The Play’s the Thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

Hamlet, A2S2.

One of the many iconic lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I studied this play at A-Level, and saw Jonathan Slinger star as the brooding prince back in 2013 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. At the time, I found this an incredible performance of Hamlet, but now find myself in awe of the RSC’s latest production.

As it stands, I am hoping to do my dissertation on the representation of minorities in Shakespeare’s plays, so when I heard that a West African spin was being brought to Hamlet, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Simon Godwin directed this colourful, moving spectacle of a play, with Paapa Essiedu playing Hamlet. It was somewhat surprising to find the play still set in Denmark, a stereotypically white country; however, Shakespeare’s Denmark was more British than European in places, so we can let Godwin have this one. The production greatly differed from the expectations created by the poignant trailer released on YouTube, but this does not mean it even slightly disappointed.

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Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet.

Esseidu played a phenomenal Hamlet. I may even venture to admit that his is my favourite portrayal of the role so far. He managed to balance the unquestioning intelligence of the prince with intense emotions and accessible humour without losing control of the character, as is common with such a complex role.

On the night that I visited the theatre, Marieme Diouf played an incredibly striking portrayal of poor Ophelia. From the beginning, she is beautifully composed, a very intelligent, somewhat sassy character who is chronically lovesick. However, when her madness hits, she appears onstage in rugged, dirty and ill-fitting clothing, with her hair loose. She showed obvious signs of distress, with fits of rage and violence towards the other characters, as well as ripping out her own hair as an interpretation of the ‘deflowering’ scene.

The accompanying music with this production made it incredibly memorable. This particularly was the case in the graveyard scene. Traditionally, this is a bit of a lost scene, with obscene, out-dated jokes, although Godwin managed to fully revive the scene and all its meaning. The gravediggers (Ewart James Walters and Doreene Blackstock) appear onstage, digging out Yorick’s grave and merrily singing and using the bones as microphones, highlighting the irony of the situation in a way that usually fails to be communicated.

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Ewart James Walters as the Gravedigger.

Another key factor in this play was indeed race. You cannot review this production without mentioning the terrible twosome, Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane). Interestingly, Godwin had chosen to cast these two characters as the only two in the entire cast who were Caucasian. This truly made them stand out, and appear as though they did not belong in Elsinore Court, supported by their rebellious behaviour, such as smoking marijuana onstage (much to Polonius’ (Cyril Nri) disgust). This portrayed a very specific image about white people, as they were dishonest, corrupt and somewhat underdeveloped characters in this play. Ironically, it could be argued that this is a reversal of the norm for black casting in drama.

Hamlet was coming to the end of its run when I went to see it, but there are always fantastic shows on at the RSC. For tickets, visit their website or call 01789 403493. People aged between 16 and 25 can also get £5 tickets through the RSC Key.

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