by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designed by Paul Wils
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Friday 25th March 2016, 19.15
Paapa Essiedu – Hamlet
Natalie Simpson – Ophelia
Clarence Smith – Claudius
Tanya Moodie – Gertrude
Cyril Nri – Polonius
Marcus Griffiths – Laertes
Hiran Abeysekera – Horatio
Ewart James Walters – Ghost / Gravedigger
James Cooney – Rosencrantz
Bethan Cullinane – Guildenstern
Kevin N Golding – Bernado / Priest / Player King
Theo Ogundipe – Fortinbras / Marcellus / Lucianus
Doreene Blackstock – Player Queen
Romayne Andrews – Osric
Eke Chukwu – Voltimand
Byron Mondahl – Professor of Wittenberg / English Ambassador
Marieme Diouf – Cornelia / Player
Temi Wilkey – Player
It’s three years since the RSC last produced Hamlet, with Jonathan Slinger and Pippa Nixon in the Hamlet and Ophelia roles. In the 400th anniversary year, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a given, and the first two titles I would have written down too. A “USP” with Hamlet is expected, and this year it’s an almost entirely black ensemble, led by Paapa Essiedu. Essiedu is twenty-five (aka the right age, or slightly young), reminding us that so many career-making Hamlets were done young from David Warner to Ben Whishaw. The last time we saw him he was playing Romeo. The Telegraph review is headed “A star is born” which is the consensus.
Was Essiedu cast into the concept, or was the concept built around him? He is British born of Ghanaian descent and British born kids have described the strangeness of visiting ancesteral West Africa. I know what they mean. As a kid brought up in sunny Bournemouth, my mother’s birthplace in the mining valleys of Wales was enough of a culture shock when I was eight. Like Hamlet, I was suddenly surrounded by black relatives, though in my case the coal dust washed off. In this Hamlet, he is first seen at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio (a Simpsons reference too!), fully Westernized, then has to return to West Africa on his father’s death … you do know the plot. I often thought of a Sierra Leone friend from university during that country’s many and varied troubles since.
The play opens with that elaborate American style Wittgenstein University graduation ceremony, and I had wondered what they’d do about lines, there not being any. Very clever. The (white) University Chancellor simply read out the title page, “Hamlet … Prince of Denmark” and up Hamlet went to get his degree. Then a procession carries the body of old Hamlet across the stage in a glass coffin before we get any lines.
A clever touch is a white Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were present at the graduation. They’re summoned to the African court … Guildenstern is female. They arrive with tacky gifts from the airport gift shop … Walkers Shortbread for Claudius, a telephone box teapot for Gertrude. Guidenstern gets a lot of frock changes, but on leaving for England has an ethnic shawl she’s picked up. On leaving for England, they have the side of a steamship across the whole set, something the RSC and National can afford.
Marcellus and Barnardo are both strong portrayals in traditionally dull parts, and on initial appearance have African accents (a theme not continued). They’re in full camouflage gear with the light blue berets of the UN, as so often seen in pictures of African conflict. The “battlements”are a searchlight tower and a metal caged sentry post … very effective. The team of Hamlet with Horatio and the two soldiers, watching for the ghost, worked outstandingly well, though they had a lot of lines in full which are often cut, so had space to make the roles come out. Marcellus and Barnardo did great reactive terror. The ghost was in African robes, and emerged from below, centre stage, wreathed in mist and smoke, and gradually became visible as the fans above cleared it. Another major plus. On the other hand, my companion felt the long battlement scenes delayed the play’s take off, and longed for a touch of Michael Grandage’s cutting early on.
Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) and Ophelia (Natalie Simpson)
Paapa Essiedu is a vibrant, lively, continually moving Hamlet, but also articulates beautifully and weights lines in interesting ways, drawing big laughs as he did a split second pause to survey the audience on the line about guilty people watching a play. He is very flexible in his dancer-like body moves, and can use his voice to bring a sneer, or a mocking tone, or blatant irony to lines. He will indeed be a major star. He starts out black suited, formal, but once he decides to adopt the antic personna, he’s in a hand-painted (and splattered) white suit, spraying graffiti, painting signs, fixing his ‘n’ hers toilet signs to the twin African thrones of his uncle and mother. A first rate Hamlet, and the “young” interpretation makes him radically different to the late 30s / 40 contigent of established actors who have played the role.
There may be outstanding lead roles as the prince, but an outstanding production to me rests on how good Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude are. Ophelia is a part you can do very little to save from its text, but Natalie Simpson was one of the best recent ones. Her first appearance with Laertes was beautifully done by both … it felt like watching siblings, and her “mad” scene was outstanding. Marcus Griffiths was also an outstanding Laertes, both in the early scene with Polonius, exchanging knowing smiles with his sister as the old boy rambles on, and also when he returns. He arrives winched down from a helicopter, and is powerful and genuinely threatening. The Family Polonius is an important part of the concept. Ophelia brings the very jolly Polonius (Cyril Nri) his slippers. Ophelia and Laertes might grin at the old boy, but they exude happy family. In fact, Ophelia and her dad share one pair of slippers. It serves as a counterfoil to the miserable royals and also brings out Laertes grief at both deaths more emotionally than usual.
