Shakespeare in the Bush: How Will Hamlet Go Down in the Congo?

This month marks what would have been the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Enthusiasts of this most illustrious of (possibly not real) playwrights have all sorts of celebrations lined up—conferences, educational programs, festivals and screenings galore.

Let’s get real: These types of festivities with die-hard Shakespeare fans can be fairly insufferable for the more casual admirer (anyone else been to a production of As You Like It where audience members engage a high-stakes competition of who can laugh the most uproariously to even the most casual joke?). But London’s Globe Theater is breaking new ground in their tribute to the man from Stratford. The goal? To perform Hamlet in every country in the world. Intense.

The theater company normally performs in their famous re-created version of the original Globe Theater that hosted Shakespeare’s plays in his day. But yesterday they kicked off a two-year international traveling tour called “Globe to Globe Hamlet” (get it?).

This is an ambitious theatrical endeavor if ever there was one: Traveling to almost 200 countries, and performing to a vast array of peoples of different cultures and languages. (Idealistic anthropology students are likely shrieking in unison about Western imperialism. English and Theatre majors are screaming back about the cultural transcendence of Shakespeare.)

The Globe’s website explains that their inspiration for the move came from the way Shakespeare’s plays were originally taken from region to region. Starting a few years after it was written, Hamlet was performed extensively in surrounding regions, from a boat off the coast of Yemen, all the way across Northern Europe to Poland.

The spirit of touring, and of communicating stories to fresh ears, was always central to Shakespeare’s work. We couldn’t be happier to be extending . . . this wonderful, iconic, multifarious play to as many fresh ears as we possibly can. 

Shakespeare's Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole explains the theater felt Hamlet was the most universally relatable of Shakespeare’s plays, as mopey 'ol Hamlet is restless and dissatisfied with the world around him—serving as an icon for “anyone who feels that they are out of place in their own world.” The group is touring with an adaptable set, appropriate both for prestigious national theaters in some countries, and informal settings like beaches in other countries.

The million dollar question? How are they going to perform in the more, um, politically unstable countries? Dromgoole doesn't go into great detail, but says they are trying to monitor situations in these places, and will take precautions. They plan on working with NGOs and refugee camps in war-torn places like The Central African Republic. But on a certain level conflict also breeds excitement for the troop: They look forward to their performance in Kiev, Ukraine the night before that country’s elections after ousting their corrupt President. “That's the sort of place where theater matters and is important,” Dromgoole adds.

The actors will perform a condensed, more physical version of the play to better communicate the message to the diverse audiences. Even so, it’s unclear how much non-English speakers unfamiliar with the work will comprehend. Hell, it’s unclear how much English speakers comprehend the 400+ year-old plays, written in a form of the language formally considered distinct from what we speak now.  

But the theater team seems confident—the show must go on and all it—asserting that even those who don’t speak English “will at once recognise [sic]” the words “to be or not to be” and they will “exclaim ‘Shakespeare!’” This may be yet another semi-delusional case of hardcore Shakespeare-heads assuming everyone else inherently connects with the work the same way they do...

But hey, we wish them all the luck, and even if the level of understanding hovers around zero in some places, audiences will probably still enjoy the novelty of the experience. At least there's lots of sex and murder!

Image: Flickr.

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