It is actually of Cleopatra that Shakespeare uses the phrase “infinite variety” but it might just as easily apply to the young prince in Hamlet. For there are as many ways to play the character as there are actors lining up to play him….the latest, who started rehearsing yesterday, being Sir Ian McKellen who at 81 will almost certainly be the oldest if not the most obvious choice. I’m just intrigued as to who will be playing his mother! Be that as it may this version (and any production, perforce, is a version) comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016 and takes an interesting slant of its own.
For in Simon Godwin’s production, Elsinore/Denmark has been transposed to an African setting and nearly all the characters are played by black actors; this certainly freshens up the approach to a play which many have seen time and again. The Danish court is presented as a militaristic (fascist?) regime where tension is high and recriminations abound. The settings for Hamlet often present Elsinore as a dark, gloomy and introspective place so it is an interesting departure by designer Paul Wills to often make the stage a swathe of bright colour incorporating West African prints and Day-Glo colours. The play within a play scene is particularly engaging in this respect and further benefits from the lighting plot of Paul Anderson. The music, which is heavy on the drumming, is composed by Sola Akingbola and conjures up the heritage of this version of Denmark as well as emphasising its current military status.
Paapa Essiedu (then in his mid-20s) grabs the central role by the scruff of the neck and emerges victorious. He invests the big set speeches with depth and resonance, makes a good fist of the physical aspects and I fully believed in the torture that his indecision was causing him. He generally comes across as a genuinely angry young man; however, I’m not really sure I fully believed in him as a potential killer. The decision to make him a graffiti artist gave some solid substance to the “mad scenes” and chimed well with the theme of youthful rebellion. He even manages to make “To be or not to be” sound as if it is emerging as a newly minted thought and any actor who can do that deserves an accolade. The rest of the cast give solid support with Tanya Moodie and Clarence Smith on good form as Gertrude and Claudius. I was particularly pleased that the latter’s interpretation improved throughout the play as I found his first scene delivery somewhat bemusing; all the emphases seemed to be in the wrong place. Natalie Simpson makes an effective and affecting Ophelia though I could have done without the “mad hair” in the later scenes; besides, ahead of hairdressers opening up again everyone looks like that at the moment. Cyril Nri made one of the best Polonius’s I have seen downplaying the temptation to present him as a tedious old bumbler. I just wondered about the directorial decision to make his death into a big comedy moment. More acceptable comedy was supplied by Ewart James Walters as the Gravedigger (he also doubles as the Ghost of Hamlet Senior) and Romayne Andrews is a riot as Osric – and he has a costume to match.
While I’ve seen at least two better Hamlets/Hamlets (Kenneth Branagh doing the full 5 hour version in Stratford and the then unknown Ben Wishaw’s performance for Trevor Nunn) this production ranks pretty high up the chart. It’s a production that I’m pleased to have caught up with as I recall it was being prepared in the upper level of the RSC’s rehearsal rooms in Clapham as I was Bottoming away in the lower (click here). What I chiefly remember is how noisy they were with lots of military marching and percussion being played so it’s good to see what all the din was about.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
Hamlet is available via the BBC iPlayer for two months. Click here
It is part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine strand which features five other recent RSC productions. Click here
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