The Hamlet Voyage

How can theatre making and practice-as-research shed light upon possibly the first performance of Hamlet as well as the colonial history of the early voyages of the East India Trading company?

In 1607, two ships called The Hector and The Red Dragon set sail on a voyage that marked England’s first infiltration of Indian subcontinent trading networks. These were East India Company ships, so representatives of the company that would eventually, in effect, rule India. The ships got a bit lost on the way, and they ended up off the coast of Sierra Leone. There, according to the evidence we have from journals, they traded peaceably with the Temne people and Portuguese intercessors, and performed Hamlet on board the Red Dragon, possibly before an African or Afro-Portuguese audience. The details of what actually happened are debated, but if this performance did take place, then it is the first record we have of a performance of Hamlet — anywhere in the world.

What did the project involve? 

A Bristol-based theatre director called Ben Prusiner approached Laurence Publicover, a dramaturge and expert on Shakespeare and Maritime industry, with the idea of staging a play that marks this possible performance and thinks through its implications for colonial history. He wanted Hamlet itself to feature in some way, of course, but this project was not simply going to be a production of Hamlet, but rather a new play that recounts the events of the voyage. Ben Prusiner had developed an initial team including a professor of the history of Sierra Leone based at Kalamazoo college in Michigan; a puppetry expert who works in India (as Ben Prusiner was keen for the performance to incorporate lots of different dramatic styles, from India and Sierra Leone as well as England); and an award-winning Black British playwright and actor called Rex Obano. During the production of the project, the cast and creative team developed and expanded, details of which can be found here on the Re-verse Theatre Website.

As part of this project, the team conducted a three day workshop they held at the University of Bristol on the 27th-29th of July — using University of Bristol students as actors, as well as working with their Indian partners on Zoom. These workshops for the The Hamlet Voyage where held in the Wickham Theatre, and these helped the team develop the script and the puppetry (Anurupa was Skyped in from Delhi). Six University of Bristol students participated in the workshops. After this, the team began developing applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund for outreach projects for schools and community groups relating to the production, and to the Arts Council to fund the production itself; finally, they sought to work with the British Council to involve schools in India.

They sought to have a second set of workshops with professional actors in November and held their initial performance on The Matthew at the Harbour Festival in 2022, followed by a run in Bristol and London.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Laurence Publicover (Early Modern Studies, University of Bristol) is a researcher and dramaturge who’s research falls into two main categories. Firstly, Shakespeare and other English Renaissance dramatists. And secondly, the interrelation of humans and oceans.
  • Ben Prusiner is a director and is passionate about plays of heightened language, especially those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He aims to bring the language vibrantly to life with staging and designs that are imaginative, metaphorical and theatrical. Ben Prusiner’s Website.
  • Rex Obano (Media Studies, Royal Holloway London) is a screenwriter/playwright born in London and spent a year in the United States on placement where he read Playwriting at City College of New York. He is also a reearhcer and teaching fellow in screenwriting at Royal Holloway where his research focusses on cultural neo-colonialism and its effect on Black British screenwriting. Rex Obano’s Website.

What were the results?

One of the initial outcomes of the Ideas Exchange was the article by Laurence Publicover titled ‘Maritime mobility and literary culture: ‘Hamlet’ off the coast of Sierra Leone‘.

The team worked to produce the play The Hamlet Voyage, details of which can be found here on the Re-verse Theatre Website.

“The Hamlet Voyage is a new play about the first record of Shakespeare being performed outside Europe: a production of Hamlet, acted by sailors in 1607 for West African dignitaries, during the first English voyage to reach Mughal India.

A theatrical critique of the very beginnings of British colonial ambitions drawing on classical performance across three continents — from Shakespeare & sea shanties to West African storytelling & drumming to South Asian music & puppetry. This play examined a cross-cultural encounter that took place before England became deeply involved in the Atlantic slave trade, before the age of British imperialism, and before Shakespeare became a global name.

We performed on a replica sailing ship, The Matthew, in July 2022, the 415th anniversary of the original Hamlet performance. From there, we transferred to the Bridewell Theatre in London.”