Memories from the road
Former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe chronicles taking ‘Hamlet’ on a tour of nearly 200 countries
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.”
HAMLET GLOBE TO GLOBE Two Years, 193,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play By Dominic Dromgoole Grove. 390 pp. $27