Despite it being a play ostensibly about a young man, Hamlet – which I saw last night (the first of at least three viewings of this RSC production – which could never be enough…) – strongly called to mind, for me, many of the themes of King Lear. (Although it may be that I find myself just a little too immersed in the later drama – for me, Shakespeare’s greatest – especially with Michael Pennington in the lead rôle.) For instance, family and inheritance are obviously central to both plays. Their plots also pivot around the central character’s descent into madness – real or, in this case, feigned – and its tumultuous, deadly effects on those around them.
Hamlet… loses his anchors: as home, family, heritage and a sense of dynastic destiny all crumble away. As he struggles against an existential crisis that simultaneously overcomes his psyche and his kingdom, he finds himself in a twilight between madness and powerful insight.
– Augustus Casely-Hayford: The Limbo Between Worlds (programme note)
Finally, there is the invocation of angry and vengeful deities to excuse human spite. Just the one god, in Hamlet – “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will…” – and only, seemingly, a last-minute conversion.
…the Act V god who inspires its belated resolution is characterised exclusively as a god of “rashness”, one who releases Hamlet’s trigger-hand, rather than encouraging him to repent.
– Ewan Fernie: Poem Unlimited (programme note)
Oh… and the other factor these plays have in common – at least in this year’s ‘Shakespeare 400’ renditions – is the sheer magnetism and talent of the (what I can only describe as) legends playing the eponymous rôles; as well as the consistently soaring quality of the company and creatives surrounding them. That I have been fortunate enough to see such perfection in so short a time is nothing short of miraculous.
It is immensely hard (almost impossible) to take your (frequently tearful) eyes off Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet – …but you must. The earthquakes he sets in motion – the shockwaves he radiates – provoke reactions in those around him that are not to be missed. (This is where my habitual repeated visits come into their own.) Tanya Moodie’s initially controlled Gertrude, and her knowing, forced smiles in the presence of ‘Uncle’ Claudius – a mesmerizing, believable, and fascinatingly sympathetic portrayal from Clarence Smith – and Cyril Nri’s Polonius (probably the best I have ever witnessed), and his increasingly paranoiac ramblings, as well as his obvious, touching love for his children (Marcus Griffiths, a resolute, but deeply emotional Laertes; and Natalie Simpson, born to play the doomed Ophelia…), just a few of the many, many highlights.
I shall therefore do what I did for King Lear, then: and run through (if you see what I mean) the cast list – feebly delineating each actor’s strengths. (I can currently think of no weaknesses.)
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Despite my doubts as to his heroic status in Cymbeline, here, Hiran Abeysekera is an immensely strong Horatio: obviously adoring – and just a little in awe of – his BFF, Hamlet. His howls at the latter’s death – followed by some of the most beautiful words I think Shakespeare ever wrote: here so flawlessly uttered that I wish the play ended there and then (truly, “the rest is silence”), without dragging us back to Fortinbras’ military reality – “Why does the drum come hither?” – could certainly have been Lear’s. This can be an unrewarding, overshadowed part, in the wrong hands. But his astute observations – particularly of Claudius’ villainy, and Ophelia’s stumblings towards insanity – are credible and movingly rendered. This is a performance of great subtlety, loyalty and love – and you could, therefore, easily understand why Marcellus and Barnardo – and Hamlet – show such trust in him.
Romayne Andrews – so versatile and amusing in Cymbeline – sadly gets little opportunity to shine: although, as the affected “lapwing” Osric, his togs certainly do (and are matched by his wit)! His bravery, though, as the judge of Hamlet’s and Laertes’ duel, is astounding.
We do not see enough of Doreene Blackstock, either, as the Player Queen – although her thirty lines of verse (and awesome Queen of Hearts wig) are an utter delight! (In fact, if there is one flaw – but only in comparison with the RSC’s previous production of Hamlet – I thought the play-within-a-play went by too quickly. But then, all three hours and fifteen minutes flew by in a flash: so, as Einstein might have said, such things are relative.)
Eke Chukwu (a fabulously authoritative Caius Lucius in Cymbeline) is also under-used. He has such a commanding stage presence, though, that each of his twenty-lines stands strong.
James Cooney – as a Johnny Depp-like Rosencrantz – and Bethan Cullinane – Guildenstern (and where gender-swapping did add depth…) – act their sycophantic rôles admirably. But I have always found both parts immensely unsympathetic – for which you can, of course, blame Tom Stoppard. That I was delighted at the loss of their joint heads (that famous line beautifully proclaimed by Byron Mondahl) shows, though, how perfectly their treachery and incompetence shone through!
Another great actor in another pair of tiny rôles – one of the Players, and the one-line Cornelia – is Marième Diouf: demonstrating just how talented and strong this company really is. (She is understudying Ophelia – and rightly so.)
I was going to begin this review, originally, by writing that you should never believe the hype… – unless, of course, it isn’t actually puffery, but reality… – in which case you should pay it very close attention. And, in this case, anything you may have heard probably doesn’t even begin to describe just how mature, well-developed, talented, charismatic, etc. Essiedu is. Simply put, he is astounding.
