In 1607, two ships called The Hector and The Red Dragon set sail on what would be the first English voyage to reach mainland India. These were East India Company ships, so representatives of the company that would eventually, in effect, rule India. Hampered by unhelpful winds and currents, the ships stopped for provisions off the coast of Sierra Leone. There, according to transcriptions from a journal now lost, they performed Shakespeare’s Hamlet on board the Red Dragon before an audience including African dignitaries. 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.
Working with the director Ben Prusiner and the playwright Rex Obano, who are devising a play that marks and thinks through the implications of this possible performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Laurence Publicover (Department of English) is bringing to the project his expertise on shipboard literary cultures, on Hamlet, and on early modern global history. Featuring collaborators based in or with expertise in India and Sierra Leone, as well as the UK, the project will result in performances of the play, entitled The Hamlet Voyage, at the Bristol Harbour Festival on board the ship The Matthew in July 2022.
The Brigstow Institute (University of Bristol) provided funds to support initial scoping and research. Further funding from Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Fenton Arts Fund, and private donors helped support two exploratory workshops in 2021, as well as an education programme linked to the play — and developed through school curricula for History and English — which will take place over the spring and summer of 2022. More recently, funding has been secured from UKRI to take the production through its final stages.
Dr Laurence Publicover, Senior Lecturer in English
Hamlet Voyage wins Arts Council National Lottery project grant funding – News item on departmental website