What does it take to make an iconic Hamlet? The ability to become the Byronic hero, the lone voice in the dark, to interpret those classic, tormented monologues? Sure, but there is also the other side of the role, where many actors fall short: the young man that Ophelia is in love with, and that many of the characters were friends with before tragedy strikes.
In this, Paapa Essiedu has succeeded where so many have failed. You can see why Ophelia is drawn to him, why Horatio stays with him and why his uncle is wary of him. His Hamlet is warm, likeable and a natural leader. It wasn’t just Essiedu’s emotive and intelligent performance that impressed me, however – Simon Godwin’s RSC production is studded with talent across the board.
There are a few things I expect (and often dread) when I see a classic updated for today: minimalism, colourlessness, and the pedestrian juxtaposed with the iambic pentameter. Here, Godwin illustrates why modern does not mean mundane, as his contemporary-times production maintains all the pomp and ceremony to please an Elizabethan court. From its opening with Hamlet receiving his degree from an American university before returning to a very different Denmark – a West African military dictatorship with guns, regal palaces and rulers encrusted with jewels – Godwin’s production points towards something transcendent and timeless: the smell of money and corruption.
The modernisation of the play is subtly and expertly done. Two army officers in camouflage and sporting rifles push Horatio (dressed in the hoodie uniform of students everywhere) towards the Ghost, panicking. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern arrive from England with a patronising London phone-box biscuit tin for Queen Getrude, which she takes with deadpan humour. When Hamlet fakes madness, he dons a suit emblazoned with a white skull and starts graffitiing the walls, Banksy-style.
As an orange, violent sunset pours through the windows, a portrait of Claudius and Gertrude dominates the set, and powerful, drum-infused military music acts as the heartbeat of the plot’s rising tension. The music, composed by Sola Akingbola, is breathtaking and brings a new life to classic scenes. A calyspo for the grave diggers’ song, and a dirge for the grim splendour of Ophelia’s funeral.
Ophelia herself, played by Mimi Ndiweni, is warm and playful, and Polonius, played with understated comedy by Joseph Mydell, brings a necessary levity to the play. I’ve seen Ophelia acted with the scent of tragedy around her from the beginning, but this interpretation looks like she has never been touched by sadness. It makes her transition to madness after Polonius’s death even more powerful.
Another impressive performance comes from the veteran Ewart James Walter, who gives voice to the crackle and bitterness of the murdered king’s ghost. His voice is incredible, like the clattering of old bones, and yet he appears again as the gravedigger, full of life and merriment. The brightness of his costume, the crimson and gold flags of the players, and the lush, extravagant set make this the most colourful and exciting production of Hamlet I have ever seen.
It’s far from a one-man show but it is impossible to diminish Essiedu’s brilliance. He allows us the incredible intimacy of seeing Hamlet’s inner thoughts. His warmth turns dark as the other actors leave the stage, and as he intones “To be or not to be”, his despair seems a black hole on stage, sucking in all the light.
Hamlet is on tour until March 31st. For more details, including future dates, click here.