The RSC’s run of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire is a successfully ambitious transplant to modern West Africa. Paapa Essiedu commands the title role, and at the tender age of 27, is the RSC’s first black actor to play Hamlet for the company. Essiedu offers a moving and nuanced portrait of Shakespeare’s despairing Dane, ruminating on the stages of grief.
The play loosely begins in Wittenberg University upon Hamlet’s graduation, before a heady succession of flashes show a glass-encased body (the late King Hamlet) before placing the action firmly in African Elsinore’s city limits.
Simon Godwin’s direction takes Hamlet on an intriguingly creative avenue for theatre’s notoriously philosophising misanthrope. Godwin paints a fresh Hamlet, doing away with the introspective philosopher and articulating him more as a tortured artist; incapable of expressing the depths of his loss. There are explicit allusions to Basquiat in the production, as Hamlet mounts the throne to spray-paint a pink ‘H’ and crown on the imposing portrait of Gertrude and Claudius, overlooking the court. As insanity tightens its grip, Hamlet styles himself like a Neo-Expressionist in a gaudy blazer splashed with neon paint, surrounded by discarded mattresses and colourful drapes emblazoned with skulls, dinosaurs and edgy slogans. Essiedu recites the play’s notorious soliloquy, pontificating with an artist’s palate in hand.
There are some moments of excellency dampened by less convincing accompaniments. The decision to cast a female Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld) and the allusion to a previous romantic relationship between herself and Hamlet feels somewhat misplaced, fails to enrich or advance the narrative, and reduces Rosencrantz to little more than a gormless fly-on-the-wall.
Whilst the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene feels somewhat saturated in Ophelia’s attempts to blindly seduce Hamlet (despite his heart-breaking scorn), Mimi Ndiweni convincingly depicts Ophelia’s woeful descent from youthful optimism to fervid mania. This reaches a gruesome climax in Ophelia’s ‘flowers’ speech where the noted plants are sardonically exchanged for segments of her weave, each one torn, grimly, from her head.
This is a bold staging that injects boundless colour and buzzing musicality to Shakespeare’s most contrary of heroes.
You can see Hamlet at the Hackney Empire until the 31st March
Words, Ellie Potts @eldpotts