest other words. It was a little bit of a poor way to start a show. It's not the way you'd want to kick off every show.
BOGAEV: And apparently the whole cast was having a little bit of gastrointestinal distress.
DROMGOOLE: Yeah, and they kept rushing off to one toilet at the back, which was sort of semi-public, and in which there was a sort of queue outside it. There was people banging on it, asking whoever was in there to get out as soon as possible. And we had buckets all over the side of the stage. These things happen, we had the oxygen on the side of the stage in La Paz, in Bolivia, because it was such a height that getting through two- and three-quarter hours of quite fast-paced Shakespeare was gonna deprive them of oxygen. So they had oxygen tanks, and they'd rush off to the side and put masks on. Well, I think some of them did it more because they wanted to get high from it than because they needed it.
BIRD: We found out that one of the guys playing Horatio, when we were in Kazakhstan and in Poland, he'd actually picked up in the Caribbean a couple of weeks before, dengue fever, which is a pretty debilitating thing. He'd also picked up another mosquito-borne virus called chikungunya virus, and he was a really rare case of having both at once, and managed to play Horatio and Laertes and a number of other parts while suffering from actually two incredibly harsh viruses. So, yeah.
BOGAEV: I think they call Dengue—don't they say it's like broken-bone fever, this is what it feels like? Uh-huh.
BIRD: Yeah. Apparently it's just insanely painful.
DROMGOOLE: They were pretty stoic. The greatest miracle of the whole thing, I mean, there were—the whole thing was a series of miracles, and in a way, every day was a miracle. But the fact that the sixteen people who left, twelve actors, four stage managers, were the sixteen people who brought the show home, is nothing short of extraordinary.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and that brings us to some of the more serious, or at least the not involving mishaps, experiences that you had on the tour. And Dominic, you write of an experience that gave you insight into Shakespearian language, and that took place in a nomadic tent in—I hope I'm pronouncing it right, Hargeisa in Somaliland. Tell us about that.
DROMGOOLE: Well, it was bizarre because I think I was eating camel, and I was talking to a delightful man called Hammer, who was one of our hosts, and one of the people who'd arranged our trip. And he was telling me about poetry that was written for goat herds, but he was talking about the wonderful Somalian poet called Hadrawi. He writes in a certain sort of meter, and he writes for public performance. And he writes in a sort of formulaic way, sort of how we imagine Homer might have been spoken, where certain poets had a vast stock of phrases in their heads and were able to repeat those stocks of phrases to create a vast narrative and then improvise and riff and come up with spontaneous poetry and spontaneous language in the course of walking through their formulas, in a similar way to how rap is constructed now and how people approach rap.
And also there little bits of Hadrawi’s verse, which were astonishing, which seemed to speak with a very Shakespearian spirit about how to bring opposites together. What was extraordinary is that there was a part of the world where that sort of poetry was still fresh, still being created. And that it had this incredibly wide, popular acceptance. Hadrawi, in Somaliland now, is bigger than any politician. They've thrown him into prison about three times, but he's come back, and he's now like the father of the nation. And what's extraordinary about his verse is that it's for everybody. And I think that's something that we always forget about with Shakespeare that is so important and so key, is that he was writing for a big group of people, and trying to bring that big group of people together, into following a single narrative.
BOGAEV: Well, now we're getting into the politics of your grand, dumb idea, as you say. And of course you were dealing with so many different political regimes on this tour, and going to war-torn countries, to undemocratic nations that many felt you should boycott, for instance, North Korea. How did you make that decision, and how did you think of your audience? Tom?
BIRD: We just said, we're going everywhere. It's kind of back to the dumb idea. And once you say you're going everywhere, there's no real reply to that, because you're not making any kind of choice at all. You know, “Why are you going to North Korea?” “Well, it's because we're going absolutely everywhere.” It was just as simple as that.
DROMGOOLE: There's a lot of people that say you shouldn't go there. You get a lot of it from the right, you get even more from the left, saying these are the list of places that we've decided are ineligible and that you shouldn't go to. And for us, you just had to bust through that and get to the other side of that. And that is saying, everywhere is for the people, all of those human beings deserve Hamlet to be brought to their attention. And for that, we think it's everyone. We don't think it's the sort of people that we approve of, or the sort of people that we don't approve of.
