Unlike the recent Barbican production, Simon Godwin creates a Hamlet fit for the 21st Century. The transformation of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy to taking place in an African kingdom sees intriguing and intuitive detail: from the slow spinning of fans attempting to strike up some kind of breeze, to the orange sunsets that illuminate Ophelia as she plunges to her death.
Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, returns from his studies abroad, finding his father dead and his uncle in his place, as both King and his mother’s husband. A combination of his personal grief and a longing for a return to his hedonistic student life, Hamlet simply cannot be contained in a world alien to him. He pushes every boundary in a bid to gain some form of meaning, but it simply never comes.
Paapa Essiedu as the young Danish prince is superb. He is angst ridden from the off and, despite his horrific behaviour towards Ophelia, extremely likeable. His swaggering around the stage in a paint ridden linen suit and humorous attitudes towards the female Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) leave the audience very much on his side. This works entirely, except for our culmination at the end of Act One as we see him point a gun at the back of his uncles’ head. It is simply hard to believe that he could kill him.
What Hamlet may lack in sheer conviction in the first half, it makes up for in the second. Essiedu is remorseless in the accidental murder of Polonius, and unashamedly glad to see the skull of his friend Yorrick. He is joined by an immensely tragic and tormented Ophelia, who is performed superbly by Natalie Simpson. Often deemed simply as an instrument of the Prince, Simpson took the role into her own and dominated the stage in her haunting madness.
Clarence Smith put on a very believable and human turn as Claudius, whilst Ewart James Walters was reverberant as the Ghost and equally comic when the Gravedigger. We could not help but feel drawn to Cyril Nri’s Polonius who was endearing throughout. It thus seemed odd that his death was played for comic value, yet remained gratefully received by the audience.
Superb music composed by Sola Akingbola provides the very life bone of this production: it lives and breathes. Driven by the very talented Paapa Essiedu, the equally strong supporting cast present a very accessible and enlightening Hamlet that leaves us wholly on the side of the tragic prince.