This is an intelligent, energetic and original Hamlet that should have even the most jaded student of the play reconsidering it afresh. At the centre is the appealing and completely convincing performance of Paapa Essiedu. His acting of the role feels right. He is by turns playful, charming, passionately disturbed, provocative and soulful. His interpretation of the Dane is not very melancholy — more energetic, angry, troubled and poetic.
The play opens with a brief prologue in which Essiedu is seen graduating from Wittenberg University – emphasizing that he is still young, very intellectually bright and certainly not yet old enough or experienced enough to deal decisively with the corruption of his homeland when he has to return there, summoned by his father’s unexpected death. He has a wry and ironic sense of humour at times and this sets well in a Denmark portrayed as a contemporary and quasi-African country, a dictatorship of the modern world. Is it any wonder, then, that the uncle has been able to usurp power from young Hamlet, who is notionally, one would guess, the proper heir to his murdered father? The undefined African (or Caribbean or Calypso?) setting allows for a very fresh approach to several elements of the play – the stage at most times is alive with colour and drums. Most of the cast is black, so the arrival of a white couple, Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and a female Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane), friends from university who are quickly sucked into the machinations of Claudius, is a nice contrast, a reminder of the modern world and prompt to realise that Hamlet has been somewhere very different from his homeland for his studies.
Simon Godwin has come up with a conception of the play that works strongly and consistently; and it also highlights parallels to our own troubled times. He directs the actors with unflagging attention to detail, to the verse, and to the psychology of each character. There is no weak link here – Tanya Moodie is a superb Gertrude who becomes increasingly troubled as she begins to have to face what has actually happened; Natalie Simpson grows into a truly insane Ophelia by the end; Cyril Niri an hilarious Polonius as well as a touching and sometimes sage one. Clarence Smith makes Claudius a plausible, oily tyrant masquerading as a civilised man; and Ewart James Walters is an, imposing ghost as well as a memorable gravedigger. Hiran Abeysekera is a slight, loyal, loving Horatio.
The Design by Paul Wills is part Banksey and part tie-die. The music by Sola Akingbola adds considerably to the mood. But Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet is the heart of the play, as he should be; and is almost startling in the ease and rightness with which he approaches this part. Essiedu is an appealing, convincing, youthful prince whose every soliloquy sounds freshly nuanced and spontaneous even as we recognise every word.
Hamlet is a long play and yet, on this occasion, for me it was over too soon. The production is fleet in its pacing, visually striking and true to the text. It is nuanced and engaging and the ending feels tragic and utterly unavoidable. This is a Hamlet you should not miss.