The National Theatre in Algiers looms tall and grand near the Mediterranean shore. In the gloaming of early January, there’s a thrum of anticipation as hundreds of Algerians wait for the doors to open. High above the façade’s central portico a banner advertises tonight’s attraction in French and Arabic. It features two young men – one African, the other Asian – each clutching a skull. For one night only, the Prince of Denmark is in town.
There’s a scrum to get in. Once inside the rackety auditorium, I find its four tiers as thronged as any I have seen. I perch on a step at the top of the gallery. The show cannot start because outside hundreds are still hammering on the doors, which have been locked. Far below me, stranded players mill around on the stage. They talk among themselves, jab at violins, engage with Algerians in the stalls. At last, after an interminable hour, comes the green light. “A ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” screams a tall actor wielding an accordion, and the company breaks into a spirited sea shanty. “A-roving I will go,” goes the chorus’s refrain, “a-roving I will go!” At the song’s end a smaller actor steps forward and hurls his arms wide.
“Salaam alaikum!” he hollers. From my lofty perch I feel the theatre purr. “Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs,” he continues in French, “and welcome to the world tour of ‘Hamlet’ by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It’s eight months since we left our home in London for a journey that will take us to every country in the world. Un voyage,” he concludes rabble-rousingly, “qui nous amène ici, au pays numéro 65! L’ALGERIE!!!” The audience erupts in a riot of celebration.
Two and a half hours later, the British ambassador comes onstage to thank the cast and speak about the vital role theatre must play in defending free speech on this, the day Islamist terrorists in Paris murdered 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Hamlet Why was he sent into England?
Gravedigger Why, because he was mad. He shall recover his wits there, or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
Gravedigger ‘Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.
A few years ago Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, saw a busker in east London whose sign said, “I’m going to play my violin in every capital in the world. Please give some money to help me.” Six months later Dromgoole saw him again.
“I thought, ‘you’re going fucking slowly’.”
The idea of taking “Hamlet” around the world had this minor spark, but also a major one. Dromgoole inherited the replica Elizabethan theatre – “this wooden O”, as the Bard called it – from Mark Rylance in 2005, when it was still struggling to shed its reputation as a honey-trap for heritage-hungry tourists. The new regime introduced new writing, sent productions out on tour, opened a candlelit playhouse named after the theatre’s founder, Sam Wanamaker. But one initiative reached out further than any of these. In 2012, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the Globe invited 37 companies from all over the world to perform the 37 plays in their own languages. I saw half a dozen of them, including the final visitor: a hectic “Hamlet” from Vilnius which attracted an audience of festive Lithuanians. In show after show, the six-week Globe to Globe Festival said the obvious thing about theatre supremely well – that cultures may find reasons to be at one another’s throats, but there is something primordial that binds all of us: the human need to stand up and tell stories of love and death.
Three years on, Dromgoole lies on a sofa in his glass-walled office, wearing a hangdog look of wry weariness. “That balloon we all travelled on was so pleasurable,” he recalls, “that it was a bit hard being back on the ground. So we thought, why don’t we go up in another balloon?” But how? Dromgoole remembered the busker, and mentioned a world tour to the rest of the theatre’s staff. They were in the bar at Claridge’s, carousing at the end of two brainstorming awaydays. It caught a thermal. “Hamlet”, containing so many multitudes, was quickly favoured over “Romeo and Juliet”. Happily, the Globe’s light-footed production was already on the road. The idea soon resolved itself into a two-year tour to leave on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and return on the 400th anniversary of his death. (He died conveniently close to his birthday.) The show’s return would mark Dromgoole’s departure after a decade in the job. Having hosted the world, the Globe would become the world’s guest.
“Dominic has these colossal ideas,” says Tom Bird, who produced Globe to Globe, “and then we do them.” Bird, a tall blond figure in his early 30s, was given the task of getting a company of 12 actors, four stage managers and their set into and out of every country in the world in two years. To help with the Sisyphean labour of sourcing venues, visas, hotels, flights and other sundries, he would lean on two associate producers: Malú Ansaldo, usefully fluent in Spanish, and Tamsin Mehta, an unflappable Brummie who happens to be there for all my time with the company.
