Performing Hamlet in a Sandstorm at a Syrian Refugee Camp
"This was fear of God, of the end of days, not of a weather event"
‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away’ –
Act 5, Scene 1
It was the change in the light that ﬁrst tipped us off. The window frames, wood against tin, had been tapping nervously for a while, and looking out of one window I could see the canvas outside had begun to billow before starting to snap and slap the sides of the hall. Then, as the frames began to clatter and bang rather than tap and rattle, the light began to shift. There was no electricity in the camp—the UN having refused permission to turn the generator on—so the hard white light coming through the windows of the functional hall was all we had. That light turned from white to yellow, and then a deeper honey yellow, and just as that happened, the air itself started to thicken. The actors and the audience were enshrouded in a hazy miasma, as if the world had gone sepia. Then the light turned a heavy orange, and as the banging and clattering crescendoed into a load roar, the light disappeared altogether, and we were plunged into black. A biblical sandstorm engulfed us.
The children in the audience screamed, and their mothers with them. Not a panicky scream, but a bottom-of-the-stomach wail. This was fear of God, of the end of days, not of a weather event. They leapt up and all rushed for the stage, some to cling to the actors, some just to stand there. It was as if where the play had been taking place, a makeshift space built only two hours before, was now invested with the power to rescue and save, as if the make-believe of the play could ward off the evil. The actors looked bamboozled—the dark, the haze, the screaming, the play all colliding. They stumbled on for a while, then gave up and sat down. As the audience stormed the doors, worried for other family members outside, the UN ofﬁcials stepped forward and told them all to sit down. Everyone appealed for calm, and we knew that our tour, stopped by a sandstorm, had reached a new zenith of craziness.
I rushed outside. Since a child, an electrical storm had always tempted me to run out and dance happily within the bang, crash and wallop. A wall of wind tractored into me, sand strafed mouth and face and forced its way into my eyes. Wrapping a scarf around my mouth, I leant happily into the wall. The visibility reduced to two or three metres, other ﬁgures would suddenly appear from the swirling cloud, criss-crossing through the storm. Actors loomed up, cackling merrily within the madness. One slow step after another, hair sticking out behind me as stiff as my scarf, I was framed in a cartoon which deﬁned the tour, bent almost double and walking steadily into a sand-blasting wind.
At dawn the day before, hoping to snatch a couple of hours of sleep in transit through Beirut airport on the way to Jordan, I went to charge my phone. Beside the sofa I was attempting to crash out on were two twin plug sockets sitting primly side by side, one French, one British: the modern reminder of the continuing inﬂuence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This moment of seemingly benign and yet hopelessly malign colonial self-conﬁdence, enacted by a British and a French diplomat in 1916—Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot—carved up the Middle East with a ruler into a collection of nation states. Straight lines cut through ancient religious, tribal, national, gangster and family ties, with a pathological blithe self-conﬁdence. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was never going to be a pretty business—empires don’t break up in a shower of rose petals and messages of love and understanding—but it’s hard to believe that the end of the Ottoman Empire was assisted by men looking at a map, intent on competing spheres of interest, with all the local understanding and emotional intelligence of a geometry
History was everywhere around me—the airport was decked out with huge photographs of Roman ruins, archaeological artefacts sat here and there on plinths, blocks of broken marble hinted at great narratives of the risen and the fallen. The bookshop in Beirut was light on sensationalism and heavy on history. Having ﬂown on to Jordan in the morning light over the mountains of Lebanon and the Syrian desert, as I drove in from Amman airport towards my hotel, my driver, a third-generation Palestinian, was generous with his knowledge of the long story of the city.
Amman has been continuously inhabited for almost 10,000 years. Built around seven interlocking steep hills, it was an important stop on the caravan routes which slowly transported people and goods from East to West and back again. Homes and towers from the Stone Age have been found there; in the time of the Trojan wars, it had become the Ammonite capital, Rabbath Ammon, from where the inhabitants went into battle against Saul and David; in the Ptolemaic time, it was renamed Philadelphia; under Seleucus, a successor of Alexander the Great, it came under Hellenistic rule for a couple of centuries; then a brief moment under Nabatean rule; then King Herod, a Judean king under a Roman mandate, ruled it as part of the Decapolis, a league of Roman afﬁliated cities, when it blossomed into full Roman grandiosity. It declined during the Byzantine period and was overrun by Sassanians in the seventh century until they were thrown out by the Arab armies of Islam only twenty years later in about 635 AD. The story, as told to me by my taxi driver, was dizzying, a wild game of ‘Who’s the king of the castle’ across millennia. And studded by names from Sunday-school picture books—Saul, David, Ptolemy,Alexander, Herod, Mohamed.These were ﬁgures from myth systems, tumbling out of brightly coloured educational books, and here I was in their back yard. The sense of contact with history was vertiginous.
