William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
BBC4 and BBC iPlayer

Hamlet Credit: Manuel Harlan
Hamlet Credit: Manuel Harlan
Hamlet Credit: Manuel Harlan

Audiences cannot be blamed for concluding Hamlet is a dark play with a brooding protagonist and a grim, repressive background of a nation in disarray following the death of a king. The vibrant, colourful setting director Simon Godwin uses for the RSC’s production is, to put it mildly, something of a surprise. Hamlet is by no means a short play so Godwin’s addition of a prologue, featuring Hamlet’s university graduation and his father’s funeral, could be self-indulgent except the contrast between the best and worse moments in his life gives an early explanation for Hamlet’s emotional devastation.

Considering he could be said to be working against the text, Godwin creates a highly convincing tribal setting for the play. Although it is hard to be precise (the graveyard scene has a distinctly Jamaican tone), the setting for the play is Africa with a predominantly black cast and a tribal culture. The extent of corruption in Africa makes it credible that a king could be deposed and replaced by his murderer. Tribal drums and masks are essential ingredients in setting a dramatic, fast-moving pace for the production. The concluding duel between Hamlet and Laertes is a tremendously athletic and exciting clash with the duellists stripped to the waist using wooden staffs.

The corruption in Elsinore is limited to the top of the hierarchy. Cyril Nri plays Polonius as a long-winded bureaucrat rather than a conspirator. Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) are crass colonial tourists too dim to be involved in any plot.

Laertes is a difficult role as the character is essentially a puppet, manipulated by the villain, Claudius. However, Marcus Griffiths attracts some sympathy by playing Laertes as a big brother devoted to his sister. The most striking detail about Claudius is Clarence Smith’s tremendous dignity as if he really believes his actions are for the best and can be justified.

Paapa Essiedu is a superb Hamlet. Faced with the colourful environment, he expresses Hamlet’s mental instability by becoming an abstract artist—covering the walls with graffiti and himself with paint and a tattoo of his late father. It is notable, when Hamlet returns from England, Essiedu tones down both the gaudy garb of the Prince and his anger becoming more reflective and mature—a true king in waiting. Essiedu is an eloquent Dane; the soliloquy is spoken with deep longing moving towards anger.

There is a disturbing atmosphere of mental instability hanging over the production. A sense that Hamlet is not just pretending to be unstable and is more disturbed than he realises—his left hand is constantly in motion stroking his leg. His treatment of Ophelia has a frightening intensity while the level of perception in his dealings with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has a dangerous edge of potential violence. This is a restless nervy Prince—even as the players perform, he is mouthing their lines as if anxious to move things along. There is the worrying sense that Natalie Simpson’s disturbed Ophelia—darting at the Queen and courtiers—is a danger to others as well as to herself.

This is an excellently realised revision of a classic with a compelling central performance.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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