On Wednesday night, a busy auditorium at the Royal University of Phnom Penh gave a standing ovation to the cast of Hamlet, as their one-night-only performance drew to a sweaty, tragic climax.
The Shakespearean tragedy was on stage in Phnom Penh as the 117th stop on the Globe to Globe tour – an ambitious project by actors from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, which aims to take the tale of the Danish prince to every country in the world over a two year period.
The 30-hour trip to Cambodia came on the back of a nine and a half week stint of continual touring and performing – by far the longest stretch of time that the cast and crew have spent away from home since the tour began fifteen months ago.
Hannah Stevens, associate director of Amrita Performing Arts, the show’s local partner, said that despite two months on the road and a 4am start in Taiwan on Wednesday morning, the “Hamlets” were a well oiled machine.
“I hadn’t anticipated that we’d be able to leave the venue, but they’re so professional,” said Stevens, adding that they’d even managed an unscheduled sit down lunch at the actors’ hotel before the show.
“Technical setup wise it all went tickety-boo.”
Having initially printed only 400 tickets, Amrita were overwhelmed with the local enthusiasm for the show.
By the opening night all 1,000 seats had been allocated. Despite the fact that tickets had been free for students, turnout was impressive: there were around 800 people in attendance, and the auditorium remained three quarters full at the end of the show.
“For me that was the test point – how many people come back after the interval,” said Stevens.
“Because that interval is not a regular concept here, so when I saw a large audience really enjoying the piece to the end that was fantastic.”
Actors and audiences had to battle temperatures in the crowded hall where electric fans were turned off because of the noise. Instead, the audience was provided with paper fans.
However, even without any interference from whirring fans, the size of the space made it difficult to hear the actors’ non-amplified voices from any more than ten rows back.
Stevens said that the challenges of the venue had been known in advance, but explained that it had been important to ensure the play was performed in a venue accessible to its intended audience of young local students.
“[The actors] understand that that community was a key part of that decision to perform there,” she said.
Looking at the audience, it seemed that the gamble was worthwhile.
Extensive publicity, partnerships with RUPP professors, and a popular workshop run by Amrita’s general manager Rachel Sené the previous week meant that around two thirds of the audience was made up of Phnom Penh locals.
The play, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, was also clearly geared towards accessibility.
As well as drawing on Shakespeare’s scripted moments of life relief – the play within the play, the garrulous Polonius and the cryptic gravedigger – to full effect, actors worked hard to keep the audience engaged.
Before mounting to the stage they wandered through the auditorium chatting with theatregoers, and regularly appealed to audience members when speaking their lines.
“I like how they put humour in it because most of us don’t know the story,” said 19-year-old Charb Pinuth, a student at the Northline School.
“It’s really different to us the way they act – we usually sing a lot.”
“It’s a really amazing show,” agreed 20-year-old Seyhak Parinha, who had attended a lecture from director Dominic Dromgoole prior to the performance.
“The audience engaged with the show without them using the sound of the microphone.
It seems like the audience tried to engage with show and the actors try to engage with the audience by looking at them eye to eye.”
And, Parinha said, while the auditorium may have been a hot place to sit through the two-hour forty-minute show, it was most likely a more comfortable viewing experience than London’s Globe Theatre itself could offer.
“In the Globe Theatre people don’t have chairs. They have wooden benches or are standing for three hours straight,” he pointed out.