It helps, I think – and is extremely rewarding (and quite unusual) – seeing someone of the right age playing Hamlet. (Huzzah.) Not only does he utterly live the rôle, rather than perform it – although his marked madness is so perfectly painted that you see the character ‘acting’ it, rather than the player… – but his actions are accordingly all the more believable.
He looked astonished – although it could just have been sheer knackeredness (how he puts himself through this, emotionally and physically, over and over again, is beyond my imagination…) – at the cheers he raised, stood alone, in the centre of the stage, after the initial curtain calls. But he deserves as much approbation as can be mustered. This is a Hamlet like no other (and one, I am sure, that will be discussed in fifty years time – when he similarly conquers Lear – with the hushed reverence that, say, accompanies conversations about Peter Brook’s ‘white box’ 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…). I am therefore as impatient to see his Edmund in the forthcoming RSC King Lear as I am to see this play again… – in fact, he is now the main attraction.
Similarly, Kevin N Golding – in the many parts he plays: particularly the Player King (where he is as regal and authoritative as both Old Hamlet and Claudius – both of which he understudies…) – grabs you with every line he utters.
And Marcus Griffiths (understudying Hamlet, of course…)? Well, the man can do no wrong in my eyes. As hinted at above, his Laertes is more thoughtful, more profound than may be apparent in the text. His considered performance also brings a vulnerability (underneath all that muscular, macho posturing) that is deeply affecting; and his dying embrace of Hamlet – finally united in their joint love of Ophelia – is breathtaking.
We need to see more of Byron Mondahl, though. Such a wonderful voice, and with such humanity… – I would love to see him play Gloucester – or even Prospero.
Tanya Moodie’s extraordinary Gertrude is a matriarch steeped in suffering, delusion, misguided love, and a desire to play by rules real or imagined. In the first half, she teeters constantly on the verge of unveiling her true feelings; but it is only when confronted by Hamlet in her bedroom – shortly before Polonius gets his extremely dramatic comeuppance… – that all this repression explodes; that we see her for what she really is. This is a masterclass in nuance; and I am therefore eagerly looking forward to Joanne, the “one woman show” she will be appearing in as part of this summer’s Making Mischief festival. Even amongst a cast of such rich, deep talent, she is magnificent.
As I said above, Cyril Nri’s Polonius is also almost beyond perfection. All that surface guff conceals a highly political – yet, I felt, a desperately lonely, longing – old man. Were it not for Essiedu and Moodie, he would have been my performer of the night (although this was a fiercely-fought competition: with no losers to speak of…). His constant nervousness and desire to please those in power are never over-egged. What can be a one-dimensional rôle becomes richly fascinating in all its flaws.
Theo Ogundipe – as in Cymbeline – brings a canny gravitas to each of his characters. A worried Marcellus, he conjures – with Golding’s Barnardo – the Ghost’s initial visibility with mere words. As player Lucianus, he overacts appealingly (and appallingly), as he should. But, as Fortinbras, he commands the stage in the dying lines with simple presence.
There there is the sublime Natalie Simpson. Even after witnessing the ethereal Pippa Nixon as Ophelia, in David Farr’s intriguing 2013 production, Simpson still somehow manages to make this rôle her own. So sprightly in Cymbeline, her heart-rivening doom, here, seems inevitable, unstoppable. And yet we still do not know whether her death is intentional….
Clarence Smith is a real piece of work as Claudius… – and yet I really did like him (well, as much as you can any charming tyrant)! There was a moment, early on, where he stood in the very centre of the stage, and the whole theatre belonged to him. His self-belief wanes so gently, so subtly, though, that it is almost shocking when he kneels before the cross, and we see the doubt written plainly across his pleading face. As with all the cast, power and subtlety are keenly weighted and balanced. He is the match of both Essiedu and Moodie; his power never quite as certain as he desires… – we see his self-awareness fleetingly… – yet he will make the most of it whilst he still can: bullying those who he needs to fulfil his sovereignty.
Despite his charming grin as the Gravedigger, and his ripe demonstrations of wit, Ewart James Walters is absolutely terrifying as the Ghost of Old Hamlet. (I was forced back into my seat so hard by his first appearance.) Such a great voice; and charisma by the bucketful. You would not want to meet him on a dark night, patrolling the ramparts of Elsinore, that is for certain.
And, finally, Temi Wilkey – and that great smile – playing, again, a multitude of parts (Francisca, a Player, and the Gravedigger’s Assistant). Versatile in the extreme; and yet another demonstration that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes.
That the creative team is the equal of those on stage just goes to show how superior this production really is. Sola Akingbola’s awesome percussive soundtrack (directed by Bruce O’Neil, the RSC’s Head of Music) plays as fundamental a part as any of the actors; and his representation of the (as yet invisible to us) ghost is spine-shiveringly atmospheric. Paul Anderson’s lighting is also outstanding – but it is Paul Wills’ imaginative design, and Simon Godwin’s intelligent direction, that generate the audacious, cohesive and fascinating, gripping, universe in which the action takes place.
A hit, a very palpable hit.