Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Kelyn Luther
Just as many of Hamlet’s lines have now become clichéd, the look of a Hamlet production has also become somewhat clichéd; drably set in a vaguely futuristic police state. However, this vivid RSC production blows the cobwebs off.
Hamlet’s youth is emphasised during the opening scene as we watch a glimpse of Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) at graduation. Superficially, this Hamlet is doing well: good-looking, intelligent, and with a loving girlfriend. By showing his success in the first scene, the contrast when he is at Elsinore has the greater impact. It also gives context to his old university friends, Rosencrantz (Romayne Andrews) and Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld), who offer tacky London souvenirs as presents to Claudius and Gertrude.
Lorna Brown as Gertrude is greatly helped in her performance by her costumes, gorgeous tribal dresses which imbue her with a calm regalness. Though Denmark is redesigned as a modern African state, this is more of an aesthetic choice with the play’s politics down-played in order to focus on the personal. The aesthetic translates very nicely into the play’s music, with the recurring pulsing of kettle drums sounding like an inevitable march towards death.
Essiedu is also benefited by Paul Wills’ costumes, as Hamlet swaps his traditional funereal garb for a funky paint-splashed suit, covered with the iconography of Hamlet: skulls, flowers, crowns. His face is also paint-splashed, looking faintly tribal. It’s a hint of voodoo, which we first see when Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, and see again when Ophelia hands out ‘flowers’.
Scenes, which in other productions generally drag (Hamlet coaching the players for example) are given a new lease of life, using the ensemble and minor characters to reflect the colourful vibes of the play. They flow together so neatly in a play where directors often put all the emphasis on the famous scenes and lines.
For once, Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) is not played as a fey sprite. This is the character that benefits most from a production of mainly black actors. By not casting her as white and blonde, she is not sentimentalised. Ndiweni’s Ophelia is a normal woman, and her relatability makes her fate all the more tragic.
Just as Ophelia is not ethereal, neither is Claudius (Clarence Smith) so obviously sleazy. Rather than being wracked with guilt, he wishes he could bargain through his prayers, reaping the rewards without committing the crime. Smith’s performance makes Hamlet’s line that ‘one may smile and smile and be a villain’ an apt observation.
Hamlet’s love of art is central to this production. His madness is shown through chaotic paintings of skulls and flowers, hung from the ceiling as one might put a child’s drawing onto the fridge. Whether it is Hamlet’s paintings, the play-within-a-play or the pipe scene, art provides an emotional outlet for Hamlet.
Director Simon Godwin has swept away the paleness and staleness sometimes associated with Shakespeare. All of the actors, but particularly Essiedu, speak their lines naturally rather than ponderously. They also mine their scenes for comedy, even Gertude, who is appalled at Hamlet’s belief that she is too old to feel lust.
This isn’t the gloomy introspective tragedy that audiences are familiar with. It’s a refreshing take but perhaps not the best Hamlet for students to start with. Some sparseness and darkness is important in establishing the tragedy. However, for audiences tired of textbook Shakespeare, this production may revive your interest.
Runs until 10 February 2018 | Image: Contributed