An exhibition presented by Hamletscenen

5-9 August 2016
Anatomy Museum, King's College London
Part of 'What you Will: King's Shakespeare Festival'

Review by Gemma Miller, PhD Candidate, English

Director Tyrone Guthrie once remarked that ‘Hamlet is always going on somewhere’. However, performing at Elsinore, at the play’s political, emotional and dramatic heart, must rank amongst the most exciting and career-defining moments for any actor. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Hamlet at the castle of Kronborg in Elsinore, Eastern Denmark. In 1816, a mere two years after Denmark had signed a peace treaty with the British signaling the end of hostilities in the Napoleonic wars, Danish soldiers garrisoned at Kronborg decided to put on a performance of Hamlet to mark the bicentennial anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Little is known about the performance, but one can only imagine that it was loaded with tensions and anxieties that resonated with an audience for whom conflict, loss and betrayal were still very much a recent memory. This exhibition charted the key productions of Hamlet in the years following this historic performance up to the present day, revealing a performance history that is marked by its coincidence with, and resistance to, international conflicts and crises. The history of Hamlet at Elsinore, as this remarkable exhibition demonstrated, is an instructive insight into the recent history of Europe as well as of the shared cultural heritage between Denmark and Britain.

The exhibition was brought to London by ‘HamletScenen’, Scandinavia’s leading Shakespeare centre based at what the website boasts is ‘the world’s oldest Shakespeare venue’ and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kronborg castle. It was made up of a series of posters relating the story through archive material including production stills, programmes, set design sketches and explanatory text. As the exhibition explained, the historical connection with Shakespeare goes back even further than the first recorded performance of Hamlet to 1586, when three actors travelled to Elsinore to stage a play for the Danish court. These actors were Thomas Pope, George Bryan and Will Kemp, who were to become Shakespeare’s colleagues in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Taking the rich historical connection between Shakespeare and Elsinore as a springboard, ‘HamletScenen’ is charged with ensuring ‘a free-flowing, global artistic dialogue’ which continues to develop ‘Hamlet’s Castle as a meeting point for all who wish to present, share and discuss their interpretation of Shakespeare’s astonishing ability to represent the dilemmas of humankind.’ Over the past century, actors including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh and, more recently, the 2016 ‘Globe to Globe Hamlet’ touring ensemble, have staged productions of Hamlet at this historic venue.

‘Hamlet at Elsinore 1816 to 2016’ was a fascinating combination of key political and cultural intersections between Denmark and Britain that are too numerous to be relayed in detail here. However, one of the highlights for me was a series of photographs of the 1916 centennial performance by the Royal Danish Theatre. A defiant protest against the war raging across Europe, this event encapsulated the dogged determination with which Kronborg has held onto its cultural heritage through the centuries. The exhibition included excerpts from a speech given at this performance by the critic Georg Brandes, in which he stated that ‘[p]oetry at its greatest survives politicians and their destructive transformations of the world’. Kronborg and ‘HamletScenen’ are testament to the continuation of this remarkable legacy.