One night in late July, Arslankoy hosted Hamlet, dressed in a pink cloak and papier mache crown, and played by a 52-year old woman who left school when she was 12. "I identified with Hamlet from the start", says Ummuye Kocak, who abridged the play, and directs what must rate as Turkey's most unusual acting troupe, the Arslankoy Women's Theatre Group.
"That gravedigger scene - I read it one night by candlelight and got the shivers: all that greed, pride, selfishness ending in the grave, all that futility", says Kocak. "We haven't changed, have we?"
The wife of a retired municipal worker and small farmer, 'Big sister Ummuye', as her fellow actors call her, took up acting eight years after watching a play at the local primary school.
At first, the group stuck to plays written by Turkish playwrights. Then, during a two-year stint in the nearby city of Mersin to look after her children who were at university there, Kocak took to writing her own material.
Since 2007, she has produced six of her own works -- plays with names like 'Bitter Plums' and 'Wilting Flowers' that were based on stories she had heard from her neighbors. The plays touched on themes that are not unknown to many Turks, including poverty, credulity and domestic violence.
"They say women are responsible for educating the next generation", Kocak says. "But women can only educate their children if they are educated themselves. That is what I have been trying to do, in my small way."
The group's efforts have brought them recognition that they would not have believed possible when they started up the company. Alerted by a small news story about the group, the Turkish documentary-maker Pelin Esmer came to Arslankoy in 2003 to film the women for five weeks. In 2006, her film won prizes in the United States, France and Spain.
Kocak, whose fine features and pale eyes hint at her Balkan origins, vividly remembers the way the staff of the hotel she was staying in for the Spanish gala lined up to shake her hand. "I went exactly as you see me: headscarf, old cardigan, rubber galoshes." She laughs. "I burst into tears."
Acting has had a therapeutic effect on other members of the troupe too. Sitting on her balcony the day after she played Polonius dressed in military fatigues, 62-year old Gulseren Sahin proudly leafs through recent photos of her in Turkish newspapers. "My son died four years ago of leukemia," she says. "Acting stopped me falling to pieces."
"Even her husband has begun to look at her differently", Ilkim Kiraz, who played the Queen and first gravedigger, said of another actress in the troupe who is married to a violent husband.
A retired teacher who advised the Arslankoy women during the troupe's preparations for Hamlet, Mine Yildiran thinks the famous lines of Hamlet's first soliloquy perfectly capture the predicament faced by many village residents. Arslankoy has traditionally been a stronghold of secular political parties. But life in the mountains is hard. Among men, alcoholism is a problem. Among women, there's a high rate of suicide. "Theatre is a platform for these women to confirm they exist", Yildiran said.
The group has overwhelming support from Arslankoy villagers. Alerted by nothing more than a message over the loudspeakers of the local mosque four hours before the curtain went up, at least 400 people attended the production of Hamlet. The ghost was greeted with gasps from the children. There was applause when the gravedigger sang Shakespeare's words to a traditional Anatolian tune. Ummuye Kocak had softened the foreignness of the play by Turkifying the names: Hamlet became Hamit, Horatio Hursit, Ophelia Feraye.
If the actors have a complaint, it is about a lack of support from local authorities. Unable to pay for fliers to promote the play, the Arslankoy women were angered by the school director's last minute demand that they come up with 100 Turkish Lira (roughly $66) to use the decrepit stage in the school grounds. Hours before the play started, Kocak was distraught when she overheard a local official telling a film crew that the idea to stage Hamlet had been his.
"Whatever I do, I am ignorant in the eyes of some people", she said, later that evening. "Because I'm a primary school graduate, they think they can barge in and take all the credit."
For all that she says that she identifies with Hamlet, though, Kocak differs from the prince in one important respect: her nature does not tend toward maudlin introspection. "I think we have proved that a university degree is no measure of worth; the life you live is", she says. "Now the time has come to do good things, really good things."