The performance of Hamlet by the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company in Guyana was historic and significant for a number of reasons. It is striking as a production generally; in terms of its special circumstances as travelling theatre; as an effectively designed and impressively performed theatre experience in its own right; in the wider context of contemporary theatre in the world; and in the peculiar context of theatre in Guyana.
It is special because of the company that performed it and their unique project. The project itself largely determined the shape and style of the production. This design is worthy of comment as contemporary world theatre, as Shakespeare, and the way the Globe does Shakespeare. These in themselves make a very interesting study, but the visit to Guyana was unique because of the presentation of a rare experience for Caribbean audiences and because of what it revealed – the good and the ugly – about the audience for theatre in Guyana. This last cannot be overlooked in anything written for Guyanese readers, and the way it is also relevant in the context of Trinidad and Tobago where the company performed after leaving Guyana.
The project is called ‘Globe to Globe Hamlet,’ unique because it is “a two-year tour to every country in the world.” The Globe Theatre of London is taking Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the globe in what has to be the most ambitious undertaking to celebrate the dramatist’s anniversaries. It is amazingly very neat in that the tour started in England on April 23, 2014 – Shakespeare’s 450th birthday – and ends in England on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of the day he died. This present Globe Theatre was built on the South Bank of the Thames in London almost on the exact spot and as an exact replica of the original Globe Theatre built by Shakespeare in 1599. The modern company performs the plays on the thrust stage in an attempt to reproduce the conditions under which they were performed in the 16th-17th centuries. They are daylight performances with no spotlights, no electronic sound – all live music and sound – and no curtains. Ironically, on the tour, there are actresses playing male roles, but no males playing female roles as they did in Shakespeare’s time.
The play selected for the tour is Hamlet, one of the great tragedies, which is, according to the director, Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of the Globe, the best known play with the most popular line in all drama: “To be or not to be.” The story of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is basically a revenge tragedy – a Senecan type of tragic drama very popular in Elizabethan times as it was in Rome when Seneca lived. William Shakespeare, genius that he was, was able to reproduce the blood and violence in which that theatre revelled, but made it into his own brilliant brand of what came to be known as Shakespearean Tragedy because of his innovations in the form.
One of the notable features of Dromgoole’s touring production was its emphatic daylight clarity. The way it took a lengthy, weighty and serious tragedy and rendered it clear and understandable in post-modern theatre. One of the features clarified is this very motif of vengeance, the violence that threatens in almost every scene in the intense way in which the performers portray character. Outstanding in this is the lead role of Hamlet, his confrontations with King Claudius and especially with Laertes. Claudius’ presence always exuded an underlying violent treachery and deceitful ruthlessness that the actor’s manner communicated. Even in Hamlet’s sequences with his supposed girlfriend Ophelia, a restrained sexual energy which was always there was persistently accompanied by a violence that threatened on the edges.
The play made clear the revenge motif from the turbulent appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the role of Seneca’s instigative character ‘Revenge’ to the way the hero was driven thereafter, plagued and haunted by what he saw as infuriating injustice, ironic frustration, the incest of his mother, and the disloyal quality of all women. These things weighing on his mind could not be made clearer in his treatment of Ophelia as played by the cast. Yet the greatest energy of violence and hateful vengeance exploded from the portrayal of Laertes by an actor always chomping at the bit, hand on his sword and ready to leap at an adversary. His fights with Hamlet exemplified this in their effectiveness.
It is fairly fast-paced, crisp, efficient and tightly managed. Alongside the violence was the humour, from Shakespeare’s blatant practice of playing to the pits and ‘groundlings,’ to the more subtle ironies and Hamlet’s contempt for and ridicule of the likes of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. The play has very funny moments, sometimes not grasped by the local audience. Typical was the violent fierceness of Hamlet’s attempt to seize an opportunity to kill Claudius while he was praying, immediately followed by the humour of Claudius’ admission that his words were empty and his thoughts unrepentant. Hamlet lost an opportunity to send him straight to hell.
