Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
Who: Royal Shakespeare Company
When: March 31st 2016
The RSC’s new production of Hamlet has some excellent actors – and has the first black Hamlet and the RSC’s first predominately black cast for Hamlet in its history. It is brave and lively and interesting.
But something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
In short, Denmark has been lifted wholesale to colonial Africa and therein lies a riddle – and one I can’t really provide a sufficient answer for.
The play, in this production, opens with an additional scene – Hamlet is graduating at Wittenberg. The title line of the play is given to an additional character, a professor of Wittenberg, to use as an announcement at Hamlet’s graduation. The scene then fades to darkness and we move to the play’s usual setting of Elsinore. For those punters who arrived early enough to read the programme, there is sufficient preparation in the essays enclosed to let us know the director is about to compare Hamlet’s return to a changed Denmark (his uncle is now on the throne) from Wittenberg with the diaspora experience of Africans arriving in Europe. Now this wouldn’t make much more sense to me if it were done consistently but if that equation is to be balanced the play needs to be set in the Europe the migrants have come to — but no, it is set in the Africa they have come from. Elsinore within the plot that is laid out for us should equal the Europe that the black community have come to. Confused… you will be! And here lies a sizeable flaw.
But is this a good night at the theatre? Well, we have a crazed, graffiti painting Hamlet played by Paapa Essiedu who gives us a younger Hamlet than has been the case in most recent productions. Hamlet has mostly been a thirty-something in the last few years, here he is a university age – younger than Mr Essiedu but consistent with the educational background in Wittenberg if it was happening in modern Europe. And to a large degree he does it well.
Ewart James Walter is a star turn as both the late King of Denmark’s ghost and also the Gravedigger. Now anyone who can go through that spectrum of grim solemnity and gallows’ humour is a capable actor indeed.
Cyril Nri who was also in the RSC’s black production of Julius Caesar is here as Polonius. He is a compassionate and encouraging father to Laertes and Ophelia and an unctuous presence at the court of Claudius and Gertrude, the new heads of Denmark.
But then so much of the rest of the cast seems to have been dictated by the show’s novel casting requirements led by the setting and concept. Tanya Moodie (Gertrude) and Clarence Smith (Claudius) deliver little although Claudius’ prayer scene is a step above.. Natalie Simpson (Ophelia) is largely unconvincing. Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) are British tourists rather than helpers on a serious mission commissioned by a King and intended to help a dear friend battling apparent mental illness. Amongst the paraphernalia they have brought for their time in this African Denmark is a bong which serves no purpose other than to baffle this audience. It is unclear why Guildenstern and Francisco (now Francisca) have been cast as females.
If I compare this production with the RSC’s own from 2008 with Penny Downie as Gertrude, Mariah Gale as Ophelia and then flavour of the month, David Tennant as the eponymous hero, it quickly points up some of this production’s weaknesses.
Those who applaud the production will do so because it is contemporary and gritty. The African theme, the ideas about migration, the violent way that Hamlet deals with Ophelia all tick all the right trendy boxes but I think that how this is viewed in retrospect when the zeitgeist has passed will be less charitable..
It sets Paapa Essiedu on the road to considerable rightly deserved acclaim but I can’t think that much else about Simon Godwin’s directorial work and Zoe Donegan’s production will stand the test of time.