The more recent history was no less disorienting, though its shapes were latterly deﬁned against the television news rather than illustrated Bibles. After the Great Arab Revolt of 1916–18 Emir Abdullah bin Al-Hussein made Amman his capital in 1921. The city grew rapidly as a result of the wars of 1948 and 1967, when successive waves of Palestinian refugees were driven towards Amman; a further inﬂux followed the 1990 Gulf War, and the continuing chaos in the region has drawn more lost people towards its towering hills. From a distance, it often seems that the Middle East (so named by the West, which claims naming rights over everything) is the research and development laboratory of human history, the place where conﬂicts, ideas and tensions are grown in petri dishes, only to be later marketed over time to the rest of the world.The earliest human stories grew here and have now expanded into myth. To be here within the fact of it was exhilarating, everything one saw bearing a crushing weight of imparted imagination.
Driving through the city to the theatre felt like a roller-coaster ride through the history of civilisation. You turned a corner and saw precipitate hills, all stacked with houses from different eras, each hill brought to sharp life by the lowering sun, each sliding in and out of view one against another, like movable scenery in a giant Pollock’s toy theatre. Each hill was covered in a clambering Lego set of construction, all in various shades of cream and buff stone. Almost half of each mountain of buildings was left unﬁnished, one or two ﬂoors completed before a halt was called, leaving metal foundation spikes sticking cheerlessly up into the air. All those promises of home standing half-achieved and tenantless had a steadily lowering effect. Monolithic outcrops of rock burst out of the ranks of human habitation like some primordial trapped giant within each hill trying to stretch its limbs.
The theatre itself was magical, and when the company arrived to play in it, we were all ﬂattered by a sense of privilege. Named the Odeon, it was built in the second century AD, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, and had been in continuous use as a theatre for almost 2,000 years. Surprisingly, it was right in the middle of the city, at the bottom of a steep hill, and was part of what must be one of the ﬁrst theatre complexes. Beside it, stretching a third of the way up the hill, was a Roman amphitheatre, carved into the rock, built for spectacle and able to seat 6,000 people. The Odeon, a perfectly proportioned arena around a thrust playing space, seated only 600. We are accustomed in the present day to seeing big theatres spawning smaller studio spaces alongside, but I had no idea the practice went back 2,000 years. We started reblocking the show for this space but realised there was no time, so everyone determined to busk it and appear wherever and whenever their legs would carry them. The city honked and beeped cantankerously outside, but as the day dissolved leaving an inky black above, the residue of the day’s light seemed to settle into the creamy marble of the theatre, emitting a soft reciprocal glow. The heat of the city dropped into and trapped itself within this encircled space, and as the audience then ﬁlled it with noisy anticipation, the sense of event was thrilling.
The show was electrifying. The thrust space was a dynamic arena for the cast to move and swirl about in, and for human dilemmas to shape themselves across thrilling diagonals or triangles freighted with tension. The acoustic was perfect. Every word landed crisp and clear, and every character stood sharp and proud. Later, a student said to an academic travelling with us, “I was worried that the noise of the trafﬁc outside would spoil the show, but it soon disappeared, and after watching Ophelia die, I just felt sad that the world was going on outside as normal, and no one knew that this young girl had died.”
When Hamlet returns from his aborted trip to England, he engages with the Gravedigger. He has his iconic moment with the skull of Yorrick, the court clown on whose shoulders he had played and laughed as child. In that moment he stares death, actual and bony and hollow-eyed, straight in its ﬂeshless face, and he feels not fear, but peace and understanding. It is a peace that is accessed through history. He holds the skull and asks:
HAMLET Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.
HORATIO What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?
HORATIO E’en so.
HAMLET And smelt so? Pah!
Puts down the skull.
HORATIO E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace thus. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away”—
Here we sat, in a city which Alexander might have passed through and Caesar visited, that Jesus might have drunk water in, and in which Mohamed might have broken fast, a city right at the crossroads of the human story, and these words twisted in the night air, looking backwards and forwards through time.
