By Dominic Dromgoole
Grove Press, 379 pp. plus index
Reviewed by Hank Whittemore*
In this freewheeling, exhilarating and often insightful volume, the author—a former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London—reveals as much about himself as about the extraordinary global journey that he chronicles.
Dominic Dromgoogle is clearly possessed of a passionate, even fantastical spirit (drawing upon on a youthful and lifelong infatuation with Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, about his travels with friends across the United States). One learns quickly here that this English writer-director is cocky and argumentative, gifted with a psychological radar fueled by a zesty humor, riding on intellectual curiosity and stoked by a euphoria built upon waves of romantic gusto. For him, life is a constant experiment lived in the eternal present—the way the best actors make each entrance as if for the first time—reacting again and again with apparently spontaneous surprise and wonderment.
Dromgoogle’s quest to “take Hamlet to every country in the world” began, fittingly enough, as a “daft idea floated in a bar,” before it blossomed into “an artistic adventure almost as unique as the play we were honouring.” For the final two years of his decade-long stewardship of the Globe, ending in 2016 on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, his troupe of some sixteen members (twelve actors, three trading places in the lead role, plus four stage managers) descended upon more than 190 countries.
They delivered some 280 performances “in amphitheaters, in bars, on roundabouts, in studios, on the shores of oceans, in front of thousands crammed into stadiums and in front of a handful of Romanian children in the rain”—a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of audiences and wide-ranging responses to this singular theatrical masterpiece.
Among the actors there appeared to develop a sadness, almost a despair, about the state of the world—something that Hamlet reaches out and touches in multifaceted ways. The play, after all, delves into universal themes, from family tensions to political conspiracies, to revenge and murder, as the young Prince of Denmark burrows to the depths of the most basic questions of existence.
The play’s reception in each setting, however, triggered unexpected revelations in continually surprising places. An audience in one region would react to the machinations of Polonius or the black humor of the Gravediggers in ways that may differ completely in the next part of the world. Whether a crowd laughs or gasps or weeps during particular scenes often depends upon its own mix of culture, history and politics, yielding new understandings of familiar lines spoken by actors for centuries.
From the outset, when the Ghost of the prince’s father demands revenge for his “foul and most unnatural murder,” the response from his shocked son is an immediate echo: “Murder!” As Dromgoole puts it, the early scene “pivots on the word just as a ballerina spinning a whirlwind pirouette spirals an unconscionable amount of pressure onto two toes,” adding, “This murder kick-starts the narrative, and murder becomes the rocket fuel that powers the play along.”
“Along the way,” he writes, “we see the skull of a dead clown, amidst a field of other skulls, and we watch a Norwegian army cross the stage, off to commit senseless slaughter in Poland. The lightness and brightness of the play’s thought, the flashes of its dancing wit, the wild spree of its improvised insight—all take place in front of a landscape of death.”
When the company arrives in Cambodia, we cannot avoid applying the context of the Vietnam War, with its appalling violence and death on a horrifying scale. Company members visit advertised “tourist attractions” that include the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Among themselves, with dark humor, they talk about different places on the tour where men have inflicted slaughter on other men: East Timor, where the Indonesians had decimated the population; Rwanda, where, to their surprise, the deaths in the play were “met with the same giddiness as humour and love”; Ethiopia, with another genocide museum; and more of the same.
In Cambodia, a local technician points at a poster with its image of Hamlet holding Yorrick’s skull and inquires: “Is this play about the Khmer Rouge?” As Dromgoole writes, “For many countries this image is an iconic reference to a play; here it is recent history. The Khmer Rouge created their own iconography of slaughter, scattering skulls across the land. . . .”
When he gives a talk later at the university, students ask insistently what this play could mean to them now. How they might place it within the context of their own lives and Cambodia’s history? The director feels inadequate to the task of answering that question, while understanding that “the appetite for meaning and clarification was a powerful presence in the room.”
“This was not Hamlet as literary problem; this was Hamlet in a place still swathed in darkness and seeking hungrily for light.” It was a country in desperate need of recovering its own cultural traditions, which were slowly coming back to life. This need was expressed by an organization called Cambodian Living Arts:
The arts play a defining role in the recovery and resilience of societies that have gone through the tragedy of war, genocide or armed conflict. Safeguarding the arts and the cultural values attached is fundamental to giving a sense of purpose, managing conflict-induced trauma and emancipating minds. In the current world situation of increasingly frequent and detrimental conflict, the arts have the power to build hope and foster self-determination.
Here, as throughout, Dromgoole pauses to add yet another insight: in this case, the way the play works “on a double axis” in relation to the act of killing. While Hamlet inexorably moves toward his revenge by murder, the original murderer, Claudius, is “unspooling away” from his crime and reeling under the weight of conscience over a sin that cannot be forgiven. When the prince sees his uncle praying on his knees, he moves to seize this unexpected chance to kill him, but suddenly stops; and, in that instant of hesitation, Dromgoole writes, “the two axes intersect” at the heart of humankind’s dual nature.
For members of a Cambodian audience, struggling to navigate between past horrors and future hopes, between rage and forgiveness, such moments surely resonated. In a tweet to the company soon after the show, one person wrote: “I laughed. I felt pain. I lived. My first play and I could not have asked for more.”
For the director, it is clear that Shakespeare, the author, has no solutions to the eternal issues of war and peace, crime and punishment, revenge and forgiveness; rather, the great Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright “simply asks us to respect the struggle to understand, and the struggle to improve. The struggle is all. The play lives uneasily on its own question: ‘To be or not to be …’ Maybe asking the question persistently is the best we can ask of ourselves.”
And so it is on to Laos and Vietnam, and more ravaged landscapes, whose inhabitants are surging back to life with music, dance, plays and other expressions of the human spirit. Then, it is onward to still more of the tour. Having responsibilities back at the Globe, the director travels back and forth to join the ever-moving company on different continents—a fraction of the entire journey of two years, but more than enough to fill his account with valuable stories reflecting the great variety of places, venues and peoples and their many instructive reactions to Hamlet with its “cosmic joking at the grand comedy of human enterprise, against the backdrop of history and change.”
“Each country has thrown fresh light on the play,” Dromgoole writes, “its large themes and its smaller nooks and crannies, just as this protean play has been able to throw new light on the world and its many faces. The tour changed my view of the play, the play changed my understanding of the tour, and both shifted my perspectives on the world and on myself. I have tried to set down some of this dialogue between the play and the world, to see how each illuminated the other.”
*Hank Whittemore is an actor and an award-winning writer based in New York.