They invited every ambassador in London to breakfast at the Globe, then knocked on the many doors of the British Council, while companies who’d visited in 2012 opened their contact books. There are 205 countries on the United Nations list. Because it wouldn’t quite work as a branding concept, the strapline on the website doesn’t talk about touring every country in the world where security can be guaranteed. Some are off limits. They include Yemen, Central African Republic and South Sudan. “We half-jokingly said at the start, ‘You never know, Belgium might be at war by the time we finish’,” Mehta remembers. But others have made the cut. They went to Somaliland and Democratic Republic of Congo under armed guard. A plan has been hatched to play to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Libya looks tricky but, says Bird, “British diplomats are really keen to make it happen.” Palestine and Afghanistan are on the list, and Nepal has not been knocked off by the earthquakes. What of North Korea? “The potential spanner in the works is Ebola, believe it or not,” says Bird. “The North Koreans have put in an epic quarantine. That scuppers us.” With Ebola in retreat, the schedule already has a big chunk of slack which, it is hoped, will be used for a rejigged tour of west Africa.
Clearly this all costs a vast amount. Bird talks of “a model whereby it will wash its face”, but it’s tricky to control when the only fixed costs are salaries. Everything else is a variable, especially huge excess-baggage charges, to help with which they have persuaded several regional airlines into sponsorship deals. To boost profits, the tour is shaped around longer stints in the countries prepared to stump up a fee, including the United States, Brazil, Nigeria, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Soon they were mapping the biggest theatre tour in history. It would be broken into legs, each lasting up to two months. The company would have nine weeks’ holiday a year. They began rehearsing on March 3rd 2014, opened at the Middle Temple Hall on April 18th, did three more shows at the Globe and on April 27th boarded a schooner a mile downriver from the theatre, bound for Amsterdam. Who on earth would volunteer to climb on board?
Hamlet What players are they?
Rosencrantz Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city.
They could belong to no other profession. Muffled in winter casuals, the Globe Hamlet company push trolleys loaded with packing cases and drag a pair of heavy ski-shaped bags through Lisbon airport. Ranging across ethnicities, they look like an off-duty United Nations (where they have performed, to delegates behind desks). By the tour’s end, the actors will have played to audiences filled with family on four continents. This cast has been chosen to reflect the world back at itself.
Dromgoole compares casting the tour to picking astronauts. If the company has a natural figurehead, it is Rawiri Paratene, whose “Troilus and Cressida” in Maori opened the Globe to Globe festival. The youngest player was 24 when the tour began, the oldest will be 65 when it ends. Three-quarters of the cast, and all the stage managers, are Globe veterans. Two of them had been with the production since its first tour in 2011: Tom Lawrence, who greets the audience in their own language at the top of the show, and Miranda Foster, an old Shakespearean hand who has iambic pentameter running through her veins. Amanda Wilkin is a Cuban-Jamaican from Birmingham and Jennifer Leong the daughter of a pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong. Matthew Romain is the son of two rabbis, and Beruce Khan is a half-Pakistani from Sunderland. The alternating Hamlets are (like Leong) professional debutants: the physically imposing Ladi Emeruwa grew up in Nigeria, while Naeem Hayat is a wiry Pakistani from the East End.
At his audition Hayat was asked by Dromgoole what he thought of joining a world tour. “I said, ‘It’s a once in a lifetime thing.’ He said, ‘No actually I think it’s once in eternity.’” All the actors agree that for all the downsides – disappearing off grid, personally and professionally – they could not imagine turning the job down. Khan had not acted for nine months and was working in a bar. “I woke up very hungover and my agent was saying, ‘Do you want to go around the world for two years?’ I thought I was still pissed.”
The first leg was a gruelling sprint through northern and eastern Europe. The second took them through North and Central America and on a jolly hop round the Caribbean before leaping across to Poland and Kazakhstan. The third toured South America. I join the company at the start of the fourth leg. Portugal is their portal into Africa, for a trip which will take them along the Mediterranean coast then down to Zanzibar. They have already travelled 59,285 miles.
The hills of Lisbon are bright in the winter sun as the company spend the morning snatching an opportunity for tourism. These windows on the world are bite-sized but precious, and a chance for some to keep up a ritual in every country. To support a charity, Khan tweets a snap of himself in a Sunderland top with Hamlet’s name on the back. Foster films someone singing a local song. Even on their nights off, Emeruwa and Paratene will later appear in the opening song so that they can boast of performing in every country.
In the mid-afternoon they are summoned to the Centro Cultural de Belém, a concrete mega-complex which looms on the bank of the Tagus. The stage managers have been here since ten to erect the set. The little patch of Denmark has been designed to suggest a mobile set the strolling players in “Hamlet” might use. It consists of two rear awnings rigged with pegs for hanging costumes, instruments and swords. Downstage is a crimson curtain suspended on a rope between two wooden poles. The packing cases become Elsinore’s ramparts in act one and Ophelia’s grave in act five.