Shakespeare, across his work, uses time and history as a portal to calm. Much has been written and worried over as to what his religious inclinations were, if any. It has always seemed to me that he found in history itself, in its processes, its narratives, its crushing roll forwards, something terrifying and yet capable of affording a perverse transcendence. He writes of time as the ultimate arbiter, a force which crushes human struggles and renders them meaningless, and yet within the appreciation of that fact there is a liberation. To know that time passes inexorably beside us, or without us, and that like a hapless swimmer of the seas our task is to ﬁnd the right pace of stroke to suit the waves which lift and drop, to know that and to keep ploughing gently forwards, footling but steady, small within the billow and the surge, yet able occasionally to sink happily into the ride; to know that of time and to do that within it is a sort of peace.
It is not a Californian prescription for mental health, and no one achieves it perfectly, of course. Hamlet, with his adventurous and experimental capacity, gets as close as anyone, but his achievement is prone to turbulence. No one, least of all Shakespeare, is saying that you can learn this stuff on a three-day course.
“Shakespeare found in history itself, in its processes, its narratives, its crushing roll forwards, something terrifying and yet capable of affording a perverse transcendence.”
This is also transcendentalism with political bite. It is not Everyman who is ﬁnding his or her place in history here, it is the two most iconic ﬁgures from the ancient world, Alexander and Caesar, both humiliated by the wrangle of time. The greatest warrior of all time turns to dust which is remoulded to block a hole in a barrel of booze; the greatest politician is used to keep the draught out. This is an extension of the intellectual freedom Hamlet discovers earlier in challenging Claudius before he is sent away. Having killed Polonius in a surge of fury, his “antic disposition” having led him far from his own calm place, he is quizzed by Claudius as to where Polonius is and replies:
HAMLET Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: Look you, a man may ﬁsh with the worm that hath eaten of a king, and a beggar eat that ﬁsh, which that worm hath caught.
CLAUDIUS What dost you mean by this?
HAMLET Nothing father, but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
This is a ﬂash of illumination within a disordered mind: the later passage mentioning Alexander and Caesar the same thought handled with gentle bemusement. But within both is an anger at the ridiculousness of status, of baubles, of grandiosity and show, in the face of inevitable oblivion. The liberation here is realising the comedy of humanity’s farcical attempts to look signiﬁcant and to set up hierarchies of importance. Since everyone ends up ‘going a progress through the guts of a beggar’ (and how vicious a phrase that is—not just being eaten by a beggar, but passing right through him), then to what end is the hopeless search for distinctions?
It’s a radical statement now, and must have been yet more radical for its audience in 1603, when social distinction was delineated with painful precision, right down to the fabrics you and your class were allowed to wear. It’s radical to hear, yet more liberating to think and to say. Whatever the age, there is always an inclination for individuals to mythologise themselves, and often a social pressure to collaborate in their self-mythiﬁcation. We are suckered into it, and join in the act of excess promotion, and end up frightened by those we have collaborated in glorifying. So it is always good to remember, and refreshing to say out loud, that Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump will all be sent by history through the sphincter of a beggar.
There is also a sharp tweak of the Renaissance nose at work within Hamlet’s graceful humbling of Alexander and Caesar. Neither Hamlet nor Shakespeare had any idea that they were within anything called a Renaissance, yet they lived in an age with a rediscovered passion for the classical world. The idea that the Renaissance was about something being reborn has largely been forgotten. Many associate it with an aimless modernity involving Leonardo inventing helicopters; others just with funny trousers and swords. But it was a rebirth of classical thought and learning which drove it, and for a radical purpose. That thought was used to contextualise, and to subvert, the Christian hegemony of the day. The reverence for these ﬁgures within intellectual circles was freshly minted, so in reducing Alexander and Caesar to the status of dust, Hamlet is taking potshots at the fashion of his day, and its intellectual underpinning.
Sitting there, under the stars, surrounded by the hills of Amman, in a beautifully enclosed Roman arena theatre, unable to exclude the barking noise or the orange light of a modern city, but able to transport the historical imagination, sitting there in a city which for many millennia had witnessed the merry-go-round of human striving, as Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Ottomans, French, British and Arabs had all staked their petty claim against the shift of time, sitting there, it was not hard to appreciate and sympathise with Hamlet’s cosmic joking at the grand comedy of human enterprise, against the backdrop of time and change. At that moment, all endeavours, including our tour, seemed something of a whisper in the wind.
