Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
When we first encounter Paapa Essiedu’s youthful Hamlet, he’s a black-clad teenager who won’t make eye contact with his mother and step-father. Just married, hot on the heels of Old Hamlet’s unexpected death, they’re seeing off the wedding guests, all smiles and back-slapping. Director Simon Godwin and Designer Paul Wills have shifted the coordinates of this RSC production, first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2016. Although the text suggest it’s still firmly set in Denmark, the set, costume and cast are gloriously pan-African. It gives this sometimes gloomy play a big dose of positive energy, and the grieving Hamlet even more to rail against. All his best friends are here to cheer him up, he has a beautiful girlfriend, and to be honest, his mum seems just fine. There’s a party atmosphere at Elsinore that makes his low mood seem downright selfish.
This lavish production with a huge cast, live music and vibrant design has more of an ensemble feel than is often the case with this soliloquy-heavy play. No more so than in the scene with the players who bounce onto the stage in a flurry of djembe drumming, rhythmic dancing and singing. This doesn’t mean that Essiedu’s Hamlet gets lost in the crowd though, as he delivers a powerful, mesmerising performance throughout, wringing every ounce of humour out of the word-play, and convincingly distraught and unhinged as his frustration mounts. This is a sharply intelligent high-bred and well-educated Hamlet, one whose ‘madness’ is always in question, but whose desire for revenge is not.
Paul Wills’s design is perhaps a little over-ambitious for a touring production, with an unnecessary amount of set moving and a rather cranky back wall that opens so the Claudius and Gertrude’s elaborately carved thrones can awkwardly appear and disappear. But the gloriously extravagant West African textiles and intense graffiti backdrops (this Hamlet expresses much of his angst through Basquiat-esque paintings) create an Elsinore like no other.
At over three hours, there’s no chopping out of any of the script here, but the fast pace never really drops, even during the soliloquies, something which gives them a freshness and avoids the ‘audition piece’ feel they can sometimes have. Clarence Smith’s Claudius is the perfect smiling villain, charming, confident and well turned-out, with just enough of a hint of ‘General turned Dictator’ in his manner. Joseph Mydell’s bumbling Polonius is suitably toadying to his newly crowned king while remaining likeable enough that his death is truly tragic. An early scene with Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) and Laertes (Buom Tihngang) shows them as a warm, happy family, chatting in the kitchen. This domestic feel seems to permeate the production, with the political upheaval played down, although always rumbling on in the background, beyond the castle walls. Although we get glimpses outside, Godwin has paired the play back to being all about the not so perfect humans inside.
This is a great production with a performance from Essiedu that rivals any of the big box office hitters that have given it a go in recent years. Opening at The Lowry, it tours to Plymouth, Hull, Newcastle and Northampton before a three week run in London and a hop over the Atlantic to Washington DC.
Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed