RSC review: A thrillingly unfamiliar Hamlet

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet and Natalie Simpson as Ophelia

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet and Natalie Simpson as Ophelia

Peter Ormerod reviews Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

From its booming, luminous opening to its wild and mad conclusion, this feels like a landmark production in the making, a boldly confident and sure-footed effort that makes the old play new again.

Director Simon Godwin has transported the setting from a chill Denmark to a torrid west African kingdom in broadly contemporary times, and this vision is realised to glorious effect. There is a fierce and focused intensity from the outset; there is a sense throughout that the slightest stray spark could ignite an inferno. At its centre, though somehow detached, is Paapa Essiedu’s sharp and searing Hamlet, an attractive and sympathetic outsider; rarely can the great role have been played with such apparent ease. He is youthful yet wise, his ‘to be or not to be’ marked by the occasional upward tone, part questioning, part persuading. It is notable that he is the RSC’s first black Hamlet, but his performance should be remembered as great in its own right.

The unfussy set allows for a sense of colour and vibrancy not commonly associated with this play. All is potent and full-bodied, with tribal drums and Afro-funk rhythms adding to the urgency. This sense infuses the cast: Cyril Nri’s Polonius is the windbag we all know, but with extra bite, while Tanya Moore’s Gertrude and Clarence Smith’s Claudius have dynamism and a sometimes unsettling warmth. Natalie Simpson tackles the tough role of Ophelia with jerky elan. And the sun is an essential character here; it seems at times that the insanity is solar-powered.

So the story, of Hamlet avenging his father’s death, is as it always has been, and the characters are pretty much as we know them. Yet the play’s contours are subtly different, the topography thrillingly unfamiliar. The problem with productions this vivid and virile is that they can make pretty much everything else look pallid and watery and thin in comparison. Having accomplished so much with this Hamlet, the RSC has set itself a fearsome challenge: to make everything else this good. The play deals in part with the repeating of history; this production may just make its own.

* Hamlet runs until August 13. Call 01789 403493 for tickets.