Review by Alvin I. Dacanay
On paper, the idea was intriguing: a multiracial group of United Kingdom-based theater actors is touring the world and performing Hamlet—one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and certainly his most oft-quoted—as close as to how it was staged at The Globe Theatre during his time. No microphones and fancy lighting. No elaborate costumes and sets. Just the performers bringing the great dramatist’s memorable words to life.
So intriguing was this idea, in fact, that it translated to sold-out seats inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, also known as the CCP Little Theater, when players from Shakespeare’s Globe theater company performed Hamlet there twice on August 23. Their visit to the country is their 125th stop in a tour that started last year, on the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, and is expected to end next year, on his 400th death anniversary.
Some of those who watched Globe to Globe: Hamlet have found it to be a riveting experience. It’s easy to understand why: under Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst’s direction, this Hamlet was accessible and efficiently mounted. Surprisingly, it was also funny; who would’ve thought there’s a lot of comedy in this tragedy?
Also: Who would’ve imagined a sparse set consisting of trunks of various sizes, a few wooden planks and poles, and a long red curtain could be so versatile? And that play-within-the-play—that reenactment of King Hamlet’s murder by his brother Claudius, which the Danish prince calls The Mousetrap—was splendidly executed, and is arguably the production’s finest moment.
But as much as the cast and crew deserve some praise, primarly for their commitment to Globe to Globe: Hamlet and its admirable goals, they can’t conceal the fact theirs is a straightforward and—I loathe to say this—rather superficial version that sacrified more than just a few scenes in the original text to make it more audience-friendly and compact.
The production may have emphasized the play’s humor, but what about its inherent horror? The death toll in Hamlet may have escalated, but how come the drama accompanying it didn’t? As staged, the scenes in the play felt more like a series of events that came one after another in a straight line, like a procession, and less like a logical and mounting progression to an inevitable, horrific conclusion. For a play celebrated as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, the powerful emotions that it should provoke—anger, despair, doubt, dread, grief—never really registered.
As the titular hero, Ladi Emeruwa and his alternate Naeem Hayat offered unsurprisingly different interpretations. Emeruwa may have a more commanding and robust presence and delivered his lines better, but Hayat managed to invest his performance with a vulnerability that was fascinating to watch in some scenes.
There’s no doubt these actors are talented, but they—and the rest of the ensemble—were outshined by John Dougall and Keith Bartlett, who alternate as Claudius and Polonius. In the troupe’s matinee performance, Dougall was appropriately dignified as Hamlet’s murderous uncle, while Bartlett brought a startling levity to his portrayal of the ill-fated royal counselor.
In the end, what’s actually saddening about Globe to Globe: Hamlet (as of this writing, it’s being performed in Hong Kong) that it’s unlikely to correct its shortcomings for the duration of its tour. The production may have some bright spots, but they’re not enough to make it truly shine, as Shakespeare’s play deserves to. Now that’s tragic.