The next morning, we were up at ﬁve, shovelling breakfast into our mouths before setting off to the north of Jordan. Our destination was Zaatari, a UN refugee camp created to house almost 120,000 displaced Syrians. There was no way we could play in Syria itself, and this expedition, playing to Syrian people, appeared to us the best substitute. Further sleep was attempted, the company tangled into the funny shapes which minibuses prompt in order to ﬁnd comfort, but the landscape proved too vivid to allow much shut-eye. The edge of town was a broken and busted scrapheap, scrags of old metal leaning against busted-car graveyards. Beyond the edge of town, the long roll of ochre desert began, the continuing sweep of dust shading slowly from terracotta to yellow. Occasionally it was broken by a gathered rise to a small plateau of rock, before ﬂattening out again to its long continuum of nothing. Small settlements pockmarked the landscape, homes with stockade fences enclosing minimal numbers of desultory goats or camels, whose ability to eke something out of this barren land beggared the imagination.
How has this tough landscape been so endlessly fought over, and why does it continue to act as the nodal point of so many of the world’s antagonisms? Oil, yes, but there is something more as well. How did the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have had such a powerful hand on the historical steering wheel, get birthed out of this tough, scrubby land? Does the austerity of the landscape, its harsh blast to the spirit, provoke a need for a world elsewhere, for a religion beyond? Does God come from rocks not grass? I thought of a play about Farinelli we had recently played at the Globe. Written by a friend, Claire van Kampen, she merrily stole one gag from an email I had sent her, and exuberantly delivered by Mark Rylance it proved irresistible: “Many gods are fun. One is a nightmare!” Does this barrenness lead inevitably to one god, and does woodland and running water lead to Panic fun? And how has the rest of the world been so bullied by the martyrdom of rocks, deserts and big skies? Why has this self-punishing monotheism, this determined pushing of the human away from its own body and its own physical world, so often won? And why does it keep winning, bullying the not-so-bothered-about-eternity majority with its bombs and its aggressive staring-eyed dumbness?
Why did it feel, stuttering along in a rickety minibus, like there was violence stored in the dust and the rock? Was that all projection? It didn’t feel like the result of spilt blood; it felt like something geologically inherent within the striated red of the rock and written into the desert dust. The violence felt necessary. It seemed to be pulling the muscles tight in every taut held body you came across. How can you sit in a peace conference in Vienna and talk all that away?
The refugee camp sat on a low-lying level plain, which made it impossible to perceive from a distance and rendered its size impossible to gauge from close up. This was an effective means of concealing the awfulness of the fact of its existence. We halted at various outposts, where bored fat men in military costumes from bad theatre productions sat smoking, looking at papers, and looking to slow time down to their pace.There were two armoured personnel carriers at the entrance, but the sense of threat was low level. An earth rampart further concealed the camp, again seemingly for disguise. Once beyond that, we entered a small city of white boxes. We were confronted with an endless vista of low white prefab units, all a similar shape, laid out in serried ranks intersected by avenues, in an endless depersonalised parody of a communal living space. Every box, rather depressingly, seemed to have a satellite dish.
Beside the numbing brokenness of everyone living in a uniform white container, the atmosphere was surprisingly normal. It was a Sunday, and the feeling was Sunday bright.We glimpsed a public meeting between several boxes; there were boys show-boating on their bikes, looking for trouble; there were kids charging around looking for excitement, infants wandering about looking lost, mothers carrying their babies. Several of the boxes had shop-fronts pulled up to make awnings, which provided shade for rudimentary cafes and sweet shops. There was a distinct impression of people in their Sunday best, and a few highly blinged-up women walked past, clearly on their way to a party. A young bicyclist scooted past us, riding high on his pedals. I looked at the seat of his bike. It was rigged out with a complicated wrap of casually elegant embroidery which covered some of the frame as well. Beyond it, whooshed up by the pace of the bike, a section of purple tassels frilled up into the air. There was a confounding ﬂair about this small detail.
We arrived at the small UNHCR stockade in the middle of the camp, where we were to present the play. It was a fenced-in collection of buildings built for education, around an open yard, with a meeting place in the middle shaded by a tin roof. We spent much of the next few hours trying to get out of the yard and to wander around the camp. Promises were made, people were sent for, permissions were sought, release was pending, but it never happened. A crowd quickly gathered to gawp at us. The company with their easy guileless charm approached the crowd and started uncomprehending conversations. A band of hopelessly cheerful youth crowded on the other side of the fence, and the names of football stars were bandied back and forth. Miranda let them play her mandolin, Keith astonished them with some magic tricks, and the international language of double-jointed ﬁnger-bending was indulged in. We were under strict instructions not to give them anything, but they seemed to have too much dignity to ask, and the play of laughter and mock insult and mock outrage passed freely to and fro through the mesh.The company gathered to practise their songs and musical cues in the shade, and the familiar tunes in the alien setting further nurtured a sense of dreaminess.