As it’s a new leg, tonight’s cast sprints through a line run. Dromgoole and his co-directors have flown in here and there, but mostly the actors are on their own. Speaking at 78rpm, they are through in 90 minutes, greeted by whoops. Then comes the labour of working through cues. The complex musical plot calls for two violins, an accordion, a mandolin, a recorder and various items of percussion. But for each performance there is a different set of musicians because, as well as Hamlet, every role is rotated. During the tour all three younger actresses have muscled in on Horatio, also played by Lawrence, Romain and Khan, each of whom knows a total of 12 supporting male roles. One track is known as MORF: Marcellus/Osric/Rosencrantz/Fortinbras. “We all think the Hamlets have got it easiest,” says Romain, who will play the title role in Madrid; Lawrence’s debut as the Dane will be in New Zealand. Such are the permutations that, after a year, precisely the same formulation of roles has happened only twice.
As the performance nears, bendy actors throw an eccentric array of calisthenic shapes. Emeruwa and Romain rehearse their climactic duel. Backstage, Lawrence finds someone to tell him how to say “Boa noite senhoras e senhores!” And then, with half an hour to go, actors clamber into costumes with a Forties feel, and everyone goes into the zone. “Every night is like a first night,” says John Dougall. “It’s hard, but it’s a fertile ground for keeping you alive and fresh.”
It’s a chilly theatre holding around 400, but the audience is attentive to a crisp and clear account of Shakespeare’s longest play. Brevity being the soul of wit, Dromgoole has adapted this version from the shorter Quarto One rather than the lapidary First Folio text. After a grateful ovation, the stage managers need 45 minutes to strike the set and pack. Back at the hotel after midnight, the bar is still serving. If anyone wants to sleep (perchance to dream), they’ve got three hours. The transport is booked for 3.45am. Africa awaits.
Gertrude Go not to Wittenberg.
For the Globe’s “Hamlet” company, all the world is a stage, and all the audiences really stereotypes. Slavs listened in intimidating silence. “You’d think the whole way through they were hating it,” says Foster. “So it would be a shock when they erupted at the end.” In Latin America, Emeruwa remembers, “We came onstage and people were screaming. It was like a rock concert. The energy from them really lifted the show.” Throughout the Caribbean the actors could tune into the audience’s unabashed commentary. In St Vincent, when Wilkin came on as Ophelia in act four, someone distinctly said, “Oh Lard, she gahn mad!” Other times they’ve faced rows of expats. “That can feel demoralising,” adds Wilkin. “You question why you’re on the other side of the world and yet playing to audiences you’d probably play to in England.”
Emeruwa posts a snap of every venue on Instagram. His album includes many formal theatres, but also spanking new cultural centres (Kazakhstan, Egypt), amphitheatres, cathedrals (outside one in Mexico, inside in Tunisia), school halls, a castle (Czech Republic), a field (Benin), a library (the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC) and outdoor arenas. In Khartoum they played to an audience of 3,000, with another 2,000 locked out. In Wittenberg, Hamlet’s university town, no more than 40 turned up for what the company is united in regarding as the tour’s dampest squib. They have performed at sea level, looking out on the Pacific Ocean in Antofagasta and the Indian Ocean in Djibouti, and at extreme altitude: in La Paz oxygen was on tap backstage. They have often felt the dread weight of recent history: in Sarajevo, in Eritrea, in Kiev where Petro Poroshenko was in the house the night before he was elected Ukraine’s new president. In Somaliland no play at all had been performed for more than 20 years. Leong talks of the responsibility of “going to so many places where people’s idea of what it’s like to see a play rests entirely on that one performance”. Above all the company speak about an epiphany at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. After two scenes, the power failed and the audience waited while stage managers and cast rapidly shifted the set outside. The heat was intense, but so was the spell cast by the occasion. “Part of the high”, says Paratene, “was the knowledge that we were performing on a campus where murder had been committed.”
