Paapa Essiedu is an impressive Hamlet in the RSC's vibrant West African production
Arguably London’s prettiest theatre, Hackney Empire only tends to pull in the crowds at panto season. But this touring production from the RSC is well worth a trip: it fills every gorgeous corner of the building with a bright, expansive take on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.
Simon Godwin’s production is reimagined in a West African setting, and it looks incredible: the stage is draped in huge swathes of wax-print fabric, and inhabited by performers with drums and sharp, bright, tailored costumes that seem to glow in rich, warm light. Hamlet’s dislocation becomes that of a prince who’s struggling to readjust to this newly alien world after three years at a European university.
Astonishingly, Paapa Essiedu is the first black man ever to play Hamlet at the RSC: at 27, he’s young enough to convince as a recent graduate, embarrassed by the presence of his hipster mates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But he’s also memorably good, landing every sniping joke at his parents’ expense. He rebels by making huge, Basquiat-esque canvases, scrawled schematics for a world that no longer makes sense to him.
This ‘Hamlet’ is a world away from other recent productions, which tend to bring out the story’s psychological horror. It’s a lot funnier, for a start. Joseph Mydell’s hilarious Polonius gets constant eye-rolling from his two kids, and Ophelia is so grossed-out by Laertes’s reference to her ‘chaste treasure’ that she pelts him with grapes, then pulls out condoms from his bag. This unbuttoned, music-filled court feels less repressive, too, and its prince less a troubled philosopher, more a wise-cracking rebel with a can of spray paint.
Godwin’s production doesn’t quite find a way of conveying the cursedness and menace of this Denmark, so the second act’s mounting body count feels faintly baffling rather than cathartic. But its dusty, colour-soaked atmosphere lingers, and so does a sense of how fragile this court is, against the Westernising influences this trickster Hamlet has brought home.