Hamlet: Where was this?
Marcellus: My lord, upon a platform where we watched.
After 190,000 miles, 287 performances and 188 countries, in which 20 bags and boxes of mobile set have been shepherded around the world by 12 actors and four stage managers, Hamlet has come to Elsinore. The very battlement to which Marcellus points is right there through the window, a balustraded balcony on a bristling Renaissance spire.
The greatest tour in the history of theatre is almost over. It began two years ago on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth; it comes home to the Globe Theatre for four last performances, just in time for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death this weekend. But first, here “upon this ground in Denmark”, is the final foreign engagement. The climactic visit was announced alongside the original tour. Margrethe II, the current queen of Denmark, who is also a set designer, asked to be invited and is in the front row as her royal forebears tear themselves apart for the evening performance.
Shakespeare’s Globe comes here every year in an August festival which this summer has been extended to mark the 200th anniversary of the first-ever performance of “Hamlet” in the castle. (The performers were all soldiers.) But there is something very moving as the latest band of players strolls into Elsinore (pictured above). “The actors are come hither,” cries Polonius. “The best actors in the world!” These are certainly the best travelled. They arrived bleary and late the night before. Despite a welcome from the sun as they walked into the castle compound, they are probably too knackered for overt excitement. Pit stops on the 12th and last leg have taken the company through Paris, Tel Aviv, Lahore, Erbil, Tehran, Kabul, San Marino, the Vatican, Trieste, Ljubljana and rural Austria – all in 24 days. “We’ve grown accustomed to the extraordinary,” says Phoebe Fildes, one of the actors. “It has become our ordinary.”
The castle itself is called Kronborg, but takes its anglicised name in the play from the now-sleepy port it guards: Helsingør. Built in the 1420s, it was given a splendid Renaissance refurb, which was completed in 1585. The Earl of Leicester’s men visited as part of the inauguration, including Will Kempe who would go on to be Shakespeare’s most popular clown.
“We know Shakespeare never visited here,” says Matthew Romain, one of the players, “but we know he had close friends that did, who must have described it to him in detail. It is the place that inspired Shakespeare to write a piece that has inspired the whole world. He took a well-known story rooted in this very castle and turned it into a play that has transcended borders and nationalities, in which the most famous lines in English literature are contained, from whose imagery is born the ubiquitous symbol for all drama – a man holding a skull.” Sure enough, the young Danish woman sitting next to me at the matinée takes her smartphone out and starts snapping as soon as the gravedigger produces poor Yorick’s skull.
The summer festival hosts visiting productions in the high-walled courtyard, but this being April the play is staged in the long ballroom that takes up one flank of the second floor. You shiver when the ghost appears; it’s almost as cold in here as it is on the ramparts, so pretty much everyone makes use of the blankets provided with each chair.
The attentive Danish audience, like others watching the play around the world, find their own preoccupations staring back at them. There are titters at “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and “Denmark’s a prison” – perhaps because of no other country does either statement seem less apposite. Those lines hold truer, of course, of many other countries the company has visited on its girdling of the Earth. “I have solidified within my heart, that without any doubt,” affirms Beruce Khan, “that theatre is and should be a unique and essential right to every single person on this planet.” They found just such a message inscribed on the wall of an arts centre in Somaliland. It simply read, “Art is a basic human right”.
That noble ideal underpinned the company’s three appearances in refugee camps, where they performed to displaced Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis and refugees from the Central African Republic. These were partly a pragmatic response to the company’s inability to visit these countries. That said, the tour’s tireless producer Tom Bird is still smarting from the failure to move the relevant mountains and get into Niger and Mali (after a terrorist bomb targeted a hotel used by westerners, Burkina Faso was scrubbed from the itinerary too). Instead they played to displaced nationals from all three countries in Paris.
And so World Hamlet “shall with speed to England” for performances 290-293. The shadow of the end is palpable but also somehow incalculable. “It’s going to be the biggest form of post-show depression,” says Beruce Khan. In the Vatican, where they got themselves to a nunnery for the night, one of the sisters told company manager Rebecca Austin they would all need grief counselling and should feel no shame about it. “If there’s ever a time after any job where you could feel guilt-free about having a rest,” says Amanda Wilkins, “this is it.”
For this relief, much thanks.
Hamlet Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, April 23rd-24th
Hamlet: the Greatest Theatre Tour in History (compiled by Keith Bartlett), available at the last Globe performances, £10. All proceeds to Mary's Meals, a charity which feeds a million children in local schools all over the world