Probably one of the most widely known and frequently performed plays in English theatrical history, one would assume there could not possibly be any original interpretative avenues left to explore for William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. One would assume wrong.
The RSC’s production directed by Simon Godwin, starring RSC Associate Artist Paapa Essiedu, reinvents the play’s entire aesthetic by readdressing it through the lens of traditional West African Culture. The Danish court enter stage dressed in a combination of modern and traditional West African garments accompanied by djembes, masks and dancing.
The production very much supresses the dark political undertones of the play and presents a garishly positive image of domesticity and family bonds for which Hamlet’s brooding disposition is a consistent thorn in the side.
Shakespeare’s timeless prose is decorously rejuvenated by Ghanaian and Nigerian voices without ever diverging more than syllable from the original text.
One of the wonders of seeing Hamlet performed time and time again is to hear the lines of intricate syntax we know so well redelivered to us in a fashion we’ve never heard them before. The RSC have once again achieved this so emphatically that the play’s oh so familiar evocations of torment, anguish, madness and revenge feel somehow entirely fresh and raw.
Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet is skittish, cocky, flamboyant, hyper-intelligent, and always teetering on the edge of insanity. The audience is allowed remarkably little insight into the mind of the ‘real Hamlet’, left guessing as he ‘plays at madness’, and there is a pervading sense that Hamlet himself is unclear of his own mind.
Hamlet exerts moments of alarming and erratic violence upon his mother, Ophelia and his so called friends. Although extremely likable, Essiedu’s Hamlet does not encourage or seem to want to encourage pity or sympathy from his audience; instead he inspires a sort of grim fascination and admiration regarding his speed of wit, matched only for a brief moment in the iconic scene with the mad gravedigger here played as a West Indian, cast wonderfully as Ewart James Walters who also plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Strikingly, Hamlet’s tragic unproductivity and indecisiveness in this production is, quite unusually, bleakly humorous.
The rest of the cast are strong throughout. Joseph Mydell plays a perfect blithering Polonius and Mimi Ndiweni adds an interesting feisty twist to the usually very timid Ophelia; however, as is appropriate, Essiedu’s Hamlet quite clearly outshines all other performances.
The production is colourful, loud, vibrant and wildly passionate; a refreshing take on the overwhelmingly grey tale that is tradition.
It is a masterful reinvention by Simon Godwin, seamlessly translated into a new culture and context to reveal an authentic Hamlet of a likeness that has never been seen before. - @OscarLister