The RSC have been working their way through the Shakespeare canon, and now in the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death it’s the turn of Hamlet. I’ve seen countless productions of Hamlet over the years but something keeps drawing me back, the play itself is pretty impressive but every production has had something different to offer.
This one, directed by Simon Godwin (who also directed the rather excellent Two Gentlemen of Verona a few years ago), is set in a country reminiscent of a modern African nation, with atmospheric music composed by Sola Akingbola and bright costumes and sets designed by Paul Wills. We see Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) graduating from Wittenberg University before the play begins: the emphasis in this production is on Hamlet as a young man fundamentally changed by the experiences he has had away from home, and how he tries to make sense of the culture and recent events back home. For me, the implication was of a Hamlet pretending to go mad in an attempt to catch out his uncle, but his feigned madness seemed to become real as he struggled to cope with what was going on.
I was impressed with Essiedu’s performance. I’m so used to seeing famous actors as Hamlet that I found it quite refreshing to see someone who I personally wasn’t familiar with on stage. I thought he was excellent, with strong stage presence and a freshness about his speech, especially in his “To be or not to be”, which can often sound stale.
Cyril Nri lent Polonius the familiar mix of pomposity and dignity: the relationship between him and his children Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) and Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) was genuine and touching.
Clarence Smith was good as Claudius but I was particularly struck by Tanya Moodie as Gertrude. There were some interesting choices made relating to her character: during the scene in which Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom, it is suggested that she can see the ghost of Old Hamlet too, and when she comes to tell us of Ophelia’s drowning, she is wet and muddy, suggesting she waded in after her.
Special mention must go to James Cooney who played Horatio owing to the indisposition of Hiran Abeysekera. Romayne Andrews took over Cooney’s original role of Rosencrantz and both of them were superb.
Because I know the play so well, I am able to and enjoy pay attention to the little things that make up a production like this. One of the “love tokens” given to Ophelia by Hamlet is a T-shirt with “H loves O” on it: it reminded me of nothing so much of Tom Hiddleston’s infamous “I Love T.S.” shirt, and I had to stifle a giggle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned up in Elsinore with some amusing gifts: a tin of shortbread and a teapot in the shape of a red phone box.
Overall I thought this was a memorable production of Hamlet, a fresh and innovative version that I really enjoyed.