Theater
2:34 am
Wed April 23, 2014

As Shakespeare Turns 450, 'Hamlet' Tour Makes The World A Stage

Originally published on Wed April 23, 2014 8:51 am

No one knows the exact date of William Shakespeare's birth, but devotees have adopted April 23 as the day to celebrate — and this year, the man from Stratford turns 450.

Shakespeare's Globe Theater — a re-creation of the theater that hosted most of his plays — is marking the occasion with an ambitious world tour of Hamlet, the Bard's most iconic play, which the troupe plans to perform in every country in the world. Shakespeare's Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the tour is a bold, stupid idea.

"And the great thing about bold and stupid ideas," he says, "is that people understand them very swiftly. So when we go out to people around the world and say, very simply, 'We are taking Hamlet to every country in the world,' they immediately get the fun of it and the ambition of it."


Interview Highlights

On thinking of Hamlet as a genius, rather than a tortured soul

One of the most revealing things I ever saw about it was there's a wonderful bit of old television with Peter O'Toole and Orson Welles drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes and sort of arguing and being naughty and childish talking about Hamlet. And it's brilliant, but Orson Welles says something that I think is massively telling, which is: The important thing to remember about Hamlet is he's a genius.

Lear is an old dictator; Othello is a Moor in a white man's world. They all have those particular facets. Hamlet is just this sort of crazy genius of language and thought. And you have to play that energy and you have to understand very clearly who Hamlet was before the roof fell in on his head — before his father died and his uncle married his mother. And everything we know about him before that from his friends and his lover, Ophelia, is he was rather brilliant and spirited and beautiful.

And so, often in contemporary versions of Hamlet, he's so tortured and angsty and pained that — as well as being profoundly irritated by him for the whole evening because he's just so self-indulgent in his own grief — I think that skews the play away from itself. I don't think the play is meant to be about somebody who is in love with his own pain.

On punching up the play's physicality for non-English speakers

We're very aware of what Shakespeare wrote for and why Shakespeare wrote. And you have to be aware that these plays, especially Hamlet, were touring 400 years ago to countries that didn't speak English. Hamlet was played in a boat off the coast of Yemen in 1608. The company also toured it through what's now Holland, northern Germany, all the way to Poland. And so when they played it there they did a shortened version; they did a version with an emphasis on physicality; they did a slightly coarser, cruder, bolder version in sort of primary colors. We're not going that coarse or crude, but we certainly are aware that these plays were written to tour as well as to play for the globe. And so, you know, we want to reflect some of that spirit.

On the touring set's adaptability

We're going to be very free and open. The set is basically the suitcases that the whole thing travels around in, so it spills out of its own suitcases. And we're going to be playing in some very prestigious national theaters in some countries, but we're also going to be playing on beaches on Pacific islands. The idea is that it's infinitely adaptable to wherever we want to put it up.

On taking the tour to politically unstable countries

We monitor as many different situations as we can very closely. I think that when we get into [the] Central African Republic, we're probably going to be working very closely with NGOs and with organizations that are there working in refugee camps, and that might be our best way ... of getting in there and putting the play in that sort of environment.

We're going to Kiev and we're playing there the night before their elections, in about four or five weeks' time, and we're hugely looking forward to that, you know. We're excited. That's the sort of place where theater matters and is important.

On what makes Hamlet universally relatable

Hamlet says that time is out of joint. Hamlet is restless, dissatisfied, out of place in his own world. His sensibility is different from the world around him. And he's become an iconic figure for anyone who feels that they are out of place in their own world. You know, in England it still speaks to people who are restless and dissatisfied with the world they're in, and hopefully it will speak in the same way to people anywhere.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The man from Stratford, William Shakespeare, known to one and all as The Bard, was born on this day 450 years ago. Shakespeare's Globe Theater is celebrating that big birthday in an ambitious, nee audacious way. Over the next two years, the theater's traveling troupe of actors will perform "Hamlet" in every country on earth. We reached artistic director Dominic Dromgoole at the Globe in London.

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: You know, it's a simple, bold, stupid idea. And the great thing about bold and stupid ideas is that people understand them very swiftly. So, when we go out to people around the world and say, very simply, we are taking "Hamlet" to every country in the world, they immediately the fun of it and the ambition of it.

MONTAGNE: Do you suppose also it's because people will immediately get the choice of "Hamlet," really, all around the world? To be or not to be?