Claudius (Clarence Smith) and Gertrude (Tanya Moodie)
Claudius and Gertrude? A West African despotism is a good setting, and Claudius first appears in a suitably ornate green uniform. Tanya Moodie says in an interview that Gertrude is the observer, the only non-university educated one in this African elite, forcing a smile as it all unfolds around her, unable to accept that Hamlet is mad. She looks imposing too … great costumes. Claudius also gets multiple bright costumes and is suitably weasely. A good pair, but given the resources available, I thought Claudius needed more henchman, rather than relying on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and a couple of red suited servants. He needed more trappings of power, though I loved the rather badly painted official portrait on the wall, and especially his face on the cover of Time magazine.
The players arrived in a swirl of bright colour and drumming and dancing … the vibrant colour palette of the whole production was a refreshing contrast to the dull Danish crime thriller palette the last time the RSC did the play. With an all-black cast, strong colours and lighting is beneficial. However, I found Hamlet’s instructions to the players and the actual players scene disjointed and messy. The costumes, music and colours overwhelmed the players’ scenes and the Murder of Gonzago itself.
They took the interval at 1 hour 45 minutes, making a long first part. It was as Hamlet aims his pistol at the praying Claudius. Black out, then they restarted at the same point after the interval. It was the “Macbeth freeze frame” so often done at the banquet, but I’ve never seen the device used in Hamlet, nor at that point. Actually, I don’t think it was a good idea.
Gertrude (Tanya Moodie)and Hamlet, Polonius is behind that red array!
Aimed his pistol? What? This was a sword free production. Hamlet was armed with a pistol, and shot Polonius through the arras – oddly getting some laughs, which are inappropriate at the point, maybe it was the instant collapse of the very tall arras, or maybe a handful who didn’t know the plot. Then the sword fight at the end was done with twin staffs, one of which could be unscrewed to reveal a pointed metal end. It was a great fight too, with Hamlet and Laertes both stripped to the waist in maroon pantaloon wrestling trousers with silver boots. One of Hamlet’s staffs went into the front row, and he had to retrieve it. After his bows, Essiedu went straight to the section to check that they hadn’t been hurt.
Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) and Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters)
The gravediggers’ scene was introduced with calypso rhythms and Ewart James Walters (doubling with the ghost of old Hamlet) was superb, introducing a lilting Caribbean accent … let’s not ask how that got to West Africa … but it assisted comedy.
Claudius on the cover of Time magazine
ah Crompton goes for four in Overall? My two favourite critics were divided, Michael Billington on four stars, Domenic Cavendish (in spite of his A Star Is Born headline) gave it three. Sarah Crompton (A Very Palpable Hit) gives it four in the Sunday Times. I normally side with Billington on ratings, but this time the Telegraph’s short summary on Saturday had a point: “Worth seeing but not a landmark event.” Why not? Despite Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes and Marcellus all being at the top of the game, there was a certain disjointedness overall, a few clumsy bits in spite of the fabulous drumming and costumes and colours. I know uncut it would run at four hours. Here it was three hours. Every production is cut, but in different places. I’m not sure they were the right ones. It will be a memorable production if not a landmark one … as the RSC’s first black Hamlet, and one which I agree will be a “career maker” for Paapa Essiedu. I wavered between three and four, but I’ll come down on …
THREE STARS ***
GHOSTS – AN ASIDE
This production had one of the best ghost appearances in years (see above). Early on, the soldiers gazed up into the galleries at a ghost we couldn’t see, then he rose from the depths in smoke when Hamlet was there. Later, in he Gertrude scene, the ghost is solidly there.
For some reason, I remember a GCE Physics book of fifty years ago, and a chapter on how Hamlet’s ghost worked. It was on reflection or refraction or whatever. I guess it referred to 19th century theatre, not to Jacobean theatre, but you can have a ghost you can walk through on stage. It’s all done with … yes … smoke and mirrors. Maybe they could do it in Shakespeare’s time too, though it would have to be indoor theatre and I doubt candles cast enough light. It reminded me that we like our ghosts of old Hamlet solidly corporeal nowadays. I haven’t seen a transparent one in recent memory.
We have had problems affecting most Simon Godwin directed plays. Two Gentlemen of Verona was ruined by loud hissing and gurgling breathing apparatus behind us. The Beaux Stratagem had a much praised set, but as we were sitting at the side of the National Theatre and unable to see 25% of the action, I rate it “worst set design of 2015.” The first ten minutes of Richard II at the Globe were masked by a party of German tourists speaking loudly right in front of our front row seats, then departing noisily after ten minutes. I’ve seen this a few times at the Globe … tourists who find it worth £5 to look, then go away. Here we had a twitcher directly in front. A man who scratched, bit nails, slumped down, sat up, put his head on one hand then the other, adjusted his t-shirt, fiddled with the back of his head, adjusted his glasses, took out the programme to look at … he didn’t stop writhing about and fiddling around for more than 30 seconds in the three hours. The people next to us noticed it too. You couldn’t not! None of this is Mr Godwin’s fault, but it definitely affects our ratings.
MANY OF THE CAST FEATURE IN:
Cymbeline, RSC 2016
Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch, 2015
Hamlet – Globe 2014
Hamlet RSC 2013 with Jonathan Slinger
Hamlet Young Vic 2011 with Michael Sheen
Hamlet National Theatre 2010 with Rory Kinnear
Hamlet, Maxine Peake, Manchester, 2014
PREVIOUS PRODUCTIONS REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG:
Julius Caesar, RSC 2012 (Cassius)