Review: Hamlet @ The RSC

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

This is Denmark in name alone. Simon Godwin’s Hamlet, with Paapa Essiedu in the title role, relocates the rotten affairs of the Danish state to an unspecified West African court, where Claudius rules Elsinore like a military dictator and tribal symbolism is mixed with junta-like soldiery throughout. The shift is a stroke of genius, bringing with it a 21st century freshness that blows any 400-year-old cobwebs away and allowing a pulsating, vibrant colour to flow through the production. Rarely does a high profile Hamlet feel so utterly alive.

Hamlet’s youthfulness is repeatedly emphasised. Godwin’s production opens with a brief, wordless graduation ceremony from an Ivy League school, featuring a smiling Prince of Denmark gratefully clutching his scroll and a host of congratulatory classmates applauding. A flash, a bang, and Essiedu’s Hamlet is thrust into a world of ceremony and intrigue, in which he survives by resorting to adolescent sarcasm and is cheekily inimical to all but Hiran Abeysekera’s schoolboyish Horatio. When Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) arrive, they are students on a gap yah, complete with backpacks, bongs and harem pants.

Essiedu is captivating throughout, his Hamlet a visibly maturing cocktail of incomprehension and anger. With others he is relentlessly mocking, but alone he is a self-doubting wreck, afraid of his murdered father’s displeasure and fiercely self-chastising over his own inaction to avenge him. His madness, unequivocally feigned when it comes, takes the form of a darkly playful spree of artistry. Like a sixth-form design student unleashing his anger, he spray-paints a portrait of his newly-wed mother and uncle with symbols, and scrawls insults on canvas with great splashes of bright paint.

Alongside him, Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a smiling old-timer who seems to do everything out of the goodness of his heart, telling Marcus Griffiths’ Laertes to ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’ with touching compassion. Clarence Smith is a resolute, sure-footed Claudius, neatly clipped for the most part, but a commanding tyrant – a Last King Of Denmark – when he needs to be. Tanya Moodie does not offer enough egotism as a glamorous Gertrude, however, and the incestuous ugliness of her remarriage is never stomach-turning enough as a result, jeopardising the climax’s catharsis somewhat. Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia is similarly reserved, suddenly breaking into babbling insanity without any real emotional development, and rendering her untimely death much less arresting than it should be.

Paul Wills’ gloriously rich design utilises the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s jack-in-a-box stage classily and effectively, ensuring Godwin’s stylish direction is a joy to watch at all times. There is a distinctly post-colonial pride to the whole piece, with traditional imagery smartly complimenting modern-day luxury. Two tribal thrones sit side by side, with fans spinning lazily above the stage and expensive watches glinting from tailored cuffs. Punching through this veneer is a heavy military presence, with camouflaged guards cradling machine-guns striding around and the occasional thunder of helicopters overhead.

Godwin’s production is a feast of sound and colour, with rhythmic drumming a constant feature. There are beautiful moments, such as the apparition of Ewart James Walter’s intimidating, elder Ghost in a dense fog of smoke, and Ophelia’s final exit, silhouetted against a deep, blue backdrop. Godwin’s production matches this sensory fertility with a number of excellent performances – notably from Essiedu – and a keen nose for fresh profundity in Shakespeare’s words.

4/5

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