How could the British embassy to the Holy See contribute to the Shakespeare 400th Anniversary this year? There is an extraordinary programme of official events organised under the Shakespeare Lives banner, but the Vatican was not an obvious element. And although the Royal Shakespeare Company had performed Shakespearean excerpts before Pope Paul VI in 1964, the theatre and the Holy See are not natural bedfellows.
Or so we thought. But an extraordinary performance of Hamlet earlier this week by Shakespeare’s Globe, supported by the embassy, changed minds. This was the first ever performance of a full Shakespeare play on Vatican territory, and part of the ambitious Globe-to-Globe tour of Hamlet to every country in the world over two years: the Vatican was country number 191, and the performance just ten days before the finale on 23 April in London. When the Globe asked us for our help over six months ago, we were more than happy to be involved.
The venue we found, the 16th century Palazzo della Cancelleria, a World Heritage Site with extraterritorial status normally used as one of the Vatican law courts, turned out to be very special. With the lightest but most creative of sets, the Globe transformed it into the Palace of Elsinore, and the Vatican stage added a new dimension to a production that has travelled from refugee camps to amphitheatres. When Claudius invokes the angels as he prays, trying to repent for his crime, there they were on the walls above his head. When Hamlet calls on heaven to hear his cry of revenge – and, if not heaven, then hell – the inscription “Justitia et Pax” engraved above the Palace doorway just behind him brought an extra resonance to his bitter words. Hamlet even donned a Cardinal’s hat for his “mad” scenes; a standard part of the production, rather than put on for the occasion, I was told!
The relevance of the play, and its messages, to the Holy See of Pope Francis were also made palpable by seeing Hamlet performed right here. The Globe’s tour has, quite deliberately, taken Shakespeare’s deep humanity to the peripheries – four nights before they were playing in Kabul – underlining the universality of a playwright who, 400 years after his death, still speaks to modern man, be he in Afghanistan, Somaliland, or, indeed, the Vatican. A week after the publication of the Pope’s Apostolic Letter on the Family, in front of our eyes was a play about family love, relationships, disagreement and disintegration. And in this Year of Mercy, here was one of the most powerful examples in literature of what a world without mercy – or with mercy trampled, like Ophelia, underfoot – could look like, the world of Elsinore.
It’s not all that often that one has a chance to be part of a Vatican “first”. The Globe made the occasion. The Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, had the vision to support it. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the Bard himself. On his 400th anniversary, we salute this genius for all time.