Surprising responses to Hamlet Africa tour

Researcher finds reactions to Shakespeare performance vary wildly across continent

May 21, 2015

Source: Globe Theatre

There are more things in Heaven and Earth: ‘people in each country and region see something different’ in Shakespeare, but they always find something to relate to

Twenty-two minutes into a production of Hamlet by a troupe from Shakespeare’s Globe at a university in the Huye District of Rwanda, there is a power cut in the auditorium. As a result, the company, which is touring the world, decides to move outside.

“We sat in tiered gardens,” recalls researcher Malcolm Cocks, “and passers-by stopped to watch. Once out of a formal lecture hall setting, the audience started to relax. The actors felt an incredible energy.” What was strange, however, was that “anything related to death, even when characters were stabbed or poisoned, provoked laughter”. The graveyard scene was greeted with “notably raucous laughter”.

What emerged afterwards was that the performance had taken place on the site of what had been a mass grave during the 1994 genocide. As one audience member explained: “We are not afraid of death in Rwanda, because it is so close to us – and that’s why we laugh.”

Enterprise of great pith and moment

Many such powerful vignettes have emerged from a remarkable research project. In 2012, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the Globe to Globe festival brought to London productions of all Shakespeare’s plays in 37 languages. Out of this arose the two-year Hamlet tour, now around half-way through, which is taking a troupe of 12 actors and four stage managers right round the world.

“As soon as I found out we were doing the tour,” explains Farah Karim-Cooper, the Globe’s head of higher education and research, “I thought it was my job to decide how we should respond to it.”

Along with trying to collect all the reviews and data mining the responses to the production on social media, she was keen to find a postdoc to accompany the tour and see “how audiences respond to the theme of revenge” and “how Shakespeare in performance, the play Hamlet and the Globe’s playing conventions make an impact in different regions, how people relate to them politically and culturally”. (The term “playing conventions” refers to the style the company has adopted in response to the Globe’s architecture and has now taken on tour with it, based on extensive use of music and movement and “engaging directly with the audience”.)

In the event, it proved impossible to find funding for a researcher to accompany the whole tour, so they decided to focus on Africa. And that is where Dr Cocks comes in.

An expert in Victorian intellectual history, he works as a teaching fellow in the English department at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is also half-Zimbabwean, grew up in the country and has long had a research interest in “performances of Shakespeare in Africa, particularly by grass-roots groups, why they continue to happen, what audiences and actors get out of them”. He was therefore taken on by the Globe as researcher in Shakespeare and global audiences and has recently returned from the first half of the international Hamlet tour’s African leg.

Thinking makes it so

At each venue, Dr Cocks and local volunteers try to reach 5-10 per cent of the audience through surveys plus audio and video interviews. These take place beforehand, since “it’s quite interesting to hear what their expectations are, where they’ve come from, whether they’ve read the play in school”, as well as during intervals and after performances.

Audiences in many parts of Africa include people with limited English and those who have never seen a live performance. Others, as Dr Cocks reports, thought of Shakespeare as “a kind of intellectual and cultural test”. Yet he was generally struck both by their “overwhelming sense of exhilaration and enjoyment” and by the way that “people in each country and region see something different”.

“They immediately relate the play, its emotions, its ideas to their situations, the politics of their country, the structures of their society, their personal lives,” he says. “The actors are often surprised by how little in control of the meaning they are.”

Themes familiar to anyone who has read Hamlet often provoked a range of different reactions. In Benin, Dr Cocks remembers “a family where the mother was Christian, the daughter a voodoo practitioner and the father Muslim. All had different takes on the play and the question of revenge.”

Other themes, which London audiences might not see as significant, proved resonant in particular countries. Hamlet is obviously furious that his mother Gertrude remarries so soon after his father’s death, yet few would see the play as a general debate about a widow’s right to remarry. But that was precisely what preoccupied a group of women in Uganda “who were very pro-Gertrude and told [Dr Cocks] very strongly: ‘A woman has a right to remarry. Why is Gertrude having such a tough time and being censured?’ ”

Female performers were often startled by how much audiences laughed at moments of misogyny. When Hamlet savagely berates Ophelia and tells her “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another”, women in Accra, Ghana laughed almost uncontrollably. Asked why by Dr Cocks afterwards, they mentioned “a big debate about whether Western make-up and influences were corroding traditional African appearances”.

Race also stirred up strong feelings in countries where Shakespeare is considered quintessentially English and multiracial casting is rare. Nigerians were thrilled that one of the actors who sometimes takes the role of Hamlet is of Nigerian origin, while a South African who had lived in Johannesburg for 39 years told Dr Cocks he “had never seen black actors in leading roles. The most disturbing thing he said is that ‘it wasn’t disturbing’. Why inject the word ‘disturbing’ into the vocabulary?”

Underlying any research on “global Shakespeare” are questions about in what sense, if at all, it is possible to talk about Shakespeare as “universal”. In Lesotho, the performance of Hamlet took place just after an unsatisfactory general election result had left the country fretting about politics. One woman suggested to Dr Cocks: “All of our politicians should have a course in Shakespeare, because everything about what to do and not to do is in there if you read the text right.”

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