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Falling in love with Hamlet again

Tre Ventour’s review of the RSC’s touring Hamlet at Royal & Derngate…

Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Simon Godwin, this is Hamlet, a tale of tragedy and revenge set in Denmark. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius (Clarence Smith), with Queen Gertrude (Lorna Brown), have killed Old Hamlet. In the wake of his brother, Claudius takes Gertrude as his bride. Prince Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) is stricken with grief over his father’s death and is bitter at his mother for marrying Claudius so soon.

Hamlet is confronted by the King’s Ghost (Ewart James Walters) and informed of the nature of his murder. With revenge in his heart, he creates a play that retells the story of the Death of the King. With the help of a theatre troop, he aims to torment the conscience of his uncle. One thing leads to another and in a meeting with his mother, he accidentally kills the conniving Polonius (Joseph Mydell), father of Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) and Laertes (Buom Tihngang).

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Paapa Essiedu is one of the many actors to have played the Prince of Denmark in recent years, following David Tennant (Broadchurch) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown). This new but not-so-modern adaptation takes its time to get going. However, at its nearly three-hour run time, it’s what one would expect. You may as well call this The Paapa Essiedu Show, as that is who dominated. Even when he’s not spouting dialogue he still manages to steal scenes. There was one scene at the very start in which Claudius was delivering a monologue. By rights, all attention should be on him.  Yet, my attention was on Hamlet, stage right, crying, over his dead father. Hamlet has always been a dialogue-heavy play but because of the pacing, time flies by seamlessly.  

Ophelia played by Mimi Ndiweni, along with Laertes (Buom Tihngang) gave great performances in support. Ophelia crying over her father was reminiscent to Hamlet crying over his, showing how exhibiting emotions is still viewed as a “making a scene”. Claudius (Smith) and Gertrude (Brown) were good too, as was Ewart James Walters as the King’s Ghost. All these characters were helped along by the tribal music of Africa. Wakanda much? I very much enjoyed one of Hamlet’s early encounters with Marcellus (Patrick Elue) in which they execute the same handshake that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) do in Marvel’s latest hit, Black Panther. I’m not sure if this was improvised or was implemented into the script at the last minute with the arrival of Black Panther. Anyhow, both RSC’s Hamlet (despite being set in Denmark) and Black Panther are inspiring, putting Black culture on exhibition like that. Marvel did it via the cast, set, story and plot whereas Hamlet did it via the sets, dance choreography, music and majority black cast.

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As well as being a journalist, I am a poet. And like poetry, Hamlet has endless possibilities. Every rendition is different. “Lord, we know what we are, but we know not what we may be” says Ophelia. Typically, like numerous Shakespeare plays, it has mobilised the English language and sent it into battle. Yes, that is much ado with the playwright but for the actors to take that script and turn it into something majestic and brilliant is an achievement within itself. It’s still possible for great scripts to amount to nothing because the acting is below par. Not so with the RSC’s Hamlet.

This version wages war against convention, cliché and genre tropes. It has taken revenge and tragedy and subverted it. So, in the end, despite Hamlet having avenged his father, audiences cannot be sure they are watching revenge play at all. He has torpedoed his chances of ever ruling Denmark. He’s the last of his line. Is he still a regular hero? After a barrage of sarcastic bouts, push comes to shove (literally). Much akin to Titus Andronicus, there’s death and lots and lots of blood, like the Red Wedding in George R.R. Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire (inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones). Not too different to how these characters die (handing Denmark to Norway), this is similar to Walder Frey (David Bradley) killing the Starks at The Twins, giving House Bolton the North. I guess this how classic literature informs contemporary literature.

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From the cast to the crew to the sets, score and sound, there is nothing to dislike. On leaving the Derngate, I felt it was a little long. On reflection, I feel it’s as long as it needs to be. This certainly trumps the Laurence Olivier adaptation. Does it beat Branagh? Maybe. Do I like it more than the National Theatre’s version? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? I think so. Though, isn’t all art subjective?

 

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