Hamlet performance
Hamlet performance at Arsenal

Capacity audiences of 1,200 people packed into Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal – a massive disused munitions factory turned arts centre built in 1812 – for two emotionally-charged performances of Hamlet by the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company.

Kyiv was the 11th stop on a two-year world tour after a sea journey to Amsterdam, and performances in the Arctic Circle in Norway, at Wittenberg in Germany (where Hamlet studied philosophy), and in Moscow, the Baltic republics and Minsk.

The Kyiv performances took place on the eve of the presidential election and while battles continued to rage in the east of Ukraine. The poignancy of Hamlet for the Kyiv audience was heightened by the presence of two winning candidates – Petro Poroshenko as President, and Vitaliy Klitschko as Mayor of Kyiv.

Journalists asked Dominic Drumgoole, artistic director of the Globe, if there were political parallels between Hamlet and Ukraine’s current predicament.  

“Hamlet states that the ‘time is out of joint’,” he replied. “So it is an eloquent play for any country where people feel the time does not meet the aspirations of the people. Our belief is Hamlet is a play that – wherever you take it – has a benevolent effect on the atmosphere around it.”

For the critics, the production drove to the heart of the dilemma the Maidan movement faced last February.

“Hamlet decides to be or not to be. To throw Molotov cocktails or not and leave everything as it is. If you leave it that way, it will be quiet and calm. But he has to avenge his father’s death and he is to be. Consequently we have lots of dead, collapse of the state and Fortinbras’s arrival - and then what? asked Yuriy Volodarsky, cultural editor of “SHO” magazine.

Ukrainians are no strangers to Shakespeare’s plays. They are studied in secondary school, and regularly performed in the country’s well-attended theatres. But what was novel was the physical closeness of the Globe’s production to the audience, its trademark of performing in the round as in Elizabethan times. To the delight of the audience, Horatio ventured a mock fist fight right in front of Vitaliy Klitschko, and so realistic was the sword scene in the final act, the president’s security detail took the danger for real and agitatedly alerted fellow agents through his mouthpiece.   

Playing to the incoming president and to such an emotionally-engaged audience was the highlight of the tour so far for the 12 actors. “Kyiv has been an eye-opener,” said one. Their stay included a visit to the Maidan, scene of February’s revolution. And on their day of rest, they were treated as celebrities around town and asked to pose for photos by curious citizens. 

Ukrainians still have the chance to see Shakespeare performances by the Globe – along with some from the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse – on screen in the British Council’s TheatreHD season which runs in five Ukrainian cities until October.