After spending two years performing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in almost every country in the world, the final curtain came down this weekend on one of the most ambitious touring productions in history.
The Globe to Globe Hamlet company, who have traveled 190,000 miles and performed in 197 countries, were showered with roses as they took their final bow following their last performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London on Sunday night.
The epic tour began in the English capital two years ago to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the legendary playwright’s birth and ended this weekend in the same city to mark 400 years since his death.
The 16-strong company have performed on every corner of the Earth at venues ranging from castles to refugee camps—and despite various challenges faced on their journey, they did not cancel one show.
In Jordan they faced a sandstorm that had their audience running for cover. When their props and costumes did not arrive in the Pacific Islands, they used pool cues as swords. And when there were not enough seats for four of the cast on their plane from Guinea-Bissau, they hitched a ride in a hearse.
But Ladi Emeruwa, who plays Hamlet in the production, tells The Daily Beast how the “strangest” moment of all was perhaps saved for the final weekend when he performed for President Barack Obama.
Obama was given a special private performance on Saturday at Shakespeare’s Globe, the famous open-air theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames, as part of his tour of the U.K.
Ladi says: “This weekend has not felt real. And meeting the president was definitely one of the strangest things. We had to go in at 8 a.m. to go through scanners and security briefings. Then the Secret Service came in and they scrubbed the entire building in painful detail.
“When we finished the performance he burst into a round of applause, then came on stage and shook my hand and said: ‘Good job.’ He told us he thought it was an incredible achievement.
“We joked with him and asked him if he had done any acting before. He said: ‘I act all the time. I have to act when I have to pretend to like Congress and many of the world leaders that I meet when I go ’round the world.’ He was really funny.”
Obama was the most high-profile of the more than 100,000 people performed to on the tour. Other famous audience members include actress Kim Cattrall in the UN in New York and actor Dominic West at the final show in London.
They also performed to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the eve of the 2014 election in the country. The last show before returning for their London finale took place in front of the Queen of Denmark at Kronborg Castle in the eastern tip of the country. The castle was Shakespeare’s model for Elsinore Castle where Hamlet is set.
The only countries not visited by the company were Syria, Yemen, Central African Republic, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and North Korea. They were all due to security concerns, apart from North Korea, who would not issue them visas to enter the secretive state. The company instead performed to refugees from those countries in other nations.
“The first refugee camp we performed at was in Jordan in October last year,” Ladi recalls. “We couldn’t go to Syria so we performed for Syrian refugees in Zaatari, one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. About 10 minutes into the show the sky turned red and the audience ran away in terror and a sandstorm swept through. It coincided with the ghost coming on stage in the play so it seemed like a very dramatic special effect.”
The actors also had to improvise off stage to achieve their impressive feat of not canceling a single show as they navigated the obstacles that appeared in their way.
“We turned up at the airport to fly from Guinea-Bissau to the Gambia and there was not enough space for all of us on the flight,” Ladi explains.
“We had to get there that day and four of us could not get on the plane. I looked up on my phone, and saw we could probably drive there. But we had no idea where we were or what we were doing and we had to cross three different borders.
“The four of us—including me and another guy who both knew some really basic French—had to turn up at these bus stations packed with broken down buses and talk to the landlord to negotiate a price to take you to the next border. The last car we took was a converted hearse. And we still beat the rest of them there because they had to change planes.”
The largest audience of the tour was in Sudan with 3,500 people watching and another 1,500 trying to get through the gates. The smallest was just 27.
Ladi, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but was educated in England, says: “We performed in Funafuti, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific. It is part of a little collection of islands called Tuvalu. The whole island is basically an airstrip, a plot of land and a lagoon. We performed next to the airstrip with no set or costume. Basically the entire island came to see the show. Dogs were walking on the stage, babies were crying and people drove by and intermittently stopped on their mopeds.
“The smallest place we performed was another Pacific Island, called Nauru. To be honest that was pretty bleak. And we went to the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais and that was very makeshift. Those people were living in the worst conditions. That was very tough.”
Ladi—who shared the lead role of Hamlet with fellow actor Naeem Hayat on the tour that was led by the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, who stood down this weekend after 10 years in the position—says the play was perceived differently in each country depending on the issues faced by the locals in their own lives.
“The most fascinating thing about the tour was that what Hamlet meant to people in different countries always changed,” he says.
“Because the play is about a lot of different things and encompasses all the different themes of life, you get very different answers about what the play is about depending on where you are. When we were in Kenya, a lady said: ‘The play is clearly about women’s rights.’ In Qatar, someone said: ‘It’s about the corruption of the monarchy.’ In the Ukraine we performed on the eve of the presidential elections and Petro Poroshenko was in the front row—and that took on a very political dimension.”
Ladi, 27, now has to come to terms with life on dry land in London after two years on the road.
Speaking in a hoarse tone that is the result of two years of grueling work and one night of hard partying, he says: “We had the end of season, end of show, end of everything party last night. It was very surreal and really emotional. Nothing this weekend has felt real. It has been very strange.
“We were all at the party, and the 16 of us from the company slipped away for a little bit to spend some time alone together. And that felt like the most normal experience of the whole weekend.”