(A slightly edited version of this review appeared in The East African 7th-13th February 2015 under the title, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre come to EA)
“All should beware of actors and newcomers, especially an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”.
In these short-sighted words of Robert Greene (1558-1592) in a pamphlet known as Greene’s Groat’s Worth of Wit, the ‘upstart crow’ he refers to here is believed to be William Shakespeare. Green, a member of the ‘university wits’, was presumably resentful of the fact that the not-so-educated Shakespeare was writing popular and successful plays.
In 1572 a law known as the ‘Act for the punishment of Vagabonds’ decreed that travelling actors must have patronage of a nobleman.
One company, headed by the actor James Burbage (1531-1597) was lucky enough to get the patronage of none other but Queen Elizabeth I. And with such fortune on his side, in 1577 Burbage built the first purpose-built theatre in England since the days of the Romans, which he called The Theatre. By the time Shakespeare arrived in London, there were already a number of purpose-built theatres.
Shakespeare joined the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which was based at Burbage’s The Theatre as a shareholder in the company, an actor and of course, the chief playwright, churning out two plays a year.
In 1597, however, the company’s lease expired and James Burbage died before a new deal was settled. But when the company learnt that the landlord intended to repossess the building, they came up with a bold idea:
One night in April 1589, they pulled The Theatre apart, piece by piece, transported it across the Thames and re-built it on the south bank. They called the new theatre The Globe.
Despite political turbulence and several closures due to the plague and a fire that obliged the company to re-build it from scratch, the Globe was an integral part of London’s theatre scene and the original stage of Shakespeare’s plays until 1644 when the Puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, finally had their way and pulled it down.
In 1949, American actor Sam Wanamaker conceived the dream of re-building the Globe on its original site but it wasn’t until 1997 that the dream came to fruition.
The significance of this story is one of the reasons why theatre lovers filled up the Oshwal Auditorium in Nairobi, on the evening of Monday 2nd February 2015, to watch the performance of Hamlet by the company of the new Globe Theatre, which, directed by Dominic Dromogoole and Bill Buckhurst, is on a two-year round-the-world tour.
The other reason is simply that it is a rare occasion in Nairobi to watch Shakespeare performed by classically trained actors from London.
There was a sense of excitement (a word invented by Shakespeare) and amazement (another word of his words) that was evident in the audience’s applause, on learning that Kenya is the 73rd of 205 countries on the tour.
A multi-talented cast, who can act, sing and play instruments present a shortened version of Hamlet, punctuated with folk music, which lightens the gravity of the play, stressing more the celebratory mood of the tour.
The production is authentic- the travelling Globe being reminiscent of the travelling actors of the Tudor times, and the actors use various objects on stage for sound effect, very much like what was done in Shakespeare’s time.
But the English of Shakespeare’s day, today, at least in Nairobi, is understood or appreciated only by the more ‘refined’ end of society, such as the crowd that gathered at Oshwal on Monday, while as in Shakespeare’s time it was the language understood by the sort of crowd that also enjoyed watching cock fights, public executions and going to mental the mental asylum to laugh at the inmates.
The production is also modern, the actors wearing period accessories over 1960s-like costume. The role of Horatio is played by a girl- a little historical twist, given that it was women’s roles that were played by boys in those days. And, the multi-racial cast (with a black Hamlet- Ladi Emeruwa) portrays how much England has changed from the time of the original Globe theatre during the reign of the Elizabeth I to the time of the new Globe in the reign of Elizabeth II.
Hamlet is widely acclaimed as Shakespeare’s greatest, most influential and most performed play. The title role, which is considered the zenith of an actor’s career was originally played by Richard Burbage- the son of James Burbage. In addition to this, the play lends more quotes and phrases to the English language than any other play by Shakespeare.
It is therefore a fitting choice for a Globe Theatre world tour and almost four hundred years later, Shakespeare proves that, far from being “an upstart crow” he is “not for an age, but for all time”.
© Anne Manyara 2015