Hongkonger Jennifer Leong's world tour in Hamlet comes home

Ahead of homecoming performances in the Shakespeare play, actress who's politician Alan Leong's daughter talks about taking the Bard to the world with Globe Theatre

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 10:32pm

In the first act of Shakespeare's Hamlet the young prince expresses his disgust that his mother has remarried within a month of his father's death and suggests, given it's his uncle she's chosen for her new husband, that her behaviour is "incestuous".

When the Globe Theatre production of Hamlet reached that scene during a performance in the Caribbean last year, a woman in the audience stood up, and spoke directly at the actor playing Hamlet, shaking her index finger.

"You do not," she said to him firmly, "speak to your mother like that."

It is an extraordinary endeavour, this two-year tour called "Globe to Globe Hamlet". The Globe Theatre aims to take the 400-year-old play to every country in the world, making it the biggest theatre tour in history. And although Syria is probably out, and perhaps North Korea won't happen either (though someone, somewhere is still trying to make the connections work), and areas of the Middle East are still under discussion, by the time the play comes to Hong Kong from September 4 to 6, this will be the 125th country it has played in.

"Or perhaps it'll be the 128th … it's quite hard to keep count," says Jennifer Leong, who is one of three actresses playing Ophelia.

The 26-year old daughter of pro-democracy politician Alan Leong Kah-kit is still reeling from the astonishment of finding herself in this extraordinary first professional role.

"I've never seen an Asian girl as a Shakespeare lead before, so it's an amazing opportunity," Leong says, adding she has been interested in drama since primary school. "I used to want to direct all my friends and I would tell my twin younger brothers to dress up and act in my plays," she says.

Later at St Stephen's College she won an interschool drama competition "and that was my first affirmation that this might be for me", although she studied politics and social sciences at Cambridge before going on to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

"I more or less grew up taking part in campaigns," she says. "Not actively but as family to a candidate you need to do your part and I do believe in what my dad is trying to do.

"My parents were both lawyers and I knew I didn't want to do law straight away because that would be too much in their footsteps. But seeing their campaigns and knowing what it was like to be the underdog in the elections made me more determined.

"From when I was very young my parents have instilled in me the sense that I can make a difference. I don't think this is quite what they imagined but they did give me the confidence to really pursue something."

Before the audition she studied the role of Ophelia intensely, watching everything she could find on DVD and YouTube. "What was interesting was how much I wanted it. I wanted it badly."

And she became absorbed in the character of Ophelia.

"Her father is a pillar of the state, her brother is also a pretty important person in court, her lover is the heir … so there's a lot that's pushing and pulling her. She's really intelligent and for someone like that to do what's expected of her is hard.

"When we meet her everything's on track but things start to unravel and none of it is under her control … I think that's why she came under so much stress."

As well as Ophelia, Leong also plays Rosencrantz and sometimes Horatio: it is part of the clever design of this two-year tour, with built-in cover for every part as all the cast (except for the two who play Hamlet) can play several roles and rotate each night.

"The beauty of the rotation of the cast is that no one combination of actors and characters is the same, and you get to experience different emotions, and it never gets boring."

The cast is multicultural and multi-ethnic: one Hamlet, Ladi Emeruwa, grew up in Nigeria; the other, Naeem Hayat, is a British Pakistani.

One of the other Ophelias, Amanda Wilkin, is a British jazz singer and actor of Jamaican origin, and one of the Claudius/Polonius performers is the Maori actor and activist Rawiri Paratene, who played the father figure in New Zealand's award-winning 2002 film Whale Rider.

"It's clever for a world tour because you want your audience to feel a connection with the cast and the fact that a couple of people at least on stage look a little like you wherever you are is really important."

They travel for eight to nine weeks, then return home for a week or two, before heading out again.

Usually Leong stops in London, but she returned to Hong Kong once, for a 10-day break last October - when the city was gripped by the Occupy demonstrations.

"I was in Kazakhstan and we'd just gone back to the hotel after the performance and were getting some food from the bar. The BBC news was on … and there was no sound but we could see people getting tear-gassed in the streets. And then I decided I wanted to spend a few days in Hong Kong."

Each time they've gone back on tour the props and set have decreased.

They started with 16 trunks and a raised platform and structure. But now they use chalk to demarcate the performance area and a simple red curtain for some of the entrances and exits. There are now only 14 boxes of props, each carried onto planes by one of the 12 cast members or four stage managers. "Anything that doesn't get used twice doesn't get to come," she says.

It's amazing how it resonates wherever you are in the world. People just get it, whether they're used to going to the theatre or not.
Jennifer Leong

Touring Hamlet overseas is a tradition almost as old as the play itself. There are reports that, in 1608, less than a decade after Shakespeare wrote it, the play was performed on a boat off the coast of Yemen, and by 1618 it was a touring veteran, being performed extensively all over Northern Europe.

"It's amazing how it resonates wherever you are in the world," she says. "People just get it, whether they're used to going to the theatre or not."

On the whole, African and Central American audiences are more vocal than European or Asian audiences, she says. "When they like something they make this immediate noise of approval and sometimes - and this happens a lot in the nunnery scene and the closet scene - when they don't like something happening on stage they will hiss."

For Leong, a lot of the wonder of the tour is its underlying ethos of sharing something precious. "Usually plays have to be about how many tickets can be sold, but this is about how to get through to as many people as we can."

Hamlet , Sept 4 and 5, 7.30pm; Sept 5 and 6, 2.30pm; Sept 6, 7pm, Academy for Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai, HK$495-HK$795, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288