‘Hamlet at Elsinore 1816-2016’: Exhibition at King’s College London, 5-9 August 2016

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This is something I have been looking forward to sharing. Several months ago I was given the opportunity to curate and organize an exhibition telling the story of a place which, for centuries, has been developing an extraordinary Shakespearean performance tradition. It has been excellent to work with HamletScenen, resident theatre at Kronborg, and I’m hugely grateful to King’s Collge London for hosting the exhibition as part of the World Shakespeare Congress and the Shakespeare400 Festival, as well as to the Danish Embassy in London for supporting the project.

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Kronborg Castle in Elsinore is much more than a Shakespeare-themed tourist destination, although the castle is certainly worth visiting, even if one does not have the slightest interest in Shakespeare or Hamlet. This is a place, where Hamlet has been continuously performed in politically charged contexts and against a backdrop of tensions between nationalist ideologies. But, at the same time, Kronborg has been – and certainly still is – a place, where significant intercultural meetings and exchanges take place through Shakespeare. These two stories – one of nationalism and conflict and one of international dialogue – emerge from the exhibition material, which includes some extraordinary photographs, production programmes and other material from the extensive archive held by HamletScenen, as well as  the ghost-like filmed footage of the tercentenary Shakespeare celebrations at Kronborg in 1916 from the Danish Film Institute.

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The tradition of inviting renowned international theatre companies to perform at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore became an important occasion for cultural diplomacy, not least throughout the twentieth century and in connection with three pivotal productions brought to the castle by The Old Vic with Laurence Olivier in 1937, Staatliches Schauspielhaus with Gustaf Gründgens in 1938, and John Gielgud in 1939.

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Since then productions of Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays from all over the globe have visited the castle, offering Danish audiences the possibility to see Shakespeare’s Danish prince through the eyes of other cultures. This has also become an important vehicle for Danish self-reflection through the character of Hamlet, both in times of peace and in times of tension, as seen in the words written by the well-known Danish author, poet and political commentator Tom Kristensen to welcome John Gielgud in 1939:

Welcome, John Gielgud and your actors, welcome!

Moreover that we much did long to see you,

The need we have to use you did provoke

our hasty sending. Something have you heard

of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’s transformations

and of the manifold interpretations

which have confused us and confuse us still.

Is he a Dane? A countryman of yours?

A spirit of the modern doubt and weakness

or active as a prince of the renaissance?

A hero or a coward? Tell us that.

This is just one of several examples which tell a fascinating and often moving story about Hamlet performances in a place whose identity has been so strongly formed by Shakespeare’s imagination.

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Before the opening of the exhibition this Friday, I was in Elsinore and saw the excellent production of Measure for Measure by Cheek-by-Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre. The Danish weather gods can be capricious, as The Old Vic and Olivier had to face in 1937, but the night I was there was rather magic with a deep blue sky, a calm breeze from the sea and the melancholy cries of seagulls high above the castle courtyard.

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As I left the castle and walked along the moat reflecting the light from the many torches placed on the banks, I couldn’t help remembering one of my favourite descriptions of a Hamlet production at Kronborg by the famous Danish author Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen and the author of Out of Africa). Blixen had come to see Gielgud in 1939, which resulted in a life-long friendship between them. In a letter to her sister, Ellen Dahl, she describes the last night of Gielgud’s performance on a clear and starry evening, and how she joined ‘Hamlet’ (in his long cape) and ‘Horatio’ on the Kronborg bastions for a cigarette during the acts, unsure where Shakespeare’s imaginary Elsinore began and ended..

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