Sometimes they are feted by their own. Moldovan drama students travelled overnight to escort them to Chisinau. A hundred actors travelled from Helsinki to see them in Turku, the oldest theatre in Finland. In Algiers, the cast sit in an earnest rectangle with voluble actors who have come from near and far to share thoughts about Shakespeare. Such duty calls are frequent, on top of the impact of travel. “The only lows for me”, says the normally irrepressible Lawrence, “have been severe bouts of diarrhoea.” Three relationships bit the dust in the first year, while one has sprouted within the company. And many talk of an inability to share these unencompassable experiences when they go home. “People say, ‘Are you having an amazing time?’” says Phoebe Fildes. “And once you’ve said, ‘Yeah it’s wicked,’ I don’t really enjoy talking about it because you can’t really express what it is that you’re doing.”
Hamlet By my troth methinks it is very cold.
Gentleman It is indeed very rawish cold.
Hamlet ’Tis hot methinks.
Gentleman Very sweltery hot.
“Here we are in our 92nd country, in Harare, ZIMBABWE!”
Three months on I rejoin the company at the other end of Africa. Towards the end of the fifth leg, the milometer now reads 77,506 miles. There are plenty of new high rises in Harare towering over the teeming, potholed pavements, but there’s a dearth of theatres. So the venue is a sizeable cinema in a shopping complex, where the queue for popcorn is full of both black and white Zimbabweans. The actors, though buoyed by a three-night run at the famous Market Theatre in Johannesburg, carry the weight of the long weeks away.
But the performances have grown. It is a blessing to watch with a 300-strong audience of English speakers, all soon laughing nervously, even incredulously. “Wow,” blurts a man near me, amid a choral intake of breath, when Emeruwa’s fiery, macho Hamlet tells Leong’s Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery”. A group of black Zimbabweans tell me they only heard about the performance earlier that day. At $10, tickets are not cheap, but by the interval the three young women of the group already feel the money has been well spent. None has seen Shakespeare before. A man in the group keeps checking his smartphone, but even he is gripped by the hectic finale. “Dead, dead, dead,” he intones as Khan’s Laertes lies poisoned.
That is roughly how the company looks at six the next morning. As the bleary coach leaves for Zambia, Paratene presides over a ritual sweepstake: they are told the mileage (450), given an ETA (ten hours hence), and everyone has to offer their own estimate. Long experience of 18-hour rides in Central America and Africa has taught them to be pessimistic.
The rich green plains of Zimbabwe glide by. The company sleep, read, watch TV series. On an iPad three continue a two-year Scrabble tourney. Lunch is taken at Nando’s in Bulawayo. In late afternoon we stop to stretch our legs and Romain, whose Hamlet is pending, rehearses the duel with Lawrence as Laertes. For sabres they use twigs. Long after dark the sweepstake winner is Hayat with a guess of 9.27pm (I’m three naive hours out). At a safari lodge we are lulled to sleep under canvas by the roar of very adjacent lions.
The next morning I join the stage managers in Livingstone. Without quite keeping themselves apart, they form a distinct unit working much longer hours and never taking shows off. Company manager Rebecca Austin is the one with the sat-phone in her rucksack and the schedule in her head. Adam Moore liaises with the actors about casting and rehearsals. Carrie Burnham is a bustling wardrobe mistress. They all muck in to assemble the set. The handyman is Dave McEvoy, the oldest of the quartet, and the shyest: he’s the only one who prefers not to boost the numbers in the shanties. Today, in another cinema but narrower and much hotter, there are two snags: they have their second shallowest playing area (see also Burundi); plus on a sleepy Zambian Sunday, someone somehow needs to source a lamp to boost the dismal lighting.
I listen to the clang of metal as the 24 pieces of the steel frame from which the backcloths will be hung are laid out and assembled. For the wooden posts on which the front curtain is strung, McEvoy drills two bases into the stage (where there’s been no floorboard, he’s improvised – in Somaliland with bags of rice). The numbered packing cases disgorge costumes, shoes, hats and props – swords, tennis rackets (for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), musical instruments, etc. They are arranged onstage and off. The whole process takes two hours.
Soon the actors drift in to go through their routines. “Just to say this is the light,” hollers McEvoy from the circle – Tamsin Mehta has managed to find one. “It’s not perfect, but at least we’ll be able to see you.” Around 2pm an audience of perhaps 50 mainly white farmers trickles in. They beam with pleasure at Lawrence’s greeting in Bemba, then listen in respectful silence as Hayat’s peevish, neurotic prince goes off the rails. During the interval faces are long round the back. “You can’t hear a smile,” moans Keith Bartlett, who knows how to play for laughs as Polonius. In their Scandinavian woollens they are drenched in sweat. Owing to the shallowness, it’s a crowded stage. The lamp blows in the second half, and a vocal toddler marches up and down an aisle. But the audience seems happy. “It’s Shakespeare, isn’t it?” asks a cheerful Rastafarian called Reuben. “The English is well spoken. I’m quite impressed that these guys came all the way from England.”
