1st April, 2016
A dark figure holding a skull, a po-faced brooder – the iconic image has over time come to represent Hamlet the character, Hamlet the play, and has even been conflated with the Bard himself to become a symbol of Tragedy with a capital T. Yet it is ironic that a play so complex, so slippery, so full of paradox and ambiguity has come to be simplified by such singular visual iconography. The many questions surrounding the drama and its protagonist - is Hamlet really mad, or just playacting? Does he crave maternal love, or carnal lust? Is he an eloquent wordsmith, or merely a pretentious prat? Is it even a good example of tragedy in the traditional sense? – all point towards a play which is unsure of itself, and this in turn poses the question - what are we as an audience supposed to make of it?
It is upon these ambiguities that Shakespeare’s play thrives and which cements its status as (arguably) the most revered and famed of the Renaissance tragedies. Hamlet presents the opportunity for endless interpretation, psychoanalysis, and academic speculation. It is our continual attempts to grasp and hold on to this most evasive play that keeps us coming back for more, and this is why, 400 years after his death, Shakespeare – when done well – is the most exciting, sumptuous and addictive playwright ever to come from Britain, if not the world.
Amongst the RSC’s year-long anniversary celebrations is Simon Godwin’s fresh and vibrant production of Hamlet, presented with a beautifully clear concept which ensures maximum impact. Paapa Essiedu stars as the RSC’s first ever black Hamlet (this is shocking, I can’t fathom what took them so long!) and his youthful energy breathes life into the character, making him much more than philosophical mouthpiece.
Godwin begins the play with a short but necessary prologue: we are introduced to Hamlet as he graduates from the University of Wittenberg before an explosive paparazzi flash heralds the death of old Hamlet and returns the Prince to his motherland. This device is intrinsic in Godwin’s vision of youthful displacement – the return to the familial home following the independence and educational enlightenment of university is heightened by newfound feelings of alienation within the homeland.
The resounding African drumbeats of Sola Akingbola’s music emphasises the cultural heritage which pulsates within Hamlet’s veins, despite his long absence. Furthermore, the appearance of the Ghost (Ewart James Walters) in traditional dress stresses the importance of national heritage which now rests upon young Hamlet’s shoulders. He is not only the inheritor of his father’s title, but the inheritor of an entire nation: the strain of responsibility is palpable.
Essiedu’s Hamlet is in limbo, no longer a child but not yet mature enough to grasp the responsibility thrust upon him as a graduate, as an heir, as an adult. The ‘undiscovered country’ of the famous speech has particular resonance; Hamlet lies in the purgatory of youth, the purgatory of a homeland he no longer recognises, thus the afterlife and the unknown can’t help but weigh heavily on his mind. He unravels with speed (literally – Essiedu is lithe and nimble, flitting around the stage with manic energy). His crude drawings adorn the stage, garish war paint adorns his body, an illustrative outlet for his frustrations and a physical manifestation of his arrested development. This culminates in his revealing a tattoo of his dead father etched across his chest – youthful transgression exemplified by the definitive cliché.
Similarly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane) are typical ‘gap year’ types, complete with naive cultural appropriation as seen in their drug-fuelled mimicking of the local dance. Even Laertes’ (Marcus Griffiths) subdued reaction to his sister’s death points towards the widespread displacement of a generation isolated from their origins and unsure of their place within a disillusioned world.
However, Hamlet’s resultant regression, like his revenge, is a hot mess as he strives to embody both child and man. He treats sexuality with adolescent sniggering; his predatory attention to Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) undermined by his physical distance from her ‘c(o)untry matters’ during the play scene. His blasé reaction to gunning down the obsequious Polonius (Cyril Nri) shows up his honest descent into lunacy. The moment is played with a tone of hysteric humour, the murdered Polonius becomes the eternal butt of the joke, a scapegoat within Hamlet’s fantastic game. It is a credit to Essiedu’s charisma and immense watchability that the character remains empathetic - I’ve always advocated the benefits of a young, age-appropriate Hamlet, and this performance proves it.
Rounding off a great cast, Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude embodies a feline physicality, stalking across the stage she shows little of the submissive vulnerability often reserved for the mother. Along with Clarence Smith’s Claudius they represent the modern power couple, and it is fitting that in this production Gertrude refuses to die without a fight.
Godwin’s production is colourful, refreshing and resolute (positively lacking the wishy-washy hero-worshipping of Lindsay Turner’s production last year). As a young person I feel it resonates with a generation – my generation - where children are forced to grow up too soon, and many young adults are trapped in a form of post-educational purgatory. As attested by the 400th Anniversary promotional material and merchandise, this production proves that, in the words of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare ‘was not of an age, but for all time’.
Hamlet plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 13th August 2016