'Hamlet' is depressing, but to these refugees, it was a welcome escape.
A persistent mist fell on the audience, many of whom were bundled up in jackets and scarves. But the wintry weather would not dampen the spirit of the day. Not today. The large crowd gathered and waited in wonder for those six magic words to transport them somewhere else.
"To be, or not to be."
The actors stepped onto the small, humble stage. No lights. Only makeshift curtains. Every footstep echoing on plywood boards.
It wasn't Broadway or the West End, but to them, it didn't matter.
"To be, or not to be."
That was the question.
But the answer was bigger than an old play. Much bigger.
They were performers from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and they were in "the Jungle," a large refugee camp in Calais, France.
Shakespeare's Globe is on a mission to perform Hamlet in every country on Earth. Yes, every single one. Though the group has a performance scheduled in Paris later this week, they added Calais, which is 182 miles away from the city, as a stop on their world tour.
The Jungle encampment houses refugees from all over the world, many of whom made dangerous journeys from their home countries.
The encampment is one of the largest refugee outposts in the world, home to 6,000 people, including many from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and North Africa.
Inside the Jungle, refugees wait in bureaucratic limbo. Many have applied for asylum in France, while others seek permanent homes in the United Kingdom. The camp, which opened in 2015, was immediately overcome with people, resulting in food, water, and shelter shortages. There are few storage options and no refrigeration, so food-borne illnesses are common. Hygiene is also lacking, as there are few washing facilities and only one toilet for every 75 people.
"Refugees are hungry and distressed and they live in diabolical conditions," Leigh Daynes, director of Doctors of the World, told The Guardian. "Their suffering is all the more acute because the often perilous journeys they undertook to get to France were physically arduous and emotionally fraught."
Individuals and nonprofits have stepped up to bring positivity and activity — like theater performances — to the camp.
On Wednesday, Good Chance Calais, a nonprofit that brings music, art, and theater events to the Jungle, welcomed performers from the Globe to its stage for a production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
It's part of Globe to Globe Hamlet, a two-year effort to perform "Hamlet" in all 196 countries. The project began in April 2014 and will conclude this April at the renowned Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare's plays were first performed.
"Globe to Globe Hamlet was created with the aim of performing "Hamlet" to as many people as possible, in as diverse a range of places as possible," Director Dominic Dromgoole said in a statement.
"The central principle of the tour is that Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where they are on earth; and that no country or people are not better off for the lively presence of Hamlet."
So far on their 150,000-mile journey, the Shakespeare's Globe has performed Hamlet for more than 100,000 people around the world.
The show has a diverse cast, allowing men and women of different ethnicities and backgrounds to see a bit of themselves in the production, often for the first time.
Whenever possible, Shakespeare's Globe stages the shows for free, performing for 3,000 people at the National Theatre in Khartoum, Sudan, and for schoolchildren in Myanmar, Belize, and Tanzania.
This is not the first time the company has performed in a refugee camp, either. It traveled to Cameroon to perform for Central African Republic refugees, to Djibouti for the Yemeni people, and to the Zaatari camp on the border of Jordan and Syria.
Despite the dreary weather in Calais, more than 300 people attended the show.
It was standing-room-only for much of the performance. And the actors, no stranger to outdoor venues large and small, performed with gusto.
Volunteers worked hard to make the event special, providing popcorn and synopses in multiple languages so as many people as possible could participate in the event.
While Shakespeare's Globe can't relieve global strife, the artists can provide a moment of calm in a stressful world.
Art may not stop wars or end famine. But it can and does offer a moment to relax. A moment to let imagination take hold and feel transported to another place and time. A moment to experience something that has entertained and connected people from all walks of life for centuries.
While the performance only lasted a short time, we can hope that the gift of peace and joy it provided, amid a backdrop of anything but, lasts much longer.