Almost everything about Dromgoole’s design may be attributed to the demands of a touring production being played to many audiences not familiar with the play, as well as the need to travel light. This includes those major efforts at clarity as well as some post-modernist elements. The costuming is not properly Elizabethan and departs from the period to be largely modern, but somewhat mixed and nondescript. This was probably an effort at the lightness demanded of a production on the road for two years, wanting to be unburdened by heavy and complicated Elizabethan robes, especially when some cast members needed to change quickly to play double roles. But this led to what looked like arbitrariness. Additionally, while the principal characters were mainly thoroughly defined the minor ones in which actors doubled up were not sufficiently differentiated, as in a few cases it was clear that the same actor had doubled up.
It was a clever travelling set, designed to be easily dismantled and folded up. This led to the brilliantly efficient way in which the actors moved it around and made changes, some of which were post-modern, some symbolic. These included the use of trunks which are parts of the set, but in which costumes and props are packed for overseas travel. The main playing area is also clearly marked and bordered, probably with the thrust stage in mind, but also with a view to easy adaptability to any stage anywhere in any country on which they might have to play. This however, led to a surprising prevalence of masking and bad sight-lines affecting some members of the audience in a theatre with the proscenium arch.
Yet the Globe players managed to sustain a production that was still Shakespeare, even done the way the Globe does Shakespeare. There were no light changes and house lights remained on to give the impression of a daylight performance. Scene changes and transitions were slick without lighting or curtains in a well-paced play. The cast provided all sound and sound effects, including a range of musical instruments, again suited to travelling theatre as much as to audience delight.
Through all of this, the Globe kept Shakespeare’s language, spoken with appropriate rhythm and excellently articulated. They mastered the iambic pentameter to make it flow with characteristic clarity of meaning. As Dromgoole remarked, Hamlet is very highly quotable with several familiar lines that are now common clichés in the English language. Every one stood out as Polonius admonished his son LaertesL “Never a borrower nor a lender be”; “To thine own self be true, and it will follow as night follows day, thou canst not then be false to any man”; or Hamlet’s famous utterances, “The play’s the thing, with which I’ll catch the conscience of the king”; and “frailty, thy name is woman”; and the oft used and as oft misquoted “There is method in his madness.”
Many of the performance strategies are perhaps ploys to make a lengthy, heavy play more palatable, especially to the uninitiated. The speech, the robust acting, the pushed pace are included here and serve well as creditable tactics. However, they did not seem to have worked for the Guyanese audience, dozens of whom fell fast asleep, worn down, perhaps, by a day at work and a long night at a theatre to which they are fairly unaccustomed and which taxed them more than they probably expected. It was not because Guyanese are unfamiliar with Shakespeare. His work is well known in Guyana within and without the theatre. Performance of his plays might not be frequent and popular, but it is not unknown. Over the past three years Shakespeare was produced twice at the Theatre Guild, and he is studied in schools.
The good thing is that the Globe’s Hamlet, provided a rare opportunity for the local audience to see a professional company, moreso one that specializes in his work, do Shakespeare on stage. Many took advantage of this. While being far from sold out, it attracted quite a crowd. Several members of a dormant local theatre audience turned out in their numbers, and dozed off. It is significant that the Globe performed at the end of the 2014 National Drama Festival, and played to a larger audience than the festival did. Obviously many who are not prepared to support local theatre will attend only when there is a visiting foreign group. The audience for theatre in Guyana is an issue.
Interestingly, the Globe to Globe Hamlet performed in Trinidad at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), the country’s newest and most prestigious theatre, and the Caribbean’s most ultra-modern state-of-the-art one. In that country going to the NAPA is an event of prestige with a touch of social class. There was a great deal of cynicism when it was built and it was not envisaged that any popular or indigenous performances would grace its boards. The feeling was that it would be reserved for the high middle class and might even be an expensive white elephant, among a number of controversies which swirled around it and which included its faulty structure. The touring Globe performed there, as in Guyana, to a middle class audience.
These social issues are provoked by the place of Shakespeare in the theatre of the Caribbean, a hangover of its history, and the different audiences for the popular and the classical.