Review: Hamlet at the RSC

There is something new in the state of Denmark. Or perhaps in the state of Ethiopia… but more on that later. The first thing to say about this 2016 RSC production though is that it is indeed fresh (Clapp, 2016), reinvigorating, memorable and generally very well-conceived and executed. It brings new life to a play performed to such exhaustion that there have been even calls for a moratorium on Hamlet (Dobson & Brennam, 2014). I am glad these calls have not been answered and we had now the opportunity to see the play and its main character under a new light in a production that is true to Shakespeare in playing with life, death, tragedy, and comedy in a well-balanced way.

The highlight goes to Hamlet himself. Paapa Essiedu is not shy of the great line of actors that have taken the role of the Prince. His Hamlet is not only extremely likeable but, above all, believable. As Billington (2016) mentions in his review for The Guardian, ‘Essiedu has a priceless vitality, speaks the verse intelligently and catches the contradictions of a prince who, even when knowing that his father is in spiritual limbo, heartlessly dispatches two fellow students, “not shriving time allowed”. I was utterly impressed by Essiedu’s performance and I look forward to seeing him again in another play soon.

Natalie Simpson delivers a nice performance of Ophelia, but somehow she impressed me less than Siân Brooke in the National Theatre version. Although Clarence Smith is a well composed Claudius, I found the delivery uneven and at times misjudged in tone, however, he never compromises. Marcus Griffiths delivers a commendable performance as Laertes, which is not really a surprise considering his previous Cloten in Cymbeline. The extra clapping goes to Tanya Moodie as Gertrude. She is just a delight to watch as her take on the character is something I could have never imagined before. Her Gertrude is at the same time a loving mother and lustful wife; she is caring and concerned at the same time she sounds and looks quite frivolous. I could see her as a vain and naïve celebrity and a doubt-stricken, repentant, desperate woman trying to reconcile her too many selves. But above all, she was funny. As I see it, making Gertrude funny is something nothing short from daring but she managed it marvellously.

Simon Godwin’s Hamlet is not only well-cast but also a visual and musical delight. I found the way of portraying Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ through graffiti art ingenious. The African inspired misè-en-scene, costumes and music were just striking. What brings me to the only real criticism towards this production: the fact that Denmark is constantly mentioned as the setting of the action feels at odds with the heavily influenced African stage props and music. For me, it created a cognitive dissonance hard to overcome. Moreover, the RSC programme brings a very good essay by Augustus Caseley-Hayford on the tradition of well-off, noble families from Africa sending their children to study abroad. As they relocated the University of Wittenberg from Germany to Ohio, I see no reason why they should not have relocated the whole narrative from Denmark to an African country – it would make much more sense.

I am glad I managed to see this production on its very last day at Stratford-upon-Avon, my life experience as a theatre-goer would have been much poorer without it.