Hackney Empire, London – until 31 March
Guest reviewer: Josh Adams
Life is imitating art with the RSC has sent its company of travelling players on the road to tour Hamlet around England, a journey that ends at north London’s Hackney Empire where the show runs through March. Thereafter, this bold and innovative production crosses the Atlantic to be staged in the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.
Director Simon Godwin ensures that the play is set up clearly, opening unusually at the university in Mecklenburg to witness Hamlet’s graduation before shifting location to reconnect with the traditional narrative – albeit African styled. Not only does this offer a swift start to the tale, but it also allows for that continent’s distinctive themes to take centre stage.
A cacophony of colour, costume and music fills the stage, allowing Paul Wills’ design, together with Sola Akingbola’s rhythmic pulsating score, to define this extraordinary take on arguably one of the canon’s most famous plays.
While occasionally finding comedy where it may not have been needed Paapa Essiedu delivers a modern, raw take on the title role, catching Hamlet’s innocence while also making fine work of the soliloquies. All too often, Hamlet can be played by slightly older actors – it is refreshing here to see a truly young actor playing the role as a passionate, over-excitable and at times confused young man.
Mimi Ndiweni’s Ophelia exhibits an initial calmness but this proves deceptive, as her descent into despair during Act Four leaves the Empire’s audience stunned. Memorable elsewhere, Joseph Mydell as Polonius delivers a wonderful performance as the king’s loyal advisor, causing much hilarity with his proverbial pomposity.
The culture that goes with African heritage is not only vibrant, but is rhythmic, raw and honest and this intriguing context of the tale allows the RSC a prism to deliver a Hamlet that is a bold reflection of the modern world.
The onstage percussion from Akingbola alongside Sidiki Dembele defines the continent, while the collaboration between between Godwin and Wills presents Hamlet as a painter. With spray cans at hand both to liberally graffiti family portraits as well as to literally taint the fair Ophelia, the visuals serve well as a guide through the text.
In a bold and daring interpretation, Essiedu’s Hamlet is likely to be remembered and talked about in years to come. To more seasoned Shakespearian audiences the production is occasionally frustrating, with moments of Shakespeare’s finely crafted subtlety being flagged and highlighted. Godwin’s Hamlet however is neither performed by, nor targeted at, society’s elite. It’s a beautifully accessible performance of a perfect play.