Simon Ward reviews The Hamlet Voyage at The Bridewell Theatre
The inspiration for this play is utterly intriguing. In 1607, sailors on the first English voyage to reach India stopped off in Sierra Leone for supplies and to recover from scurvy. It was recorded in the ship’s log that during this stop the sailors performed Hamlet for the local West African dignitaries. Hamlet had been written maybe 5 ot 6 years earlier, and Shakespeare himself was still alive at the time, so this would have been a sharing of contemporary English culture. This is playwright Rex Obano’s attempt to answer the question why.
In doing so, we are presented with multiple perspectives and multiple forms of expression – from drama to music, dance and puppetry. The impression is of a palimpsest of different stories, washed up on shore in an ancient but miraculously preserved bottle. There are snatches of Shakespeare, but also unmistakable echoes of other works which dramatise the encounters between cultures unknown to each other. For example, there is a framing device wherein the main story is related to a proud empress in India, to forestall, as with Scheherazade, death, or at least banishment. I, for one, could not help thinking of Shakepeare’s Tempest as the play opens with three ships setting off, but only one, The Red Dragon, finding itself ashore on Sierra Leone. Indeed, this is itself a diversion as the ship’s aim is to get to the East Indies on behalf of the East India Company, but the commander is insistent on the stop. This is no doubt partly driven by the state of his men after months at sea, but also partly by ambitious plans to supplant the influence of the Portuguese in this region and establish an English trading post. Thus, everything we see foreshadows the long history of colonial conquest and exploitation to come.
Some parts work better than others. The main thrust of the story, showing the ship’s company meeting and interacting with the inhabitants of Sierra Leone, is interesting and gripping. The African music and dance is spectacular and the energy coming from the stage as the dancers burst on is electrifying. The puppetry did not really work for me. I felt it needed more time and space, and was the only example where the otherwise indefatigable cast were pushed too far – there should I think have been a dedicated puppeteer and a specific set for the puppets to allow the subtlety to come across. And the Indian scenes were also rather repetitive and did not seem to add enough other than to draw attention, of course, to the further extent of England’s empire.
At the heart of the play’s central story is the beguiling possibility that one of the ship’s crew, a troubled man by the name of George King (played with conviction by Joe Feeney), may find redemption in his love for a young Sierre Leonean woman ( a compelling Marième Duouf). She in turn, Miranda-like, finds him strange but attractive, and once she hears that he is ‘King’ decides that he may be a better prospect than the (genuine) prince she was otherwise due to marry. Their halting attempts at communication are touchingly done, and very reminiscent of similar scenes in Brian Friel’s great play,Translations. Both plays deal with clash of two cultures and the challenges caused by the lack of a shared language, but also, tantalisingly, how love and attraction may begin to overcome them.
As the story unfolds, the machinations of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Hamlet are cleverly echoed in the real-world political intrigues of the Indian and African courts. Indeed, the suggested answer to the question of why stage Hamlet in Sierra Leone is political. It is part of a strategem to set up an English trading post and disrupt the influence of the Portuguese. The artistic and political are unavoidably entwined. One might even be reminded how, with the spread of the British Empire, Shakespeare would indeed be spread as required reading for schoolchildren across the globe. And this may have been an early example of what might nowadays be called ‘soft power’.
The play provides lots of food for thought, and has clearly been designed (by Olivia Altaras) to be portable and adapt to different stage spaces. But, for me, it could do with a little judicious cutting and re-shaping to really allow its fascinating ideas and insights to shine.
The play had its world premiere on board the Matthew ship at the Bristol Harbour Festival 16th-17th July, followed by its London premiere at the Bridewell Theatre 20th -23rd July.