Dr Laurence Publicover discusses his contribution to a new play, The Hamlet Voyage, performed at the Bristol Harbour Festival in 2022. The project received an AHRC Impact Acceleration Account Award and underlines the positive social influence arts and humanities research can effect.
In January 2021, I held a video conference call with a Bristol-based American theatre director named Ben Prusiner. For some years, it turned out, both of us had been intrigued by the enigmatic evidence surrounding a specific performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: one supposed to have taken place aboard an East India Company (EIC) ship off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607.
If this performance did take place—and its reality continues to be the subject of debate—then it is not only the first recorded performance of Shakespeare outside Europe; it is the first recorded performance, anywhere, of Hamlet. (Shakespeare’s tragedy was written and first performed around 1600, and versions of it were published in 1603 and then 1604-5, but there are no surviving records of specific performances before 1607.) To make things even more intriguing, the voyage on which this performance may or may not have taken place involved the first English ship to reach mainland India—a region that the EIC, at this point a fledging enterprise, would later rule.
All this interests me not only because I work on Shakespeare, but also because, in recent years, I have become interested in what people read, write, and perform on board ships; in fact, before Ben and I made contact, I had alluded to the episode off the coast of Sierra Leone in the introduction to a volume of essays on this topic.
The Hamlet Voyage
Ben didn’t simply want to talk to a fellow Shakespeare enthusiast; he wanted my help in developing a play about the possible performance of Hamlet. With staggering energy and imagination, he then realised this vision over the following eighteen months, commissioning a script from the British-Nigerian playwright Rex Obano (who had written previously on Africa and early modern England, and who had also, before becoming a playwright, been an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and involving a team of academics and creative practitioners with expertise relating to the story. With the help of Jiamiao Chen, who worked as a research assistant, my role in the project was to locate and help interpret primary and secondary literature concerning the third voyage of the East India Company—and in addition, to help Rex and Ben think about shipboard theatricals and about the texts of Hamlet with which the English sailors might have been working.
We trialled the first draft of Rex’s script at the University of Bristol’s Department of Theatre over the summer of 2021, working with student volunteers, and then ran a second series of workshops that autumn at the Trinity Centre in Easton, where Ben invited members of Bristol’s West African and South Asian communities to watch rehearsals and ask questions. With support from several funding bodies, including Arts Council England, the University of Bristol’s Participatory Research Fund and its Impact Acceleration Fund, and the Fenton Arts Trust, The Hamlet Voyage—as the play was titled—went into rehearsal in London in the early summer of 2022. I travelled to London to speak to the cast about the historical background of the play and about why (and how) people might have performed Shakespeare during a long voyage; in addition, I helped the actors playing English sailors to rehearse the scenes from Shakespeare that Rex had incorporated into his play.
The Bristol Harbour Festival
The Hamlet Voyage premiered at the 2022 Bristol Harbour Festival on board the Matthew, the replica of the ship on which John Cabot sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497; it then transferred to London for a run at the Bridewell Theatre. On the morning of the first performance, Rex and I spoke about the play on BBC Radio Bristol, and the interviewer asked the question that I’ve been asked countless times since: Did this performance of Hamlet really happen? I direct anyone wishing for a response to that question to the piece I wrote for the project’s website.
That website was also the basis for an education programme that reached around 200 students across four Bristol schools in 2022. Across four sessions, students were asked to think about the possible performance of Hamlet in a number of different ways: for example, through West African forms of storytelling and through English modes of record-keeping (specifically, diary-writing).
Working on this project has influenced my work in a number of ways. I now have a better sense of what is involved in turning research into a creative output, and I’ve been inspired to keep reading and thinking about the early voyages of the EIC: I’m now writing an essay on those journeys for a volume of essays to be produced by Migration Mobilities Bristol, a Strategic Research Institute at the University of Bristol. I’m also working with Rosie Hunt from Bristol’s School of Education to develop a series of Shakespeare-related materials linked to the project and aimed at A-Level and GCSE students.
Even if it never happened—and I keep changing my mind over whether it did or didn’t—this performance of Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone is a wonderful story to think with, posing questions concerning the social dynamics of shipboard spaces; the place of Shakespeare in histories of globalization and imperialism; and the role of theatre in diplomatic and cultural exchange. Among all the video calls I held during the pandemic, the one with Ben in January 2021 was by some distance the most consequential.
Dr Laurence Publicover is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English with research interests in Shakespeare and other English Renaissance dramatists and in the relationship between humans and oceans. To find out more about Laurence’s research and The Hamlet Voyage, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.