August 4, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Seeing the same ensemble of actors take on Hamlet two days after Cymbeline, I was struck by the demands placed on a company performing these two long plays together – the mercifully shorter Hamlet still ran to an energetic three hours and fifteen minutes. And this is one of the consistently strongest ensembles I remember seeing at the RSC for some time – when you can cast an actor of the quality of Byron Mondahl – whose Octavius at the Tobacco Factory was a revelation to me – in roles like English Ambassador, you’re clearly spoiled for choice.

Simon Godwin’s production turned Denmark into an African state. It opened with Hamlet receiving his degree at Wittenberg University, the foreign prince sent to an English university, before being recalled home to a state where a cod-military dictator, Claudius (Clarence Smith), dressed like Idi Amin, sought to place Denmark on the world stage. Claudius’s court was world-facing, with costume, royal paintings, ambassadorial relations and an official state Catholicism all acknowledging Western influence/aspiration, while indigenous practices were given a ceremonial place, as in the drummers preceding Ophelia’s funeral procession.

Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet was thus a man torn between cultural traditions as well as between loyalties. His school-friends Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane), two of only three white members of the cast, were reminders of his time abroad, turning up with airport bags and presents of shortbread and tin red phone booths to indicate their cultural tourist status when they arrived in Denmark. When Hamlet was confronted with the Ghost, he was also confronted with the full performative force of his ancestors. The Ghost’s physical manifestation was withheld until his personal meeting with Hamlet: two drummers stamped, yelped and beat out a cacophonous approach as the stage filled with smoke, and the robed, tall and thin figure of Ewart James Walters rose from the stage. The most terrifying ghost I’ve seen since Greg Hicks’s in the 2004 RSC production, Walters’s accompaniment with the sounds and colours of a partially buried culture and his tremulous, commanding voice left Hamlet quailing, setting up the image of a Hamlet shocked to the core by a responsibility to his father, his country and his own belief system.

The colourful veneer of Denmark was rendered beautifully in Paul Wills’s design – the carved double throne on asymmetric steps and golden carpet set up a distinctive, simultaneously imposing and welcoming throne room, and the use of brightly coloured ceiling-length drapes to demarcate different subsidiary spaces (especially Polonius’s home) was an efficient and striking way of defining spaces. Yet the bright space also served to make Claudius’s villainy the more subtle. Smith was a genial presence, but absolute when crossed. His love for Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude was clear, perhaps best expressed in the lovely moment where, after Hamlet told her he would sit with Ophelia’s ‘mettle more attractive’, Claudius comforted a crestfallen Gertrude as she despondently pulled in her stomach and shifted uncomfortably; his silent reassurance and boosting of her confidence was one of many insightful touches. But his apparent pleasant nature quickly cracked. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both excellently played, were eager to please and glad to be given such respect in this foreign court, but found themselves sucked in much further than they had ever imagined – at one point, Claudius caught them whispering urgently behind his back, and the sharpness with which he turned on them to force them to escort Hamlet to England raised more sympathy than I ever remember for these characters. Claudius’s rule depended on the façade of upright rule and an underlying structure of terror. I was pleased to see the rare sight of a Claudius attempting to run panicked from his final execution – no dignified welcoming of death here, just the final desperate clawing for life of someone whose reign of fear had left him nowhere to run.

Hamlet’s resistance to Claudius manifested as a deliberate, vandalistic attack on Claudius’s valued formal trappings. In his first ‘mad’ appearance he and Horatio entered with a stepladder, both wearing paint-spattered clothes. He scrawled graffiti on the portrait of king and queen and pasted male and female toilet signs onto the double throne. In a basement, marked by the sound of dripping water and a staircase leading down from an upper level, he worked on massive street art paintings that matched slogans from the Ghost’s words with his own crude designs of serpents and crowns. The paint became a visual metaphor for Hamlet’s expressions of anger, most notably as he smeared green paint onto Ophelia’s face during the nunnery scene. The players, a group of touring storytellers who held up masks in the Hecuba/Pyrrhus speeches and performed ‘The Mousetrap’ with music and dance, became co-opted into Hamlet’s noisy disruption of Claudius’s brand of civilisation, and the Players even directly confronted the King at the end of their performance, causing him to physically attack Lucianus before calling for lights.