DROMGOOLE: I think they will. Because, I mean, there are a couple of other iconic plays: "Romeo and Juliet" is quite an iconic play, "Midsummer Night's Dream," in its own way, is an iconic play. But "Hamlet" is such a sort of protean, various play, that it has something to give wherever it goes in the world. It can challenge or it can provoke or it can console or it can provide people with a sort of private way of understanding their own problems. It can just cover so many different bases. And also, it's beautiful.

MONTAGNE: One of the two actors who will be playing the Hamlet role - Naeem Hayat.

DROMGOOLE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Now, he said he discovered something in "Hamlet" he had never seen in the process of actually preparing for this tour. He said, you know, he's so clever and witty and funny.

DROMGOOLE: Yeah. Well, one of the most revealing things I ever saw about it was there's a wonderful bit of old television with Peter O'Toole and Orson Welles drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes and sort of arguing and being naughty and childish talking about Hamlet. And it's brilliant, but Orson Welles says something that I think's massively telling, which is: The important thing to remember about Hamlet is he's a genius. Lear is an old dictator. Othello is a Moor in a white man's world. That, you know, they all have those particular facets.

Hamlet is just this sort of crazy genius of language and thought. And you have to play that energy, and you have to understand very clearly who Hamlet was before the roof fell in on his head, before his father died and his uncle married his mother. And everything we know about him before that from his friends and his lover, Ophelia, is that he was rather brilliant and spirited and beautiful. And so often in contemporary versions of "Hamlet," he's so tortured and angsty and pained, that - as well as being profoundly irritated by him for the whole evening, because he's just so self-indulgent in his own grief - I think that skews the play away from itself. I don't think the play is meant to be about somebody who's in love with his own pain.

MONTAGNE: You know, also, I'm wondering: There's a lot of physical communication in Shakespeare's plays, anyway. Did you find yourself in any way punching that up here just to grab hold of lots of different audiences?

DROMGOOLE: Yeah. We're very aware of what Shakespeare wrote for and why Shakespeare wrote. And you have to be aware that these plays - especially "Hamlet" - were touring 400 years ago to countries that didn't speak English. "Hamlet" was played in a boat off the coast of Yemen in 1608. The company also toured it through what's now Holland, northern Germany, all the way to Poland. And so when they played it there, they did a shortened version. They did a version with an emphasis on physicality. They did a slightly coarser, cruder, bolder version in sort of primary colors. We're not going that coarse or crude, but we certainly are aware that these plays were written to tour, as well as to play for the Globe. And so, you know, we want to reflect some of that spirit.

MONTAGNE: So, I'm wondering how you envisioned, say, Argentina and Afghanistan and Cameroon. How do you see the play being performed?

DROMGOOLE: We're going to be very free and open. The set is basically the suitcases that the whole thing travels around in, so it spills out of its own suitcases. And, you know, we're going to be playing in some very prestigious national theaters in some countries, but we're also going to be playing on beaches on Pacific islands. The idea is that it's infinitely adaptable to wherever we want to put it up.

MONTAGNE: You've got two years ahead of you, and there is no way of knowing exactly where complicated political situations will exist as you pass through the world. I mean, Ukraine is a very new event. Syria has become an old one - the terrible war there. What are you doing about, say, finding yourself in the middle of something like the Central African Republic?

DROMGOOLE: We monitor as many different situations as we can, very closely. I think that when we get into Central African Republic, we're probably going to be working very closely with NGOs and with organizations that are there working in refugee camps, and that might be our best way, you know, our best way of getting in there and putting the play in that sort of environment. We're going to Kiev, and we're playing there the night before their elections, in about four or five weeks time, and we're hugely looking forward to that, you know, it's exciting. That's the place where theater matters and is important.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there one moment, one thing that is said, you know, in "Hamlet," that you can imagine hitting all of these different audiences equally profoundly?

DROMGOOLE: Well, you know, Hamlet says that time is out of joint. Hamlet is restless, dissatisfied, out of place in his own world. His sensibility is different from the world around him. And he's become an iconic figure for anyone who feels that they are out of place in their own world. You know, in England, it still speaks to people who are restless and dissatisfied with the world they're in, and hopefully it will speak in the same way to people anywhere.

MONTAGNE: Dominic Dromgoole, thank you very much for joining us.

DROMGOOLE: Pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. And the traveling troupe's final performance two years from now: in Elsinore, the home of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.