BOGAEV: Well, you were performing in English though. Why is performing Hamlet in English all around the world a good thing? What are your audiences who don't speak English getting out of that?
BIRD: I was looking back, again, through some photos the other day, and there's a photo from when we drove right across Cameroon, to the border of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. And it was perhaps the least organized gig of the whole tour, in that we were meant to have a venue, and it didn't materialize, so we just had to sort of negotiate with a bar owner. And we invited the school children from over the road, and anyone else who was in the town to come and watch the show.
And there's a photo that's taken from backstage out past the actors to the audience, and there are hundreds of people standing there, and Hamlet and Laertes are fencing. And, you know, we'd probably accelerated through the play a fair bit, but people were really, really enjoying it, and they were booing Claudius as well at that moment, I remember, so people were getting it. There's something that was within the architecture of the play itself that did go beyond the fact that it was in English because people, you know, didn't speak English but they were there, enjoying it. Definitely getting the plot, booing the villains, cheering Hamlet, and that was an amazing experience.
BOGAEV: Wait, wasn't this also where the local police in charge said, “Oh yeah, you can perform here, but we get to be in the middle of it.” Right?
DROMGOOLE: We want to be a presence.
BIRD: Yeah, he came and sat. We thought oh no, he's gonna stop it, and we're not gonna be able to do the show, which would have been a real blow, 'cause we ended up doing every show that we set out to do. But he didn't want to stop the show, he just wanted to sit in the middle of the stage throughout the play.
BOGAEV: At a huge desk, right? That they dragged into the middle of the production.
BIRD: Exactly. And I said, that's fine, but why? And he said, “Oh, because I'm the local traffic policeman.” And to be fair, we were on a roundabout. So...
DROMGOOLE: I mean, to pick up your point about, you know, why in English? There's something sort of exasperatingly frustrating about being asked why you're doing Shakespeare in English around the world, and you sort of wonder at the question.
BOGAEV: You're welcome. [LAUGHS]
DROMGOOLE: But—excuse me, that wasn't at you, that was at other people who have the question, and it sort of grinds you down a bit. No, no one more than me loves watching Shakespeare in other languages, so, you know, for me, Shakespeare in English, great. Shakespeare in other languages, great.
BOGAEV: Well, just raise a very serious question about the whole tour of what do these different cultures, especially populations under terrible stress, like refugees, get out of these performances of Shakespeare in English, with no subtitles. And it's a question that really came up very pointedly in Cambodia, right? That, Dominic, you were asked by a technician is this play about the Khmer Rouge? And I think later you spoke to a group of college students and they asked similar questions, you know, what does this play mean to us and to Cambodian history?
DROMGOOLE: Yeah, and it was really fascinating, and it was extraordinary to see their thirst for meaning, and their thirst for clarity, and their thirst for understanding that they hoped the play would give them. Which, you know, would be way too much, and it would be way too grandiose to claim that what we were going to give them was going to give them any of that clarity or meaning or understanding. But it was maybe a small step along the way, and that group of students sat at the front of a sweltering hot, huge hall that we were playing in, and were clearly thrilled by the provocations that were going on in their own minds and the stimulation that they were given and the fresh thoughts that they were being given. No matter what, you know, what language it's in, you can see certain things clearly and boldly, and you can hear certain patterns within the language.
BIRD: There's something to say about doing it in the refugee camps, which I think is really important on a quite basic level, is you show up there and you do have a sort of twinge of guilt that, you know, these people need food and blankets, not a Shakespeare play. But then people were saying back to us, you cannot underestimate the level of boredom that exists in these places, and to be entertained in that way for three hours, people were incredibly sort of magnetized to that.
BOGAEV: Well, just one more question along these lines, because the politics does get very complicated. And Tom, you were with the tour in the Congo, you could say that's at the center of Africa's world war, practically. And when you wander into these places, in a place like the DRC, you get the approval of whoever is in power, but how do you avoid not being an extension of an oppressive regime, a repressive regime, or colluding with a regime or taking sides at all in a conflict that has many sides.
BIRD: I mean, it didn't ever feel like that. The first thing with a place like the DRC is you've got to get in over the border. We got a boat from Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River, and then had to unload everything in Kinshasa. But you're unloading all the stuff, and the customs officials in Kinshasa are opening all the boxes and finding skulls and swords, and that takes a bit of explaining in the first place. I think that we carried with us a kind of anarchic spirit that was just given to us by the mad boldness of what we were doing, that made sure that it never felt like you were falling into line. You know, to accuse us of in any way sort of collaborating just would have been slightly absurd—collaborating with anyone.
