September 2, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
In the Footsteps of Hamlet @ Kronborg Slot, Helsingor, Denmark
Heaven forfend that I should go on holiday without having some light Shakespeare connection. However, even a normal person visiting Denmark would be the poorer for skipping Kronborg Slot in Helsingor – the Elsinore of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a stunning, beautifully situated castle, its cannons facing Sweden across the narrowest part of the straits dividing the two.
I bring this up in the context of this blog because one of the guided walking tours of the castle might loosely be described as a performance of Hamlet. ‘In the Footsteps of Hamlet’ is led by Horatio, who in this narrative took literally Hamlet’s injunction to live on and tell his story (twice daily, in Danish and English). The tour, predictably, shows off several of the key areas of the castle while telling the story of Hamlet from Horatio’s point of view. Yet this idea isn’t as trite as it might sound. There is a long, continuous tradition of performances of the play at the castle and, while most take place on specially constructed stages, there have been attempts to create site-specific stagings that utilise appropriate locations around the castle.
The key success of this tour was the illustration of the political aspect. It is one thing to have a production of Hamlet giving Fortinbras stage time; it is another when a guide can point towards Norway and then trace the projected line of troop movements down the straits towards Poland. Explained while standing next to the cannons, with a clear sense of the Scandinavian topography, the tour emphasised both the strategic importance of the historical castle and the isolated vulnerability of Shakespeare’s.
While the tour, sadly, wasn’t able to recreate the experience of being on the battlements at midnight, it made excellent use of the underground spaces and impressive echo capabilities, Horatio booming out the Ghost’s ‘Swear!’ in near-darkness, allowing the roar to reverberate around an enclosed cavern. The tour then went on to other possible locations: the chapel in which Claudius prayed, the Queen’s ‘closet’, the ballroom (largest in Scandinavia) which provided an impressive imaginary location for the final duel.
The tour admitted freely that there is no evidence Shakespeare ever came to Helsingor, or that his characters were anything other than fictions. As a guided tour it was an imaginative way to show off some of the castle’s more interesting features (including concealed spaces for musicians to entertain the Queen without being seen) while also setting the stage for a conceivable full production that evoked something of the complexity of the play’s interweaving domestic spaces. For 40kk, it’s strongly recommended.