Since April last year, a group of actors from London’s Globe Theatre have been touring on a quest to perform the Shakespearean play in every country in the world. This week it’s Cambodia’s turn
The schedule has been mapped with military precision: at 9:50am on Wednesday, a cast of 12 actors, four crew and Dominic Dromgoole – the artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London – will arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport.
A minibus will be waiting, and a truck ready to be loaded with two crates of luggage. Both will head straight down Russian Boulevard to the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Toul Kork.
With the help of a well-prepped ground team from Amrita Performing Arts, the crew will spend the afternoon transforming the university’s cavernous auditorium into a proper theatre. The actors will warm up, block the fight scene, and Dromgoole will deliver a lecture to media and communications students. At 5pm, he’ll join the actors on stage to give a pre-show talk. At 6pm, the two hour and 40 minute performance of Hamlet will begin.
If there are a few mishaps along the way, it’s unlikely to fluster the cast and crew. In the 14 months that London’s venerated Globe Theatre has been on the Globe to Globe world tour, they’ve seen most “worst-case scenarios” play out already. At last week’s show on Kiribati, an island republic in the Central Pacific, their luggage missed the plane and actors resorted to duelling with pool cues. In the famous gravedigger scene, Hamlet held a diamante Halloween prop in the place of Yorick’s skull.
“I’m not going to say it will have been the best show they ever did, but I bet you it was interesting,” said the show’s associate producer, Tamsin Mehta, speaking via Skype from London.
Since it launched on April 23, 2014 – the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday – the Globe to Globe project has been on a mission to take its production of Hamlet to every country in the world over a two-year period.
“Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where they are on earth,” director Dromgoole has said of the ambitious venture’s rationale. “No country or people are not better off for the lively presence of Hamlet.”
The “Hamlets”, as they call themselves, are arriving in Phnom Penh on the back of a performance in Taipei on Monday. On Friday they’ll be in Vientiane, before heading to Saigon and then on to Bangladesh. Cambodia will be the 117th country ticked off the list.
On occasion, their performances have been a remarkable feat of logistical engineering. In January, the “fantastically helpful” UK Foreign Office facilitated a performance in war-torn Somaliland, and last month they were on Nauru – the island where refugees bound for Australia are being held in detention camps. According to Mehta, it was one of their toughest trips. “You don’t get into Nauru unless the government says you’re getting into Nauru,” she said.
“It was a slog, I have to admit it. But it’s important we did it because Nauru is a country, to state the bleedingly obvious.” During their time on the island, cast members met with refugees.
Amrita Performing Arts are facilitating the show in Phnom Penh, having reached out to the Globe as soon as they heard of the project’s launch.
Hannah Stevens, the associate director of Amrita, said that preparations for the visit began in earnest in March, and that for the past two weeks, the team had been “80 per cent” focused on nothing but the play.
Logistically, lighting has been the most significant commitment. “They refuse to use any amplified sounds so from that perspective, they make it quite easy,” Stevens explained.
She said that most time and resources were going in to cultivating interest in the show, especially among local students.
“We wanted to ensure they were performing in an appropriate space and bringing the performance to an appropriate audience,” Stevens said of the decision to use the hangar-like RUPP auditorium, which is generally only used for badminton practice.
English courses at university in Cambodia require students to study one Shakespeare play. Until recently, the set text was Hamlet. Now it’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Lots of people have said if you were doing Romeo and Juliet you’d have 10,000 people in the audience,” Stevens said.
But as it turned out, there was no need to worry about sales. Having initially printed what they thought was an optimistic 400 tickets, sales now suggest that the venue will be at full capacity of a thousand.
“We have never experienced such a rush for tickets,” said Stevens.
Amrita’s general manager Rachel Sené yesterday held a packed workshop for RUPP students to discuss the themes of the upcoming performance. “We just want students to be able to engage as much as possible,” she said. “[In Hamlet] there’s revenge, there’s love, there’s madness, power, ghosts … even though it’s in Shakespearean English, these are things that come up in a lot of stories, and a lot of Cambodian stories as well.”
Amrita can attest to the fact that local interpretations vary dramatically.
“People think it’s about the Khmer Rouge,” said Hannah Stevens. By way of explanation, she held up the poster: two actors cradling skulls.
It’s a solipsism that the Globe team is accustomed to.
“In one of the African countries, the women in the audience were really up for talking about it afterwards and saying: ‘Why is everyone so anti-Gertrude?’” she recalled, referring to Hamlet’s mother, who marries her brother-in-law following the death of Hamlet’s father. “By all accounts, in that culture, that’s very sensible.”
“Obviously, Shakespeare wasn’t talking about the Khmer Rouge,” she said of the Cambodian reaction. “It’s not to say there won’t be stuff in the play that isn’t relevant to that situation.
“Everyone gets something from it.”
Hamlet will be performed on Wednesday, July 8, in the RUPP auditorium, Russian Boulevard. Tickets cost $5 but are free for students.