As you travel the world you can never predict your next encounter with a member of the Scots diaspora. There we were, my husband and myself, mid-June, at Kronborg Castle, Shakespeare's fabled Elsinore. It's on the northern edge of the town of Helsingor, 40 minutes by train out of Copenhagen, at the end of the line. I was fighting back pain with a double dose of paracetamol. Sometimes life deals a rotten hand. It was literally 'a sair fecht', affecting my ability to negotiate stairs, whether to cellars or ramparts, and at our age we might never return to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was such a treat arriving there, absorbing the atmosphere, the massive military fortifications, the sporadic recordings of cannonfire we heard as we passed through, the high twirly green copper Renaissance towers, so I was more than a bit cross to be so, hopefully temporarily, disabled. I managed up to the first floor, through the royal apartments and the great ballroom, but my husband, ever busy and active, climbed up and down much more extensively, dutifully taking photographs of what I was missing.
In the central courtyard a troupe of actors was performing extracts of Hamlet
for their multi-lingual tourist audience – I will not say truly Shakespeare's Hamlet
, though famous lines through the dumbed down version could be heard. But, in default of Burton or Olivier, everyone clapped appreciatively. A jester emerged from the ruck and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, led a crowd through a pair of stout ancient wooden doors, opening into a dark tunnel beneath the castle's fortifications, to meet Hamlet's father's ghost. The high bastion where the real encounter might have taken place wouldn't have been the same under the blistering noonday sun.
Fearing more stairs and feeling more than a bit sorry for myself, I'd stayed behind and was leaning against a stone wall, there being nothing resembling a chair to sit on, when there came a rush of folk from another side tunnel. At their head was one of the actors I'd seen earlier, a tall silver-haired man in an ankle-length gown, striped in various shades of grey.
'Mr Polonius, sir,' I said. An involuntary remark. I hadn't really meant to draw attention to myself.
He stopped and turned.
'How now. Who calls?'
Perhaps it was my accent. Perhaps surprise I knew whom he represented. Anyway, something drew him over, complimenting me, as you do with old ladies, on my sunhat, a confection of bright colours I had bought on a whim at Tivoli Gardens a few days before. It was, thankfully, keeping the strong Danish sun at bay.
I said, as former English teachers tend to do, that I was disappointed not to be hearing the actors speak Shakespeare's actual lines.
'I agree,' he said, 'but the producers seem to think it's better for the tourists'.
Judging by the enthusiastic reception the actors received, they were probably right.
He drew my attention to a carved stone plaque to Shakespeare further along the wall I was leaning against, which in my self-preoccupied misery I hadn't previously noticed.
'He never came here, you know.'
I nodded, trying to summon up what I could remember of my now long distant Shakespearean studies, wishing I had done a bit of homework.
'But three of his actors did,' he added.
'Yes. The story goes they came here to Elsinore and were told the Hamlet story. Afterwards they went out on the town to drink deep with the local Danes. Two of them got into a fight and ended up killing each other. The third one returned to England and told Shakespeare all about it.'
Could there be a faint smidgeon of truth in it? Denmark was a power to be reckoned with in those days, lording its tripartite empire over Norway and Sweden. In the late 16th century King Frederick II, who ruled from 1559 to 1588, financed the rebuilding of an earlier castle on a more munificent scale by charging tolls on every ship that passed in and out of the Oresund. A bridge over that stretch of water now links the two Scandi noir cities of Copenhagen and Malmo. Helsingor on the Danish side is at the narrowest point and ferries still ply across the water throughout the day to Helsingborg on the Swedish side.
We know English delegations visited the Danish court. We know that Frederick had a habit of firing off canons every time he proposed a toast. As does Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, in Shakespeare:
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the King's rouse the heaven shall bruit again,
Respeaking earthly thunder.
The Scots King James Vl, who became James I of England on succeeding Elizabeth I in 1603, married Frederick's younger daughter, Anna, in 1589. Known as Anne of Denmark, she became the mother of Charles l who lost his head, Elizabeth, who married Frederick of Bohemia, the young Winter Queen who lost her throne, and the greatly lamented Prince Henry, the eldest, who died of typhus aged 18 in 1612 and might have done better than the other two had he survived. Anne's stormy crossing to Scotland after her proxy marriage marooned her on the coast of Norway where James in person went to fetch her. This caused a witchhunt on both sides of the North Sea. Though storms were common enough, someone had to be blamed for the bad weather and right royal inconvenience on this occasion.
Actually, Hamlet's story, as Amleth, Prince of Jutland, features in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus
, as every educated schoolchild ought to know, which Shakespeare may have read in François de Belleforest's late 16th-century Histoires Tragiques
. But why spoil a good yarn?
I asked Polonius what the troupe of actors did when they weren't acting at Elsinore, as it's only a three month gig during the summer. He'd been doing this for years, he said, and was now a bit fed up. He was finishing his stint this year at the end of June. He was from Scotland originally, but had acted in a variety of theatres throughout the UK. Years back he had come to Copenhagen for eight weeks one summer, met a girl and stayed. Now he runs a theatre company there.
'Whereabouts in Scotland are you from?' I asked, not detecting any distinctively Scottish flavour to his sonorous RSC out of RADA accent.
He gave me a straight look and broke into a broad grin.
'GRR-eenock!' he declared with a flourish.
It was as if he'd suddenly torn off all his clothes and stood there proudly naked.
'You never did!' I said.
'Oh yes,' he said. 'It's amazing how easily one can slip back into the old accent. But when we want to pretend we're posh, we say we come from Gourock.'
Definitely a Scottish west coast joke, that one. I doubt they'd get it in Edinburgh, or anywhere else probably. But it's what actors do, assuming and casting aside roles with ease. Before I could ask his name, the ancient tunnel doors opened wide and out poured the audience for Hamlet's father's ghost, including my husband. Polonius was caught up in a tide of Chinese tourists and clamorous children and was drawn by them back into the courtyard and out of sight.
For anyone who might be interested, as I later found out, googling his theatre company when I came home, his name is Ian Burns and he's the artistic director of That Theatre, an English language theatre company in Copenhagen. They specialise in the production of English language plays, train young actors, offer workshops and schools' programmes. I wish him well. I enjoyed our brief encounter. It certainly helped me thole that back pain for a while.