It’s not all travel days or show days (or, more onerously, travel-show days). Every week there is a day off, when the tables are turned and the planet entertains the Globe players: it has put on a show in Tromsø, on Lake Titicaca, on the Trinidadian shore and in the Great Rift Valley; camels have lugged them round the pyramids and a chopper has lifted them over Rio. In Livingstone the actors are told that they are not insured to microlight along the rim of the Victoria Falls; history does not relate if any of the cast ignored this interdict and returned with eyes on stalks. On the short trip to Botswana there’s ample time for the coach to nip back into Zimbabwe so that the company can stagger along the canyon into which the Zambezi debouches millions of gallons of roaring river. They return drenched and slack-jawed. Only Dougall, poleaxed by a suddenly developing hernia, stays on the coach.
Alas he misses the day off in Botswana too. Most are up before dawn to board a safari truck and watch the sun rise over Chobe National Park and its vast complement of elephants, lions, kudu, buffalo, warthogs, baboons. “The Lion King”, it is remembered, takes its plot from “Hamlet”. Later in the afternoon we return for a river safari. The sight of a mother elephant, her three calves and their four mirror images wandering along the shore outwows Disney’s corniest choreography. The sun slides into the Namibian horizon on the far bank, where the company are heading next.
But first there’s a play to perform at a smart new cultural centre on the outskirts of Kasane. It’s a ten-minute walk from the safari lodge where we’re staying. Only once I’ve gone there do I discover that the road is sometimes frequented by buffalo. And if a buffalo happens to spot you, says the languid lodge receptionist, “You can forget it.” The actors are ferried by coach. The playing area is made of granite, so McEvoy has roped the curtain posts to side balustrades. When I arrive, he’s heaving a huge rock from the garden to help weigh them down. With Madrid coming up at the end of the tour, Romain gets his first go at rehearsing his Hamlet with the company. A smile plays on his face when in the duel he reverts to Laertes.
The audience of perhaps 250 is overwhelmingly African. The afternoon heat is softened by a breeze wafting across the stage through the open wings. Two school groups occupy the front rows of a steep, intimate auditorium, and their concentration never falters. As Emeruwa and Romain act out their ferocious duel, which descends into fisticuffs, the entire audience leans in and gasps as if at an actual punch-up. It is thrilling to be there, watching them watch.
After the cast have performed their rousing musical outro and taken the hearty applause, I talk to two polite 16-year-old girls in green uniform whose school party has come from Kachikau, 60km away. Both are seeing Shakespeare live for the first time. Their own drama classes, they say, focus on child abuse, teenage pregnancy, alcohol abuse, and they warm to a story about ghosts and vengeance. “Speaking fast it’s hard for us Africans to learn their language,” says Likezo, whose first language is Subiya. “Some words I understand, others not. But at the end I understood what is their message.” The message taken by Annastacia (first language: Kalanga) has an African slant: “In our culture,” she says, “when somebody marries his brother’s wife this is dangerous because children end up doing mistakes in life. Our parents should not do that because it affects our life. When Hamlet tried to talk to his mother his mother didn’t listen to him and this ended up causing him to kill himself.”
Thus the tragedy of Hamlet, unfathomable as all the globe’s oceans, yields up yet another story.
Hamlet The rest is silence.
While the company head for Windhoek, Dougall alights in Johannesburg for emergency surgery. Three weeks later he has been restored to health and the bosom of the company when I catch them one last time at the Globe. They have been called in to rehearse Lawrence’s Hamlet. The morning after, they fly to Sri Lanka for a sixth leg which takes them to the other end of the Earth, down to New Zealand, thence out into the Pacific. One day – after a penultimate stop at the real Elsinore – they will come home from this job of jobs for good. After a year they are already steeped in reminiscences, and I can’t help but worry about the coming void for this spirited, adventuring, inexhaustible family of storytellers after the terminus of their unrepeatable voyage.
“Ending is natural,” says Paratene. “Emotionally it’s going to be hard because there’s not much we don’t know about each other. There will be an awful period of withdrawal. But by God, if we two or three of us get cast together again, it’s going to be incredibly boring for the other people in the company!”