Essiedu’s performance was one of remarkable bitterness. While there were laughs, particularly in his bathetic response to Polonius’s death, his default tone was one of contempt, sneering at those around him. Hamlet’s performance of disgust at the world made his moments of candour more powerful. The soliloquies and long speeches were raw – ‘What a piece of work is a man’ stood out to me as a despairing lament, performed with a lack of self-interest that left Guildenstern visibly shaken. Even more affecting was his apology to Laertes before their fight. I don’t recall this moment ever being given such prominence, but the gentle, direct and thoroughly open expression that will doubtless propel Essiedu to great things had a simplicity to it that cut through Marcus Griffiths’s rage – their embrace, held for a long moment, was for me the play’s emotional climax, and Griffiths’s reaction was extraordinary, his face battling between care, grief, anger and respect as he held Hamlet close. Essiedu’s ability to project a warped world-view and then find moments of clarity and sincerity was impressive.

The closet scene showcased Essiedu’s strengths in combination with the fascinating and complex Moodie as Gertrude. Her reactions were always on point, especially a moment where she noticed a gun in Hamlet’s trousers, prompting her fear that he was here to murder her. In this one scene, Essiedu combined anger and energetic impulse (drawing a gun on the arras) with inappropriate humour (his shrugging over the body, and his deliberation over how exactly he was going to pull Polonius out) and the shattered grief of his grander purpose. In a beautiful bit of blocking, Gertrude stood dignified but broken in the centre of the stage, while the Ghost and Hamlet stood at opposite corners of the stage. Essiedu looked straight through his mother, and she physically relaxed in pity as her son suddenly became younger, more vulnerable. Gertrude’s great care for Hamlet saw her move from sharp retorts in early scenes (the reactions of courtiers suggested she was not to be crossed) to an isolated sorrow reflecting that of her son.

The Polonius family were richly drawn. Natalie Simpson turned in a second excellent performance of the week as a bold, no-nonsense Ophelia. In her early scenes she enjoyed joining forces with her father against her brother, nodding to his precepts in order to wind up the wearied Laertes. Her relationship with Cyril Nri’s Polonius was warm and loving, the two joking together over Hamlet’s presents to her, mocking one another. But Simpson really came into her own when attacked by Hamlet – she fought hard, and though physically weaker than him she refused to let him pin her down. Simpson’s particular skill is to make every moment look immediate and lived-in, and I found her restlessness during her mad scenes, constantly shifting her position and unable to settle until her rage burst out in shrieks against Gertrude, painful to watch. Ophelia’s madness was a furious demand to be heard, to be seen. Nri, unusually for Polonius, showed powerful grief after the nunnery scene, weeping over Hamlet’s treatment of his daughter; bereft of that earned, loving relationship, Ophelia turned it into rage against the King and Queen who had manipulated her family. Griffiths, meanwhile, made the most of his limited stage time as a noble, grief-stricken Laertes. His sheer size, towering over Hamlet, and his tense readiness for a fight gave him a great deal of impact as a final opponent.

The final fight was a frenetic and exhilarating piece of physical choreography, with Kevin McCurdy presumably relishing the opportunity to do something very different. Stripped to the waist, Hamlet and Laertes faced each other with two sticks (one short, one long) while Romayne Andrews’s beautifully spoken Osric parted them with sticks of his own. The fight saw the two clashing sticks while trying to land a hit on one another, and their leaping, parries and lunges were fast and visceral. Interestingly, the fatal blow came while Osric remonstrated with Horatio for complaining about Laertes fouling Hamlet; with the judge’s back turned, Laertes unscrewed the base of one of his sticks and thrust it into Hamlet. I particularly appreciated the clarity of this piece of storytelling, making the individual moments of Laertes’ decisions explicit.

But moments of spectacle such as this were punctuated with so many small character insights and moments of interest that they defy comprehensive coverage here. The calypso gravediggers, while bizarrely inconsistent with the African setting elsewhere, were amusing as they performed in the grave using bones as microphones, and showed a different, comedic side to Walters as the First Gravedigger. The production committed to Fortinbras (Theo Ogundipe, another powerful presence), leading to the final twisted image of him lowering himself into one side of the double throne next to the limp body of Gertrude. And even Horatio (Hiran Abeysekera), whose speed of delivery made him difficult to hear in the earlier scenes, let out a gut-wrenching scream as Hamlet died in his arms. At times such as these, the production’s emphasis on living each moment and finding something raw made this the RSC’s best Hamlet for many years.

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