This is a landmark production: Paapa Essiedu is the first black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC in its 55‑year history. He is charismatic, capricious and compelling: an impulsive, arresting presence at the heart of a production that reframes the dilemmas in the play by setting it in an unnamed African state.
– Repcillin: Royal Shakespeare Company Moves Hamlet to Africa
Let’s get one thing out of the way. It is probably impracticable even attempting to prevent Hamlet becoming – for all intents and purposes (that is, from both the producer’s and consumer’s perspectives) – something of a ‘star vehicle’. (One only has to think, for example, of Ben Kingsley in Buzz Goodbody’s similarly “landmark” 1975 staging. Or, more recently, of, ahem, Benedict Cumberbatch.)
The principal character dominates (if not monopolizes, or even overwhelms) the play: having just short of 1,100 lines – a third of the total (and twice as many as Claudius: who has the next highest number). He is also on-stage in over two-thirds of the scenes. It is difficult, therefore, to see how even the greatest, shrewdest production (for which title the current RSC run is an odds-on contender…) can get away from “showcasing the actor’s talents” – resulting in just one performer collecting the lion’s share of the coverage: a focus which may be to the detriment not only of other members of the cast, but also of the creative team.
Even I teetered on the crumbling edge of this hard-to-avoid heffalump trap (tempted “toward the flood”), when penning my original assessment:
I was going to begin this… 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.
I did, at least, then praise every other actor in turn – and in detail…!
However, despite declaring that “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”, I did fail (after having gushed out over two thousand words) to expand on this, and explain or delineate how or why this “universe” is as vital to the production’s achievements as that “principal character” (and its player).
There are several possible reasons (excuses?) for this (apart from my attempted avoidance of Infinite Monkey Cage syndrome). At the RSC, it is usually a given (although I am not a major fan of this word – just struggling for a synonym…) that the sets will be technically awesome (and usually well-integrated, rather than overwhelming… – apart from, say, er, Cymbeline…): and, to be honest, I have probably become over-accustomed to this. Additionally, it didn’t help – although, of course, this is a positive… – that the acting (from all quarters) really was so astonishing that this was all I could think, and therefore write, about. Finally, knowing that I would be returning to see the play again (and again, and again), I thought this might provide me with an opportunity – as it has – to discuss both the African setting and the inspired, befitting casting.
These two review excerpts supply the best précis, I feel, of the points I am trying to make:
The RSC’s latest Hamlet… starring Paapa Essiedu… is an intuitive and responsive telling of the Prince’s tragedy. An exceptional cast and creative team present the feudal tale of murder, revenge and unravelling senses with a modern day outlook. The play’s contemporary setting complete with backpackers and bongs combined with the African backdrop brings a fresh energy to the tale….
The power of Shakespeare’s writing is its ability to transcend time and place. But it remains the obligation of theatre makers to keep classic work accessible and dynamic. Mission accomplished. This Elsinore designed by Paul Wills is alive with vivid African prints, hip swaying dance scenes and djembe drum rhythms. This context is especially stirring in the scene where Hamlet first encounters his father’s ghost. Ewart James Walters materialises from the stage in a hazy mist to the quickening drum beats. Revealing his betrayal in tremulous tones, he looks every inch the monarch in vibrant kente cloth. The ensemble scenes are wildly energetic. The players, sent for to relieve Hamlet from his melancholy, traverse the stage in colourful costumes with playful choreography designed by Mbulelo Ndabeni.
– Gillian Fisher: RSC Hamlet – review
Director Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Hamlet is a breath of fresh air, the vibrant production set in Africa brings bright colours and intensity to the classic Shakespeare play.
Known as a dark, dismal play, Godwin creates an indescribable atmosphere which reflects the setting and traditions of an African monarchy…. There is a constant pulse throughout the show as the use of an African band not only sets the tone but builds the tension, it creates an electric ambience that maintains pace throughout the transitions and amplifies the expressive scenes….
