Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th April, 2016
I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – the most recent was the Cumberbatch one in which I found the cast excellent but the whole somehow lesser than the sum of its parts. One thing I do like in my Princes of Denmark is youth. Hamlet shouldn’t be pushing forty. He works better, I find, as a younger man, unsure of his role in the revenge drama that his life becomes when his uncle marries his mother so soon after the funeral of his father. Uncertainty, indecision and depression can strike at any age, to be sure, but (as in this production) there is increased credibility when the life that’s turned upside down is that of a younger man, still finding his way in the world.
And so, Simon Godwin’s production begins with a snapshot of Hamlet’s graduation from Wittenberg Uni. At once, Paapa Essiedu in the title role captivates. Everything Hamlet will state later on about the Player King applies here: it’s all in his eyes. Early scenes of grief and shock hit hard – Essiedu handles the all-too-famous soliloquies well, casting light and shade in surprising areas. His lunacy, here signalled in shorthand by abstract painting – he gets as much on himself as on his canvases – adds unpredictability. Above all, sensitivity comes to the fore. This is a Hamlet we can care about.
Clarence Smith’s lying king Claudius gets across the public face of the dictator as well as the personal side – he can’t run his household as well as the state. Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is coolly elegant – at her best in the bedroom scene, horrified to see her husband’s ghost and strident in her denial of the phenomenon. Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a star turn, funny and charming in his longwindedness. His fate behind the arras also elicits laughter in its suddenness and slapstick.
Ewart James Walters impresses as the Ghost, in tribal robes, sonorous and forbidding. He also plays the smart-alec gravedigger, with a twinkle in his eye. Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia seems curiously sidelined until her mad scene, pulling her hair out and handing it around like sprigs of the herbs she names. It’s always a difficult sell but Simpson makes it work, terrifying the court into singing her refrain.
Denmark has moved closer to the equator for this African-themed show. Well, why not? After all, Disney borrowed the plot for The Lion King. Loud drums punctuate the more extreme moments and the colour palette suggests heat and intensity. The music (by Sola Akingbola) reminds us this is a thriller, despite Hamlet’s vacillations. The climactic fencing match with Laertes (a striking Marcus Griffiths) is done here with sharpened sticks. The poisonings are swift and shocking – events come to a head in an outburst of action that breathes new life into the well-worn plot. There is freshness in Godwin’s take that keeps this Hamlet watchable and affecting, but it’s Essiedu’s performance that is the keystone of the production. Powerful in its intimacy, it’s a portrayal that touches and then breaks your heart.