The RSC’s acclaimed production, originally performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, tours the UK, stopping off in Northampton for the first time ever.
Taking the action from Denmark to the far brighter and more colourful climes of a West African nation, this production shakes up the dark expectations of Shakespeare’s most famous play.
Student Hamlet returns home from his studies abroad to attend his father’s funeral – and shortly afterwards, his mother’s marriage to his uncle. What follows is a tale of apparent madness and revenge resulting in a significant body count.
But this isn’t the plainly spoken and maudlin Hamlet of previous productions – this interpretation is full of music and humour that brings a lightness to an otherwise dark story.
To say that Paapa Essiedu‘s Hamlet is a real breath of fresh air would be an understatement. There are no lecture-like soliloquies here – Essiedu captivates the audience with the presence of a passionate, youthful TED talks speaker, or ranting stand-up comic. He whips from heart-wrenching grief to laughter in the blink of an eye, flipping from sanity to madness with little more than a change in facial expression. This Hamlet seems younger than I’ve seen before – a true arrogance of youth creeping through his mission to achieve revenge for his father’s murder. And more importantly, Essiedu’s Hamlet is fun and likeable – from his relationships with his friends to cheeky winks to the audience before his fight with Laertes, Hamlet is someone you’d like to know. As Fortinbras says “For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royally” – this is a Hamlet who would have ruled well, and been a popular leader.
Essiedu is surrounded by a talented cast. Joseph Mydell‘s loquacious Polonius was played for laughs, preaching that “brevity is the soul of wit” while managing to never quite reach the point he’s trying to make. Clarence Smith‘s Claudius has an unpleasant air of malevolence around him, never more so than when he utters “Words without thoughts never to heaven go” as he half-heartedly prays for forgiveness. Hamlet’s university friends, Rosencrantz (Romayne Andrews) and Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld) are suitably two-faced, and you’re never sure whether they are truly serving the King and Queen, or Hamlet himself, while Horatio (James Cooney) is loyal without fault. His is the unenviable position of being the last alive means he must relate the story to the invading Fortinbras, which he does with an incredible sadness, and obvious love for his friend.
In contrast to Hamlet’s jovial, colourful graffitied version of madness, Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) sinks into a desperate insanity following her father’s murder. These are quiet, heartbreaking scenes, and Ndiweni handles them beautifully, with mournful singing and underlying mysticism.
Paul Willis’ set is simple, but, dressed with African fabrics and later by Hamlet’s emotionally charged artwork, and Paul Anderson’s clever lighting, it changes from a palatial hall to a graveyard, a bedroom, and a security post with ease. Director Simon Godwin has wrung every ounce of comedy from a play not renowned for making people laugh, including a superb moment of black comedy as Hamlet drags away Polonious’ still warm dead body.
It is this sort of production that truly lifts the works of Shakespeare from the page and gives it life. There was a young audience in attendance who loved the teenager-like grunts and sideways glances from Hamlet, finding that they might have something to relate to in this 400-year-old text.
Easily the best production of Hamlet I’ve seen to date – and there are not many more chances to catch it. Hamlet runs at the Royal & Derngate until Sat 3 March 2018, followed by a three week run in Hackney, before heading to Washington DC.
Performance: Wed 28 Feb 2018, Derngate
Becki is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. She also works for Royal & Derngate as Marketing and Press Assistant. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Becki also blogs at StageyRebel