The RSC has found a new star in Paapa Essiedu's Prince of Denmark
“More matter and less art”
Hamlet is away from the kingdom as the news comes of the death of his father. The next surprise is the setting of this play in sub Saharan Africa.
I remember Gregory Doran’s highly successful Julius Caesar in 2012 which was set in an African state. The power struggle worked well in such a political context but I am not sure that Hamlet does and the setting becomes an artifice rather than making sound dramatic sense. All the textual references to Purgatory and to Denmark are still there and I feel Hamlet is set in a cold country rather than a hot one.
It is Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet who is outstanding, one of the very best I have seen in recent years. He is a student, likeable rather than morose, and his antic disposition is put on as a piece of art as he paints or spray paints graffiti on the state portrait of his mother (Lorna Brown) and his uncle (Clarence Smith) which dominates the Ghanaian Palace set. The soliloquies are spoken with real intelligence and a freshness as if they are his words and not those lines we know so well. He convinces from the first lines of the “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” speech. As a young black actor, Essiedu must have a great future and I was thinking about Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Kaluuya, both of whom I saw in their first stage performances on the London stage, who have lived up to their early promise.
We get the feeling from Paapa Essiedu that his prince would be popular and well liked. His Ophelia (Mimi Ndweni) is also very successful in what is often a difficult part. Experienced actor and warhorse, Joseph Mydell is an exceptionally good, affable and natural Polonius, with Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia able to echo those oft repeated speeches and Laertes picking up his bags to leave as he, and we hope, Polonius might be coming to a close.
On the battlements, with drumming and smoke, it is almost as if Hamlet is going into a spirit trance to conjure up the ghost of his father (Ewart James Walters). As he feigns madness and is involved in painting the back drop for the play, in his “Get thee to a nunnery” scene with Ophelia, he daubs her with grease paint. It feels to us like she has been violated. For these scenes Hamlet wears a hand painted suit and on his face are a multitude of colours.
I didn’t think Clarence Smith’s Claudius was particularly strong with no indication as to his power base and Lorna Brown’s Gertrude isn’t memorable but they may have been casualties to the outstanding performance of Paapa Essiedu as their son and stepson.
Well done to the RSC for bringing this play to the Hackney Empire in London’s gentrifying East End to close the tour. This production is also coming to Washington DC for a short week in May this year (2018). Don’t miss this young star!
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Ewart James Walters
Kevin N Golding
Director: Simon Godwin
Designer: Paul Willis
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Music: Sola Akingbola
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Movement: Mbuelo Ndabeni
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy
A Royal Shakespeare Company production
Running Time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Hackney Empire on 31st March 2018
London E8 1EJ
Phone: 01789 331111
Tube: Hackney Central (Overground)
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Hackney Empire on 9th March 2018