DROMGOOLE: I think that, yeah, I think you're absolutely right. The key thing is that no regime would want to claim us. [LAUGH] Just like I think we're so shambolic. So, there's no regime that's gonna say, “A-ha, we've got these people on our side, you know? We're really willing.” It was, you know, I think they'd take one look at us and go, nope, nothing to do with us.
I think there was—I'm not gonna mention which country. I think there was one country where the company felt they were being manipulated, and it was a country that is very, very controlled, and in which it would have been impossible for us to make a big stand about it.
BOGAEV: I'm curious now, Tom, at the end of this big adventure, did the tour change how you see Hamlet? Or did Hamlet change how you understand what you had intended with the tour. And I'd like, Dominic, for you to answer that too. Tom?
BIRD: Oh my goodness, yeah. I mean, the tour changed how I saw Hamlet. I think, you know, because we... I was taught Hamlet at school with a book in front of me in the classroom. And, oh, I mean, there's so many memories from the tour that you're like, okay, this is what he was trying to do, you know, when he was doing this. Playing to 1,500 Kurdish students in Northern Iraq who were hearing Hamlet for the first time in their language, and had had it translated for them in a book by the British Council as well, so, they were gonna take it home. That sort of beats being taught about Hamlet mulling on revenge in school.
Where we were doing Hamlet in Iraq is kind of literally only about 30 miles from Mosul, where Islamic State were sort of fully present at the time. And what we also taught to a lot of refugees from Mosul who'd come over to Erbil, that city, and, you know, to have a play that is thinking about revenge and constantly thinking about in what way you take revenge in a situation like that, it just adds value to that play. It's extraordinary. It's so immediate. You know, it's like doing a new play that's sort of been written specifically for a certain situation when you go to places like that.
DROMGOOLE: I think that experience to go around the world sort of electrified the play, and it made it sort of stingingly alive in lots of places. I think it changed my view of the play. I think I started out thinking the play was a journey towards calm and towards a sort of healing of a young man's spirit, and I thought that was the effect it was supposed to have on an audience. And I ended up thinking that was wholly and utterly wrong. And actually it’s the opposite. It's a play that's there to make the world restless, and it's there to think about dreaming a future, and it's there to think about how you create a new modern that's significantly different from the world that you're in.
And I think that wherever we were, you know, as I say in the whole host of different political situations, whether it was Kiev on the night before their election, when suddenly all their political class turned up, and you felt this incredible bracing wind of change in the air, or it was South America where, you know, there's a history of turbulence and a history of revolution. Everywhere we went, we felt a desire for change and restless excitement about the future. And I think Hamlet speaks to that, and Hamlet's a sort of icon of restlessness and of change.
BOGAEV: Let me just ask this one last question. Would you do this tour again?
DROMGOOLE: Um... [LAUGH]
BOGAEV: A long pause.
DROMGOOLE: I'm really not sure I can take it.
BIRD: It was a massive, massive, massive logistical undertaking. You know, I can't overestimate. We had sort of a complete saint of a producer called Thompson, who ran around every embassy in London getting visas. And you know, the terror of booking gigs, you know, getting closer and closer to the edge, and not being sure there was anywhere in a particular country, you know, that you could play. I think it's amazing that we always did find somewhere. But I’d need to take a very deep breath before diving back into that again.
DROMGOOLE: I think that we'd act in it next time, wouldn't we?
BIRD: Yes, exactly.
DROMGOOLE: We want to go everywhere.
BIRD: Yeah, exactly.
DROMGOOLE: Because we only got to visit certain places, and it would be nice to go everywhere.
BOGAEV: It has been such a delight to talk with both of you, thank you so much.
DROMGOOLE: Thank you.
BIRD: Thank you.
MICHAEL: Dominic Dromgoole was artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London from 2006 to 2016. Tom Bird is the Globe's executive producer. Dominic's book, Hamlet Globe To Globe was published by Grove Press in 2017. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. “So Many Journeys” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Cecily Meza-Martinez at NPR in Washington, Neal Roush at NPR in New York, and Gareth Wood at the Sound Company in London. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.