I wandered around the other buildings. In one prefab school- room, there were six models which had been constructed as group projects to bring the class together. Designs and drawings for each plastered the walls, and the constructions from paper, card, wood and anything that can be scraped together were impressive. They were all of ancient Syrian monuments, relics from old civilisations. The sense of these shapes, of Ozymandias-like broken grandiosities, was hard-wired into these people’s genetic code, and displacement made them keener to recreate them. Articulating these shapes, recording them, making them real again, even with match- sticks and cardboard, seems to give security in a world that moves like a whirlwind. As IS charges round obliterating all traces of history, and of the world before Islam, this attachment to the ancient past in young minds was strangely fortifying. Of the six models, three of them were of ancient theatres. The impertinence of bringing theatre to a culture that was making uniquely sophisticated theatre when we were still hurling cowpats at each other was underlined.
A small tin library was ﬁlled with women chattering in burqas. I asked if I could come in, they assented, and I wandered awkwardly amongst the books, my presence halting their chatter. The sheer tinpot courage of this—a tiny library for refugees in a desert—I wanted to lock in to my scrapheap of images as a symbol of hope. But alongside a few sensational bestsellers, and a few books about understanding civil war, the majority of the titles were given over to accountancy. There was a whole shelf given over to pension reform. The absurdity of this in this context almost had a sweet poetry to it. We are living in a Price Waterhouse world.
The show was supposed to begin soon, but there was a worrying lack of that vital ingredient: an audience. The start time was 12 p.m., and about ﬁve people had shown up. No one seemed worried, so we kicked around in the backstage area. By quarter past there were about 20 people. Alarmingly, at 12:30 the audience seemed to have shrunk back to about 15. The gag went around, “This show’s so crap, we couldn’t get an audience in a refugee camp,” and “Everyone’s got something better to do.” The laughter was a little nervous. The speed of motion and the early rise was catching up with me, so I sneaked into a small space between a curtain and a wall, lay down and tried to sleep. A hazy doze shufﬂed in to my brain, murmured into by noises of nervous actors and audience bustle, the shut-eyed blackness perforated by the images of the last few hours which spiralled into the void then careered out again. Then a gentle surprise, a face looming out of the blackness, a shape forming out of the pool of ink, and then, reluctant to be too present, falling gently back into it. It was a face that I had dimly glimpsed in a similar trance years before. The same qualities I remembered—warmth, shyness, sensitivity, a discreet sensuality—then an ebbing away. A long way from a sighting, but if you’re going to get a sudden and strong sense of Shakespeare, why not in Zaatari . . .?
“It was hard not to feel an appropriateness, that our tiny endeavour would end up as a remnant in the dust.”
With alarming suddenness, I was kicked out of my slumber and took my seat in a packed and excited hall. This lot may have been late, but they certainly brought a party when they arrived. About 300 people crowded the hall, dressed for a carnival, mobiles out; the chatter was high and happy, and had the vivid animation of a group of people who were not going to shut up however hard you tried. There was a cheeringly large minority of kids, who charged around the place, shouting, yabbering, leaping on strangers’ laps, laughter and happiness spilling out of them like water.The show started, and the animation didn’t decrease in the slightest. The kids continued charging about, and the actors joyously accommodated it. At one moment, when Hamlet got out his notebook to record the words of the Ghost, “My tables—Meet it is I set it down,” two young girls ran up and stood by his shoulder to see what he had written down. The Ghost went down a treat, a bit of white make-up, some staring eyes, and some rumble and thunder in the voice scaring the audience into silence. Ghosts felt real here. The story was clear, and a bit of explicit gesture in the acting gave much pleasure. There was a running commentary from everybody on everything—the stories, the actors’ gestures, the characters. The audience segregated into women on one side—bright, excited and engaged—and men on the other—either lazily disafﬁliate if young, or gravely austere if old. Everything was ﬁlmed on mobiles, most from a single position, though one young man, in an insanely bright-pink jumper, moved around the audience, standing on a chair, hanging from a pillar, lying on the ﬂoor, all to get the best angle.