The African adaptation lifts the play’s ability to [capture] the audience, partly because of the contemporary feel the brightness of the play creates.
– Sincerely, Amy: REVIEW | Hamlet | RSC
And, as a good (and wise) friend opined the day after my first visit, it seems, with hindsight (of course), so obvious to stage the play this way – that is (in the words of the RSC’s casting press release), in a “modern state influenced by the ritual, beauty and cosmology of West Africa… where, as a character, Hamlet could feel dislocated, where he could feel conflicted by the demands of his ancestors against the pressure to find a new way of thinking” – especially as this brings an abundance of relevance and resonance.
He was not of an age but for all time!
When we think of Denmark, nowadays, we may think of hygge and LEGO (and perhaps wind power… – insert Polonius joke here…). We certainly do not think of a tyrannical, dictatorial nation at war – both within and without its boundaries….
It’s contemporary. It’s set in an imaginary country that has influences from all the members of our cast and Hamlet is coming from a separate world into another world, which he doesn’t understand.
– Paapa Essiedu: interviewed by Gillian Fisher (for Afridiziak Theatre News)
The company: including Kevin N Golding (Player King); Theo Ogundipe (Lucianus) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC
Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
It would be opportune, I suppose, to use this review, therefore, as the launching point for a discussion of race and “colour blindness” in theatre (especially in Stratford; especially in Shakespeare), given its setting and company – but I (and many others) have (sadly) been there before; and more than once.
This production is certainly proof that we are not short of stunningly-gifted Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) actors in this country – as both Hecuba and the RSC’s 2012 “all black” Julius Caesar also demonstrated. Every single cast member is simply mesmerizing – evidence, as I wrote in my first review, “that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes”.
I always believe it’s better to have 30 imaginations working on a project, rather than one imagination telling the other 29 what to do. I love to have as much input as possible. However, I also think there’s a point where structure is extremely important. All of those energies have to become one energy.
Despite the plethora of cameras and other filming apparatus at Tuesday’s matinée – and a similar amount (by volume) of fidgeting, uniformed teenagers gaggled directly under my nose (who, to begin with, did not distract me in any way) – before the interval I felt completely, truly immersed. (This may have been partly caused by the prodromal phase of a vestibular migraine I am still experiencing – a condition whose precursive auras often provoke such an ocular ‘visitation’: sometimes bringing with them wired, spaced-out, yet tightly-focused, bouts of intense ‘presence’ – my own “spirit of health” or “thing appear’d again”, if you will.) Fresh air (and effective medication) in the break meant that I struggled to be so pleasantly ‘turned on, tuned in’ for the second half: but the production’s magnetic coherence did not wane (‘drop out’) one jot.
This is not as frequent a state – the “coherence”, not the migraine… – as I would desire. (Sitting on the front row, the first time I saw Doctor Faustus is a recent example; listening to Tamsin Waley-Cohen raise Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto to ethereal heights, another. There are not many….) Any performance that flies by, seemingly bypassing time, overtaking its “winged chariot”, for me, has achieved its purpose. Should your mind, your imagination, similarly float (hopefully with the actors), way above the clouds of reality and disbelief, then perhaps, on returning home, you should note this enlightenment, this exaltation, this extended moment of ecstasy, in some form of diary (or even history book). Hang onto it with all your might.
A great movie evolves when everybody has the same vision in their heads.
The real point I’m trying to make – writing this in discrete chunks of text (rather than my usual “gush”), because of illness… (another “excuse”) – is that, without the platform being raised mountain-high by the quality and pertinent imagination of the encompassing design and directorial vision; along with the consequent excellence of the whole company of actors and creatives (including Kevin McCurdy’s terrifyingly authentic combative choreography); we would not be raving about the performance that conquers its peak in such heady terms. That Essiedu is capable of surmounting such a summit, of course, says much about his prodigious capabilities, and the no doubt eminent career that lies ahead. (I just hope that he always find himself surrounded – as he does in this production – with coequals, rather than subordinates.)