Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Paapa Essiedu

This year – in fact, one month from today – marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As such, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon is holding celebrations, and the entire season is dedicated to this anniversary. The RSC couldn’t not perform Hamlet, Shakespeare’s best-known play, and the new production of this play has just opened, with press night – or opening night – held last night.

It hasn’t been long since the last RSC production of Hamlet. In 2013, the RSC featured Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet, in an introspective performance. Slightly older is the David Tennant Hamlet, available on DVD and Blu-Ray (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), with another psychological approach to the role. But this year’s Hamlet takes a different tack. The 25-year old actor Papa Essiedu portrays a Hamlet that is petulant and impulsive, one who wears his madness as a badge of pride. But is his madness real or just feigned?

Essiedu’s story is interesting. He was first noticed when, as an understudy, he had to take over the role of Edmund, in mid-performance, in the National Theatre’s King Lear with Simon Russel Beale. The RSC then asked him to play Hamlet, the first black Hamlet in this company’s history. This 25-year old inhabits the character with aplomb, portraying both the serious side and the manic side of the character with ease and grace.

Hamlet begins the play in a blue funk. He is depressed after the death of his father. I watched as he stood next to me – I was sitting on the aisle in the second row – before climbing the few steps to the stage. He teared up in preparation for his first lines, and his emotion was palpable. But before that, there was a brief scene at Wittenberg University – a scene not in the text – showing Hamlet at a graduation ceremony. This scene is useful to provide a contrast between the setting of a staid educational institution and the African country to which he later returns, where Claudius – a prototypical dictator – has married his mother, Gertrude, after murdering his father.

There’s a lot of Africa in this production. Most of the cast is black, and it seems as if the “Denmark” of the play is some African country, ruled by a despot. Hamlet returns to his country, following the death of his father, and his educated persona doesn’t fit in. After seeing the ghost of his father – admirably played by Ewart Jamses Walters, though in too much smoke as he rises from the center of the stage – Hamlet adopts a persona of madness. This Hamlet is a painter, a graffiti artist, whose costume is covered with Basquiat-esque drawings, and whose face is marked with the paint he uses to express himself. Hamlet is often played as cerebral, with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy an example of the depth of his psychology. Esseidu’s Hamlet was childish, as if he regressed after seeing his father’s ghost. During that famous soliloquy he almost looked like a child trying to figure out his way out of a problem, rather than a philosophical Hamlet weighing his options.

(Photos by Manual Harlan for the RSC.)

This Hamlet is also not just mad, but, it times, crazy. Essiedu doesn’t pull any punches, playing the character as one who transgresses all limits, notably in the violent scene with Ophelia. It’s Hamlet’s youth that stands out, his attempt to control a world that he doesn’t understand, that he can’t grasp, yet one that he tries to manipulate. In spite of this, he never goes too far; he always remains believable. Essiedu’s Hamlet pushes boundaries, yet doesn’t cross them.

As I said, this production is full of Africa, from the costumes to the music – lots of drumming, perhaps a bit too much, some of which seemed like filler. But the setting and the tone work perfectly, with this cast of mostly dark-skinned actors flouting convention. For what does it matter what color they are? A black Hamlet is no different from a white Hamlet, and while this production may be seen as the RSC’s nod toward diversity in the anniversary year, it’s no less multi-cultural than many of the RSC’s other productions. (I don’t notice the actors’ skin in these performances, since the RSC is so diverse.)

This is a bright, colorful production, with Hamlet as artist, huge paintings having from above the stage, and a painted suit and t-shirt bearing motifs from the play. Drummers and musicians in African garb lend more color to the play, and one can’t help being immersed in the rhythm of the music. For once, this is a Hamlet without swords or daggers. Hamlet kills Polonius with a gun, and, in the final scene, battles with Laertes using sticks.

The play breaks for intermission during the scene when Claudius is praying, and Hamlet almost kills him; interestingly, this is the same point when the 2013 production went to black. It’s a sort of cliffhanger, but it’s a facile choice; I would have preferred the intermission to come at the end of that scene. Because when it returns, after drinks or ice cream, you’ve lost the tension of the moment, and that entire scene loses its gravitas.

The gravediggers’ scene was delightful. Starting with some Afro-Carribean music, and a bit of song, Ewart James Walters – who is also the ghost – helped turn this brief scene into a tableau of humor. Of course, it’s a pivotal scene, one where Hamlet recalls his past, seeing the skull of the dead Yorick, and the one where Laertes accuses Hamlet of causing Ophelia’s death.

Other standouts in the production include Cyril Nyi’s Polonius, who managed to balance the ridiculous and the serious aspects of the character; Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia, whose poignant scene in the second part of the play, using her hair as the flowers she distributes to the other characters, was nearly perfect; the ambitious performance of Clarence Smith as Claudius, not quite sure if he’s in the right or just another despot; and Tanya Moodie, as the excellent dictator’s wife.

Director Simon Godwin, whose last production for the RSC was the surprisingly delightful Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the wonderful surprises of last year, manages to make a light and rhythmic Hamlet that contains both depth and bling. It’s fast-paced, at just under three hours (not counting the intermission), with enough cuts to keep it from dragging on too long. It’s colorful, musical, exciting, and never flags.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most enjoyable RSC productions I’ve seen in the three years that I’ve been attending all of the company’s plays. The reaction from the audience was certainly the strongest I’ve seen, with some people even standing (the British don’t often give standing ovations). I witnessed the birth of a new star last night at the RSC: Paapa Essiedu showed that he can handle one of the great roles of the theatre with ease and flexibility, and that he can make it his own. This was an excellent performance, and this Hamlet is a man to watch.

Catch this performance at the RSC through August, or in cinemas from June 8. I, for one, am glad that I’ll be seeing it again twice during this run. This is certainly a Hamlet to see more than once. This is as good as it gets, and shows just how creative the Royal Shakespeare Company can be, and how Shakespeare’s plays can be adapted to a variety of contexts.

(An aside: a cellphone rang behind me during the first part of the performance. This is the first time I’ve heard a cellphone ring in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They used to make announcements before performances, and don’t any more. Maybe they should again. If you were the one who didn’t turn off your phone, I hope you feel like an idiot…)

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