Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
There’s so much Shakespeare available online at the moment, it soon might be possible to view every play the bard has ever written. The BBC has just released eight plays, mostly RSC productions on the iPlayer, while the Globe continues to show a play for free every two weeks. The National Theatre is currently streaming Twelfth Night and Cheek by Jowl is showing Measure for Measure on its YouTube channel. We are spoilt for choice, but Hamlet, with an almost completely BAME cast, would be a good place to start.
First seen at Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2016, Simon Godwin’s production moves Denmark to a present day African military state, and while this setting adds nothing new to the story rarely has Shakespeare’s longest play ever looked so stunning. Playing Hamlet as if he were the artist Basquiat, Paapa Essiedu is splattered with paint, and is a hip-hop street-artist at heart. These colours along with the costumes and the music, take Hamlet away from the darkness of Europe and place him in sunshine to wonderful effect.
When Essiedu first appears, his face wet with tears for the death of his father, and now for his mother’s betrayal as she marries her husband’s brother, he engages immediately, and throughout he is an amiable Hamlet. When dressed in his suit painted with Basquiat’s crown motifs and with his trousers pulled up to his shins, his madness is cute and juvenile. Indeed, it’s only when he’s telling Ophelia to get to a nunnery that his actions seem cruel.
Hamlet’s likeability is helped by the fact that his mother and uncle remain distant figures to him, and us. Claudius (Clarence Smith) is a frightened monarch and knows too well that his world will come crashing down. Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is unreadable, with not a glimmer of maternal care for her son. Only Horatio (Hiran Abeysekera), full of unrequited love for his friend, remains faithful here, and perhaps finally Laertes, played with incredible conviction by Marcus Griffiths.
Ophelia’s madness seems even more real against the feigned one of Essiedu’s Hamlet, and Natalie Simpson’s journey from a confident young woman to a crooning suicide is believable, and is played with great sensitivity by the young actor. In this version, Hamlet takes the opposite route and from quivering grief becomes the man of rational action, seen most clearly in the fencing duel, here transformed into a martial art, each move precise and logical. Essideu knows the value of his wits.
There is humour too; some of it unexpected as in Gertrude’s bemused shock when she hears Hamlet refer to Ophelia’s white bosom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as the only white people in the play, are at times mock colonials and at others gap year students with folded-up maps and brightly coloured suitcases. But funniest of all is Essideu, his Hamlet childish, churlish and charming.
Paul Wills’ set is full of colour and surprises: the ghosts are real here. The film of the production is flawless, giving the viewer every intimate detail it can from the tears of Gertrude to Horatio’s adoring face. This Hamlet is faithful to the original text, but under the African sun it feels like new.
Runs here until August 2020