Mem­o­ries from the road

Former artis­tic di­rec­tor of Shake­speare’s Globe chron­i­cles tak­ing ‘Ham­let’ on a tour of nearly 200 coun­tries

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY GARY TAY­LOR book­world@wash­post.com

He won’t thank me for say­ing so, but Do­minic Drom­goole is prob­a­bly bet­ter at writ­ing prose than di­rect­ing tragedies, just as Anthony Bour­dain writes bet­ter than he cooks. You might think of Drom­goole’s new book, “Ham­let Globe to Globe,” as the Shake­spearean equiv­a­lent of Bour­dain’s TV se­ries, “Parts Un­known.” Both of­fer us ir­re­sistible sam­ples of what Drom­goole calls “good eat­ing and gar­gan­tuan drink­ing” with off-kil­ter char­ac­ters in out-of-our-way places.

Drom­goole also of­fers us “Ham­let,” as served up by 12 ac­tors on a grand tour of al­most 200 coun­tries in the 104 weeks be­tween the 450th an­niver­sary of Shake­speare’s birth and the 400th an­niver­sary of his death. The end of the tour, in April 2016, co­in­cided with the end of Drom­goole’s 11-year run as artis­tic di­rec­tor of Shake­speare’s Globe The­atre.

Drom­goole be­gan his reign at the Globe with an­other book, “Will and Me: How Shake­speare Took Over My Life,” which won the first Sheri­dan Mor­ley for best theater bi­og­ra­phy. “Ham­let Globe to Globe” should win some­thing, too, but book prizes de­pend on pi­geon­holes, and this bird is hard to cat­e­go­rize. Shake­speare never wrote a “well-made play,” and Drom­goole doesn’t write well­made books. He has no tidy scholas­tic the­sis; aca­demics and tidi­ness ir­ri­tate him. He is not push­ing a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the play or the play­wright. In­stead, like any good mem­oirist, he bounces un­pre­dictably from re­venge and the Is­lamic State to Is­tan­bul and an ode to scaf­fold­ing.

“Uni­for­mity on stage breaks my heart,” he de­clares. “It is not a suit­able re­sponse to plays or a world full of dap­pled things.” Va­ri­ety is his first com­mand­ment. And the sec­ond: “No hi­er­ar­chies in the saucepan.”

That aes­thetic prin­ci­ple, or un­prin­ci­pled aes­thetic, makes him a nat­u­ral tour guide for global Shake­speare. Polo­nius de­scribes the itin­er­ant ac­tors in “Ham­let” as hy­per-hy­phen­ated spe­cial­ists in“pas­toral-com­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal-pas­toral, trag­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal, tragic al-comic al his­tor­i­cal-pas­toral .” In the same vein, Polo­nius might de­scribe Drom­goole as foodie, travel writer, gos­sipy the­atri­cal mem­oirist, lit­er­ary critic, po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and, com­pounded with all these, co­me­dian — usu­ally, like the best co­me­di­ans, laugh­ing at him­self.

On the first page, Drom­goole is al­ready con­fess­ing that his grand plan for the 2012 Shake­speare Olympics had “cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion in the way only stupid ideas can.” (The best ex­pla­na­tion yet for Pres­i­dent Trump and Brexit.) From ev­ery stop on the tour, he brings back sou­venir ab­sur­di­ties, such as a bill­board ad­ver­tis­ing “The First In­dige­nous Laugh­ter School in Africa.” He turns the en­tire com­pany’s gas­troin­testi­nal dis­as­ter in Mex­ico City into a mas­ter­piece of escalating farce. His en­counter with the Ger­man “the­atre god di­rec­tor Thomas Oster­meier” is, he cheer­fully ad­mits, the “most in­fan­tile” con­test of di­rec­to­rial egos.

Drom­goole the mar­ket­ing im­pre­sario some­times wan­ders into pompous cliches of Shake­spraise, but he is al­ways saved by his di­rec­to­rial gift for par­tic­u­lar­ity. Ev­ery per­for­mance of “Ham­let” that he de­scribes as his plucky crew spi­rals round the planet is an ex­pe­ri­ence as spe­cific as each venue, from the dead­en­ing fas­cist ar­chi­tec­ture of the state theater of Ethiopia (“a tyrant’s dream trans­formed into a rub­bish bin”) to a beau­ti­ful late 19th-cen­tury Swedish theater (“in tidy pro­por­tion for the sin bet­ter gle-room plays of Ib­sen and Strind­berg”) to a sand-stormed shack in a Syr­ian refugee camp in Jor­dan.

The English com­pany had trou­ble ne­go­ti­at­ing with North Korea. (Who knew it would be so com­pli­cated?) But there is some­thing de­li­ciously un­pre­dictable, and yet per­fect, about Py­ongyang’s fi­nal of­fer: The ac­tors would be granted pass­ports to per­form “Ham­let,” but only if they agreed not to speak. The rest is si­lence.

All the tour­ing ac­tors ro­tated in and out of roles, so that even­tu­ally they had all played ev­ery part. This unique “carousel sys­tem” epit­o­mizes both the strength and the weak­ness of Drom­goole’s ap­proach. Yes, Shake­speare be­longed to an ensem­ble joint-stock com­pany of ac­tors; but no, they did not all play Ham­let. Richard Burbage was the com­pany’s star, the lead­ing liv­ing actor of Shake­speare’s time, and Shake­speare wrote “Ham­let” for Burbage to play. The script con­tains plenty of good parts, but it is dom­i­nated by one sov­er­eign role so de­mand­ing that few ac­tors can em­body it con­vinc­ingly enough to hyp­no­tize an audience, or a gen­er­a­tion.

Drom­goole and his com­pany are bet­ter at com­edy than tragedy. Why? Be­cause they are The two-year tour of “Ham­let” wrapped up in 2016 with a per­for­mance at Elsi­nore Cas­tle in Den­mark, where the tale of de­ferred re­venge is set. The tour launched in 2014 in Lon­don. at en­sem­bles than at ti­tanic in­di­vid­ual ge­nius. The artist who stands out, at Drom­goole’s Globe, is not the star actor, but the artis­tic di­rec­tor. Not sur­pris­ingly, Drom­goole’s “Ham­let” pro­duc­tion and his “Ham­let” book are bet­ter at cap­tur­ing the hu­mor than the hor­ror. This “Ham­let” is not a tragedy about a doomed ge­nius bounded in a nut­shell, but a comic epic about com­pany man­age­ment.

I’m not com­plain­ing. You will en­joy this book if, like me, you would rather reread Lau­rence Sterne’s “Tris­tram Shandy” than Sa­muel Richard­son’s “Clarissa.” Just don’t ex­pect Drom­goole to rise to the chal­lenge of Cam­bo­dia’s killing fields, or South Su­dan’s blood­spat­tered chaos. Af­ter all, the muse of mass death is Christo­pher Mar­lowe, not Shake­speare. The body count at the end of “Ham­let” is tragic, but Shake­speare never reaches for the geno­ci­dal sub­lime, and nei­ther does Drom­goole. He of­fers us, in­stead, “a pow­er­ful com­mu­nal bull — de­tec­tor.” Right now, I can imag­ine no gift more needed. Gary Tay­lor is gen­eral ed­i­tor of “The New Ox­ford Shake­speare.”

LEON NEAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

HAM­LET GLOBE TO GLOBE Two Years, 193,000 Miles, 197 Coun­tries, One Play By Do­minic Drom­goole Grove. 390 pp. $27

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