Wednesday 23 March 2016

Hamlet - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin

Paapa Essiedu

As the lights come up on Simon Godwin’s Hamlet with Marcellus and Barnardo keeping watch on Elsinore’s perimeter, there are crickets chirping. For whilst Denmark has always been fixed in a traditionally chilly Scandinavia this show shifts it to Africa, a continent infamous for corrupt and despotic regimes. Claudius’ murderous reign is well suited to the territory – and as the production plays out against Paul Wills’ stunning drapes and beautifully sourced Africana, one senses that where some 22 years ago Disney’s Lion King famously and ingeniously shifted this timeless plot to the Dark Continent, so, in Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, does the RSC proudly endorse the location. 

The little known Paapa Essiedu plays the Prince, rising magnificently to the role. Essiedu’s take on the prose is beautifully nuanced, handling some of the most famous lines in the canon with a youthful confidence that is revelatory. Rarely have I been so moved by the “nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, whilst his “Alas, poor Yorick” flowed with the natural rhythm that Shakespeare imbued into the iambic, long before the text became a cliché.

Godwin has his actor splattered with paint throughout most of the first half’s “madness” and the exaggerated visual depiction of Hamlet’s antic disposition works well. After the interval as Essiedu, bare-chested, confronts Gertrude in the closet, there were gasps from the audience at the actor’s impressive physique.

For the most part Essiedu is blessed with playing off an excellent company. Clarence Smith’s Claudius skilfully avoids melodrama as the extent of his fratricidal wickedness is gradually revealed, whilst Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude (glamorous and in sunglasses at Ophelia’s funeral) offers up the classiest African Queen since John Huston’s Oscar winner. 

Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia breaks our hearts with her mental decline, alongside Ewart James Walters who in the traditional double-casting of Ghost/Gravedigger, is superb. To many there will be more than a hint of Mufasa in his murdered King, whilst Walters’ patois-inflected Gravedigger is comedy gold.

Cyril Nri captures Polonius' pontificating pomposity perfectly as Marcus Griffiths’ Laertes, whose return to Elsinore is via a helicopter-dropped abseil captures the righteous indignation of vengeful son and brother. The play's final fight, between Laertes and Hamlet, is staged in this production with a breathtaking use of staves in place of swords. A mention here for Kevin McCurdy’s perfectly choreographed fight direction and even more so for Mbulelo Ndabeni’s movement work, across the company, that so adds to the African setting sealed by Sola Akingbola’s deliciously drum-heavy musical accompaniment.   

This being Africa, the cast is black with the exception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These most celebrated of Shakespeare’s inept and inadequates (James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane respectively) are here played as white English. The message is clear – that England’s imperial bunglings into Africa have been naïve and crass. The argument may not be to everyone’s taste, but it sweetly suits the tone of this production. 

Unencumbered with the overblown expectations of a stunt-cast star in the title role, this is the best Hamlet in years having been given such a finely worked interpretation. This is an inspired and memorable production that plays in repertory until the summer. Broadcast to cinemas in June – don’t miss it!

Runs until 13th August - And in cinemas from 8th June

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