In 2015, Paapa Essiedu appeared in Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s The School For Scandal by Sheridan. Midway through, the fast-talking Essiedu scrambled a line and, without batting one little eyelash, gave a shrug and just said the whole line again. It was done with such confidence and swagger, you could have been forgiven for missing the miss-step. Even Essiedu’s mistakes, it appears, are delivered with more coolness and style than most actors deliver their actual lines.
Aside from this severely suave recovery, The School for Scandal was not an especially notable production – although it was visually beautiful. However, Romeo and Juliet (the other half of SATTF’s 2015 season) was wonderful. Accompanied by Daisy Whalley as Juliet, Essiedu played Romeo in a production directed by Polina Kalinina that foregrounded the icky teenageness of the whole woebegone tale and made each line of this most over-familiar of plays seem alarmingly new.
Since seeing it I have on several occasions tried to explain the greatness of this production to people only to get slightly confused looks in response as, let’s face it, another staging of the star-crossed lovers sounds about as exciting as another cup of tea – it’s welcomes but entirely mundane.
But as sometimes happens, on that night the atomic particles must have been in a particularly becoming alignment as we were gifted a thoroughly great staging. A large part of this was down to Essiedu himself. He has an art to speaking Shakespeare that doesn’t just make it “accessible” or “modern” à la Baz Luhrmann, but also very funny. His intonation falls on just the right clause to make any po-faced adoration of Shakespeare seem misplaced because Billy was actually pretty silly, even in the tragedies.
Here, in his new role as Hamlet for the RSC in Stratford, Essiedu again emphasises the youth of the character, making the student prince a petulant smartass at times. Whilst his Romeo won sympathy drifting around Verona, it’s exciting to see him embrace the unlikable aspects of the Dane. Particularly in his treatment of Ophelia – the violence in his delivery suggesting that holing up in a nunnery might not be a bad idea for her own protection – this Hamlet is a world away from the pasty, manic-eyed character played by David Tennant. Instead his damned anger at the murder of his father and the disruption of his life booms louder than the African drumming pounding through the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The relocation to an unspecified African nation on one level suits the text well and is made stronger as a new backdrop for an established work by the avoidance of lingering on it. The choice of a black Hamlet, it should be noted, is not therefore entirely an example of colour-blind casting as it is still largely working on the idea of casting actors with physical appearances connected to the setting. A black Hamlet in Denmark would make more of a point about the irrelevance of race in casting decisions, than a relocation of the entire play to Africa. Moreover, it partly “works” as a setting because it relies on a generalised idea of Africa as being a continent where corrupt nepotistic kingdoms and military coups are common forms of rule –running perhaps a little close to the Africa of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Arguably, of course, the text itself probably doesn’t depict Denmark strictly accurately, but things get more complex when thinking about how Africa is shown on a British stage.
As it stands, there is the uncomfortable and unavoidable fact that despite this being a production with a largely non-white cast that in so many ways (costume, scenery, cast and music) is excellent, all I can see illuminated in the dimmed lights of the RST are row upon row of white faces staring back at me. The conclusion this leads to is that race and the British theatre still have a very complicated relationship, about which productions by visible and respected companies like the RSC should be used to inspire continual conversation.
Because if there was a production to get more people of all backgrounds to foster an interest in Shakespeare this might well be it. And not because the lead actor happens to be black, but because he takes the dead dog of traditional British theatre and sends sparks flying through it like the sweet hero of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. His Andrew Scott-as-Moriarty style “Goodnight!” to Gertrude whilst dragging Polonius’ body out on a wall-hanging elicits proper laughs from the audience. Yet despite his skill with humour he avoids the easy option of ingratiating himself with viewers and instead plays Hamlet as a slightly precocious brat. In doing so we see why 400 years later we are still performing these plays on the Southbank and down by the river in Warwickshire, as all it takes is a new actor and suddenly you’re meeting the character again for the very first time.
Hamlet is on in Stratford-upon-Avon until 13th August 2016. Click here for tickets.