The echoing cavern that is the tacky, China-built Lao Culture Hall in Laos’ capital Vientiane was empty save for a couple of soldiers in uniform desultorily downloading messages on their mobiles. They looked at me briefly then returned nonplussed to their phones.
By contrast, the town was electric. Cultural events are very rare in Vientiane. Groups staging south-east Asian tours inevitably bypass Laos, but right here, right now, we had one of the world’s most famous groups playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet as part of a global world tour. Over two years, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, Shakespeare’s Globe hopes to visit every country on the planet, bringing Hamlet to the entire world. Today it was our turn.
The troupe had travelled almost 18,000 kilometres to this point but as they emerged into the hall to warm-up, they showing no signs of fatigue. I didn’t realise acting was so physical. On stage, actors were stretching, shaking themselves like wet dogs, doing deep knee bends and hamstring stretches. Men were shouting, whining, screaming. It was more like I had walked into Fellini rehearsing Bedlam than Hamlet.
The fruits of this physicality was plain for all to see, however, when the ensuing battle at the end of the performance litters the stage with corpses. The fight, with its mesmerising intensity, demands agility, strength and fast reaction times.
‘In Kosovo, at the end of the performance, a man stayed behind,’ recalls Naeem Hayat, who often plays Hamlet. ‘After the theatre emptied, he thanked us for the performance and for showing him the bodies on stage. “In Kosovo, the bodies disappeared,” he told us. He was almost crying. Playing Bosnia and Kosovo were the most confronting. We saw the bullet holes and the destruction from our bus. We got out and pondered the enormity of it and that it was real.’
‘But the geopolitics of Shakespeare are played out more powerfully and contemporaneously in Kiev,’ he continues. ‘I was playing Hamlet and nowhere were the words “To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them,” more powerful. They came alive, I had a profound sense of what those words meant. It can be intensely relevant, emotional, and I had a sense of my own privilege as an actor.’
A handsome man with a direct gaze, and a deep spirit, Hayat is as lyrical as the long dead Bard and is obviously in love with what he does. Geographical grabbed a few minutes before the Globe went on stage in Vientiane to see how the past keeps pace with the present. Two days prior they had played Cambodia.
‘Yes he is current,’ Hayat says of Shakespeare. ‘His themes of regime change, greed, economic blackmail, dynastic politics, war and occupation are still played out today. I have no idea what the audience thought in Cambodia but I imagine bodies spoke to them as well.
‘There are the big things – the crowds, the applause, the kids sitting silently entranced and then dancing with us – but its often the small things like thanking us for allowing a man to see a pile of bodies, reminding myself that in Kosovo kids my age, when I was at school playing football, had been shot. We felt the war, the stress, the fear still in the people. That was the toughest, as there was so much evidence of death and the stark evidence of war.’
For Hayat, two performances in particular stood out above the others – Kosovo and Rwanda. ‘When I did “Alas poor Yorick” in Rwanda I felt the rise in emotion; they [the audience] were with me. They had talked to the skulls of those they had known. Maybe I was imaging it. I was still analysing it in the dressing room. Shakespeare’s imagery of high philosophy and existentialism at that moment felt to me like all of humanity was looking at itself.’
There’s a unifying power to the experience of theatre. “The Lao will share the same experience as the Cambodians who saw the same show as the Rwandans, or the Solomon Islanders,’ explains Hayat. ‘There is something ethereal about sharing that in a dark room. For that time we are all of humanity. And though we all disperse, for that moment we have been one, the same words will have hit the people in every country in the world at the end of this tour. It can be a bane for an actor as we often chase those highs again and again.’
The words may remain the same, but often the performances are informed by the physicality of the locations the troupe find themselves in, especially in parts of the world hit by natural disasters. ‘In Kiribati, it was clear they were going under water, but Tuvalu was worse,’ remembers Hayat. ‘In both places we had to play without costumes and props. In the West the reaction would have been sarcasm and dismissal. In this part of the world people enter the pact of belief. For them the sticks are swords. Then they emerge from the play to the reality of their homeland being submerged. That was sobering. All we can do is play with as much joy, energy and truth as we feel.’