Then the sand came, and an already strange event ﬂipped out into something else. The night before, in Amman, history ﬂattened us into inconsequence; today it was nature’s turn to show us a glimpse of oblivion. Here we were, with the walls shaking, the sky ﬁlled with a thick haze, and the sun well and truly shut out. The reaction of the audience was a properly Shakespearean one: this was a properly ominous event. Heaven knows what fears passed through their heads, but for us it was another sign of our glorious irrelevance. In the middle of the storm, in a moment where it was hard to believe it would stop, the image of an enormous shift of sand burying us and all our silly gestures ﬂitted through the mind. It was hard not to feel an appropriateness, that our tiny endeavour would end up as a remnant in the dust.
What would be, what will be left of us? It is a question that exercises Shakespeare vividly and actively throughout his sonnets but rarely in his plays. Sonnet after sonnet recounts the power of time, its ability to crush kings and monuments, statues and the statuesque. But in each one, Shakespeare asserts the power of his words to survive, to endure beyond any destruction. There is an enchanting perversity in his faith in the lasting indestructibility of words, beside the frailty of stone and power, even poetic words in delicate love poems. Shakespeare, as with many a great artist, always understood that strength is made of glass, and that tender- ness is made of steel. The purest expression of this is in a sonnet:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick ﬁre shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still ﬁnd room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
All that is substantial will dissolve, and words, frail ﬂoaty words, endure. Strangely the plays rarely enter into the same discussion. Cleopatra shows an awareness of and a fear about posterity, and how she might be represented by subsequent generations. She and her paramour are ever eager to remind us that they are peerless, in their own moment and in the annals. But largely the plays live in the fury of their own present moment. They ﬁnd their own perspective and their own context within time, but they do not strain to assert their power to defeat it. Shakespeare took little or no care to present these plays to the world or to posterity—unlike the sonnets. For him, the plays seem to have been disposable and simply for the moment of performance.
So here in the ultimate land of the blasted monument, ground down by history, or covered inexorably in the swift or slow shifts of the desert, it was wonderful for us to be asserting, however feebly, the enduring clout of these words. Here in Zaatari, the audience may not all have been listening, the stage may have been beyond makeshift, the context may have been bigger and more tragic than we could ever hope to match, and nature itself may have been trying to call a halt, but here we were merrily tossing out these gorgeous words into the void. However words survive, on stone, on paper, in books, in mouths and ears, in the air itself somehow, and even in the minds of young children who have come to hear a play presented by some batty foreigners, somehow we were contributing to that great ineffable daisy chain in the ether.
The show resumed, with a peculiar calm, after the light returned. The world seemed to have shifted on its axis a little. The audience, at ﬁrst, were chastened and attentive, as if God had told them to hush a little. Some words still acquired an extra resonance. When the Player King arrived and told of the death of Priam, the fall of Troy and the great grief of Hecuba, the air got sharper. Not only was this more from ancient history, and an ancient history that wasn’t too far away, but it was also a tale of a fallen kingdom and of the chaos which followed. It couldn’t help but ripple in the air before a room full of refugees.The boys were over excited by the violence against the women. When Hamlet got a little rough-house with ﬁrst Ophelia and then Gertrude, they squawked with an awkward excitement. The women looked properly alarmed. The young man in the obscenely bright-pink jumper was now taking his ﬁlm-making even further. He frequently encroached onto the stage to get an extreme close-up of an actor. Then rather disconcertingly he stepped onto the stage, ignored the actors and started ﬁlming the audience. As the end approached, and the swords came out, and death accelerated towards the stage, everyone crowded round and got their cameras out. At the front, there was a small group who had taken so heavily against Claudius that when he was ﬁnally killed, they burst into spontaneous applause and jumped up and down with pleasure. Killing bad kings, even in show, still clearly caused much delight.
The show ﬁnished, and the audience and the energy that had ﬁlled the room both melted away. Some had clearly found it mystifying, some a little ridiculous, some had relished a great story, and some seemed to have eaten up every moment. I did a ridiculous interview with a ﬁlm crew, which was frequently interrupted by a precarious pop-up UN banner placed behind me that kept toppling and falling onto me. A small group remained to talk to the actors, and swapped stories and sang a song to us. They told us that they hoped we would come back, and next time to Syria. We were all too punch-drunk to absorb the surprise of the day, and most slept out the journey back. One further ﬁnal detail of weird poetry had silenced me . . .
As Hamlet died, at that exact moment, another noise softly ﬁlled the room, a gentle and percussive thap-thappity-thap on the roof. As Hamlet died, the rains came.
From Hamlet Globe to Globe: Two Years, 193,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play. Used with permission of Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2017 by Dominic Dromgoole.