The RSC revive Shakespeare’s searing tragedy at the Hackney Empire this month as part of a national tour. Paapa Essiedu plays the protagonist, a student, called home from university to find his life turned upside down as his father has died and his uncle marries his mother as a result.
Directed by Simon Godwin, the play encourages the audience to think of the story differently and Hamlet’s opening words immediately set the tone for the rest of the play. The prince of Denmark, played impeccably embodied by Paapa Essiedu, interrupts his uncle and nemesis King Claudius (Clarence Smith) saying “A little more than kin and less than kind.”
The African Twist
The works of Shakespeare has spanned every generation and many different languages, mostly because of the eternal relevance of his stories. In this RSC interpretation of the classic, the tradition of the powerful West African elite sending their children to new worlds causes disconnect that is still relatable today.
Augustus Casely-Hayford provides the example of the medieval king, Mansa Musa who, on route to Mecca, visited North African libraries with the idea to turn his capital of Timbuktu into a “jewel of scholarly excellence.” This new perspective to bring back home is one that is applicable to modern day where cultures fuse and homes expand.
Tying into the well-known story of Hamlet, where he leaves home for education in a faraway land, he comes back to a culturally changed environment than the one he left behind. Paapa Essiedu explores the character with wit, humour and a modern edge.
The costumes and set design use traditional west African Kente print and the splatters of paint and neon colours make it a wonderful visual spectacle. Sola Akingbola and Sidiki Dembele provide percussion and voice to accompany the minimalist keyboard and woodwind.
The majority black cast is robust and admirably talented. It includes actors such as Lorna Brown (as Gertrude), Mimi Ndiweni (as Ophelia), Joesph Mydell (as Polonius) and Kevin N Golding (as Barnardo, Player King).
The vibrant sense of velocity that twists and turns like most Shakespearean tragedies, this version of Hamlet delivers all that and more. It’s heart-breaking, funny and filled with dramatic devices, most notably the dramatic irony that gets the audience every time. Sobbing soliloquies are wonderful microcosmic works in themselves, and the much awaited “To be or not to be” speech certainly doesn’t disappoint.
With nods to Wakanda, exuberant costume design and a fantastic theatrical showcase, Hamlet, a play that is seemingly so far removed from reality, feels as relevant as ever.
Watch the RSC interview with Paapa Essiedu here.
10-31st March, Hackney Empire, Tickets from £10