Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole
As I was plotting what to buy with my birthday book vouchers, I happened across Hamlet: Globe to Globe and almost immediately knew that this would make up part of my book haul. The idea of taking Hamlet to every country in the world was one that fascinated and intrigued me, particularly as I immediately started thinking of ways in which the different themes present in the play could be emphasised in different countries to contextualise the narrative. (When I described the premise to a friend, he commented that it seemed like a perfect match of two of my big interests: literature and cross-cultural commentary.) There have been many non-fiction books I have read this year which have surprised me in how much I have enjoyed them, and this was definitely one of them: a fascinating exploration of the global impact of theatre and the multitude of themes weaved through Shakespeare’s writing.
From April 2014 to April 2016, a team from the Globe Theatre were touring with an ambitious project: to take Hamlet to every country in the world. Hamlet: Globe to Globe is the story of this project, from its conception in the middle of a work social event to the company parting ways after the final show. Dominic Dromgoole was the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre during this time and, despite the fact that he wasn’t present for the entirety of the tour, it is clearly a project that is held very close to his heart. He provides an honest, humourous, and insightful look into the challenges and encouragements of the project whilst also delving more into the history of Shakespeare, Hamlet, and theatre performances. He notes in the Introduction that this is not an exhaustive description of the tour, stating ‘the story of that journey can never be told: it is too big, too profuse’ (p. 9); instead, he offers an attempt to ‘set down some of this dialogue between the play and the world, to see how each illuminated the other’ (p. 9).
Despite not being present for the entire tour, I can see why Dromgoole was the one to write this book: his writing is engaging, with dry humour, surprising honesty, and informed observations. One of the joys of reading this for me was that it often felt as though I was sat right there with Dromgoole, having an informed discussion about the performance history of Shakespeare and the resonance Hamlet still has today. He is clearly someone with a deep passion for Shakespeare’s writing and a head full of knowledge on the subject (not surprising in someone who was Artistic Director of the Globe) yet at no point did the book become heavy or academic; the humour keeps the writing light and informal, somehow making a very informative book an easy read.
There is a strange balance in Dromgoole’s writing between cynical humour, and unfettered belief in the connective power of storytelling. Indeed this is the note Dromgoole ends the book on, stating:
‘That is what we were testing when we took Hamlet to every country on Earth: how far a group of people could get, telling a story about people. We made it all the way round. The telling is an act of connection, we tell others to entertain, we listen to understand more. Within the act of telling or listening, we are learning and reminding ourselves that we are not alone, and that our lives are not entirely our own.’ (p. 371)
This optimism was probably the aspect of the book that resonated with me the most. I may not be involved in theatre as a means of storytelling, but I am a reader and a writer, and I do believe that stories have the power to bring people together, bring out truths, and bring forward those left in the background.
Dromgoole’s insights into which themes resonated in the different countries they visited were of particular interest to me. In each chapter he highlights one big theme in Hamlet and uses this to shed light on the cultures and situations the company encountered: from the parallel between the political unrest in Hamlet and the political upheaval that was occurring in the Ukraine, to the theme of death that strikes the company anew as they perform shortly after visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia, to reflections on Hamlet’s soliloquies after seeing a solitary performer acting his heart out in a park in Ecuador, Droomgoole explores these thoughts with sensitivity and insight. It is clear that this was a formulative experience for the whole company, even those who were only able to be part of the journey for a short time, as they learnt more than they could have imagined about different cultures by relating to the people they met on their tour.
Overall, this was a fascinating and insightful book that I would definitely recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in Shakespeare and different cultures. It was one of those books that made me want to explain what I was reading to every person that I met and I will almost certainly pick it up again to reread some of the bits I particularly enjoyed. Dromgoole is a great writer, and this is one of the most engaging non-fiction books I have read.