14 April 2016, The Tablet

The play's the thing for first ever performance of Shakespeare at the Vatican

Globe Theatre's attempt to perform the Bard in every state in the world reaches the Holy See with performance of Hamlet

As he ponders his reforms of the Church, Pope Francis, like Hamlet, has a “sea of troubles” ahead of him. 

So it is appropriate that last night William Shakespeare’s best known tragedy was played out at the Holy See. The performance also made history as the first play from the English playwright to be shown in the Vatican. 

Given the number of Shakespearan dramas at the Vatican in recent years, Hamlet - with its themes of love, betrayal, revenge and mercy - would surely have resonated with the select audience of curial officials and seminarians who attended the performance last night at the Palazzo della Cancellaria, the headquarters of the Apostolic Tribunal. 

The play was brought to the Vatican by the players of The Globe Theatre, on London's South Bank, on a Globe to Globe tour taking Hamlet to every country in the world to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. It is a tour which has so far taken in 190 countries and included performances in Erbil in Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and in front of migrants in Calais. 

At a press conference yesterday afternoon in the Palazzo della Cancellaria, Bishop Paul Tighe, the adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said that Shakespeare helps people to better understand the human condition. 

“It alerts us to the tragedy, the harm and the damage if a particular concept of justice seems to only find fulfilment in retribution and vengeance,” he said. “We are celebrating the Year of Mercy, and trying to understand the importance of mercy not just for the life of the Church but for all people. And I think that play brings us in somewhere into a type of mercy that re-dimension’s justice. It doesn’t reject justice but brings us a richer understanding of it.” 

The bishop shared a platform with Naeem Hayat, one of two actors in the group playing the part of Hamlet, and he was was asked if Pope Francis could be likened to the play’s lead character.

“Hamlet is a wonderfully sensitive young man. Very good at seeing what’s around him. Good at picking apart people, sensing when they’re lying and he enjoys playing,” Hayat said. “From the exterior he [Pope Francis] seems to be a man who has someone very interesting thoughts about the world around him. And it’s refreshing.”

Bishop Tighe explained he thought one of the character’s, Polonius had lessons for the Vatican as he is someone who has “extraordinary wisdom” but it seems to “bypass him.” There is a lesson for those working in sacred institutions, Bishop Tighe said, to ensure they live and understand the message they preach.

This is not the first time that Shakespeare has come to the Vatican. In 1964, for the 400th anniversary of his birth, a recital of some of his works was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, attended by Pope Paul VI who Pope John XXIII and referred to as the “Hamlet Cardinal.”

Like Hamlet, Paul VI was renowned for being talented, worried and intense: in a private note in 1978 the former Pope wrote “what is my state of mind? Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote? On the left? On the right? I do not think I have been properly understood.” 

A crucial person in helping to bring Shakespeare to the Vatican this time has been the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker. At the press conference today, he said it is not known if Shakespeare ever visited Rome although it is speculated he might have “spent a night or two” at the Venerable English College, Rome. 

Ambassador Baker explained that Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into 100 languages and that his work “cover the whole gamut of the cardinal virtues and deadly sins.”



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