In this 2016 production Simon Godwin’s version completely re-imagines Hamlet from a visual perspective. The text largely remains the same, albeit tweaked in places and the small changes have accelerated the pace of the play – it rarely rests on its laurels.
The African theme brings a freshness to one of the most regularly performed of Shakespeare’s plays. Dressed as military guards Barnardo (Kevin N Golding) and Marcellus (Theo O’Gundipe) have asked Horatio (Hiran Abeysekera) to come along to see the ghost that has a likeness to the dead King to prove that they are not crazy. The scene is dark, and it creates a feeling of menace but undershoots slightly as there is no ghostly apparition and we must wait until the next scene before we see the ghost of the King. This is more than made up for as Horatio (Abeysekera) tells Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) about the ghostly experience, he is impatient to see it for himself. The Ghost (Ewart James Waters) rises onto stage enveloped in a cloud of smoke in African attire, he exudes the charisma of an African chief. Hamlet has already shown us his grief when he sees his mother with Claudius (Clarence Smith) for the first time, his desolation and the feeling of betrayal are portrayed with bare emotion by Essiedu.
The emotional intensity is communicated well by Hamlet and later by Ophelia with the other roles paling into background as the raw pain of their emotions are felt.
The scene that I find the most difficult to find context with is the scene with Ophelia, where Hamlet is wearing a painted covered suit. I was a little baffled by the graffiti artistry as it doesn’t seem to have a purpose apart from as a side swipe to Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) and Claudius, it does add focus and colour but does take your attention away from an important soliloquy.
Claudius could be a little more menacing, and with everything else going on onstage, his greedy ambition sometimes seems a little lost in this busy, fast moving play. His character could be stronger to make him a worthy adversary for Hamlet.
The death of Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) involves some of the best acting in the play. Her torture at the loss of her father, her keening and self-mutilation is played so well communicating her despair.
Towards the end of the play there is a fight scene between Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) and Hamlet where they are bare chested and use wooden sticks to fight. The scene is well planned, continuing on with the African theme, its bold and colourful with flaming torches and the steady rhythm of drums in the background.
This is a powerful adaptation of Hamlet, but sometimes relationships feel like they lack emotion except for the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. The colourful African theme adds interest for the younger members of the audience and the faster pace makes the 3 hours seem to pass quickly. There can be a tendency with new visions on old plays that the spirit of the play can be lost and there is a little of that here, but overall as a production it shines out as an overall success. It is a feast for the eyes and there are some wonderful performances from Essiedu and Simpson.
The stage management on this production deserves some credit as the scene changes were seamless, the clever simple set design by Paul Wills made their job so much easier.
To watch the RSC’s Hamlet on BBC iPlayer go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p089zf8r/culture-in-quarantine-shakespeare-hamlet Please also consider a donation to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 14th July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★