22nd March 2016 press night at the Royal Shakespeare Company, for Hamlet, the foyer and bar is packed. Tangents of conversation shoot up and sprout all over, colouring the atmosphere; there is a wonderful blend of demographics that makes me feel at ease.
The sun is beginning to set in the spring sky the perfect setting for the beginning of a ‘Player’s Play’.
I am about to see one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, 2 hours and 55 minutes (not to mention the 20 minute interval the RSC provide) and arguably his most famous.
I say arguably, only because the tale of ‘Two Star-crossed lovers’ always springs to mind first. However I do contend that Hamlet is the most quoted, with one-liners of his famous soliloquies and speeches from other noted characters used in everyday language. From Academia to Pop Culture.
I know in the past when facing a mild dilemma I have busted-out the old “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” (Act III, Scene I)
Or for instance “To this above all: to thine own self be true.” (Act I, Scene III) sage advice from Polonius (Cyril Nri) to his son Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) ahead of his travels to France. Simply put, Polonius is telling his son “be yourself regardless of the challenges you may face.” Advice that resonates 400 years later in what can sometimes be a conformist society.
It is unfortunate then that in the context of the play, Polonius’s advice is nothing more than a foreshadowing plot device that reeks of irony as neither Polonius nor Laertes heeds the advice that Polonius gives in this scene, and both perish due to their lack of adherence.
Other themes overwhelmingly present in this contemporary re-imagining of Hamlet by director Simon Godwin: morality, madness, death and most surprisingly humour.
The humour has lain glistening beneath the surface of the text for hundreds of years but few productions have dared to pluck and play with it as startling as Godwin’s, this is also where Paapa Essiedu shines and is so different from the many other actors that have played the tortured and fragile Prince of Denmark.
Essiedu’s comedic timing with the verse was wonderful to experience, some of the young people not familiar with Shakespearean language or the play, found themselves laughing at all the right moments and engaging with the play as a whole.
Essiedu’s portrayal of the Prince is also unnerving and unsettling, you start to wonder when the Prince has stopped pretending and has truly gone mad. Essiedu masters this with his frantic pacing, high energy and vacant wide eyes. This raises questions when reflecting on morality, Hamlet’s choices and impulses beg the question, what gives him the right to act as such without consequences?
Other elements of the play that allowed for suspension of disbelief and engagement was the choice to modernise the time and contextual influences of the play.
It is clearly contemporary and African in aesthetics yet still set in Denmark. This artistic choice works very well for a predominantly black cast, and adds a level of vibrancy (achieved with music, costume and set design) that has rarely ever been replicated in any other Hamlet I have seen.
It can be quite jarring though when a character refers to where they are as “Denmark”, when the aesthetics feel anything but. I would argue though that this adds a sense of alienation for the audience which in turn, helps us to empathise with Hamlet; who has returned home to a world that is forever changed.
Overall the play is solid and vibrant (literally lots of dayglow lighting, think rich oranges and yellows). I can’t end without commenting on the strong female leads played by Tanya Moodie and Natalie Simpson, Moodie as Gertrude and Simpson as Ophelia.
Simpson’s Ophelia meanders away from the usually subservient, she is dutiful and obedient; yet she is fierce and dare I say alive her portrayal of the ‘Mad scene’ Act IV Scene V is standout.
The image of her ripping her hair out and handing it out instead of the standard herbs and flowers lingers in my memory days later.
Moodie’s interpretation of Queen Gertrude at first may seem subtle, but when you consider Gertrude is a powerless Queen and wife to an implied tyrant, one can understand her artistic decision to reign it back.
Shakespeare has allotted Gertrude few lines, but that does not stop Moodie’s Gertrude from being ever present, the Queens tongue is still but you can tell her mind is racing and the tension she experiences are palpable. This for me is the mark of a truly great actor, always being switched-on even when no one is supposed to be watching you.
This production of Hamlet is a fresh take on an old tale, I thoroughly enjoyed it, in-fact I’m off to see it again on the 6th of April! This production runs until the 13th of August 2016 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon and is in cinemas from June 8th. Don’t miss your chance to experience this truly wonderful play. Go see it now!
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