Fierce African drumming, graveside calypso and a stick-fighting showdown by two bare-chested warriors. Simon Godwin’s thrilling RSC production of Hamlet is a visceral feast of sounds and physicality that keeps you engrossed despite it being a bum-numbing three hours.
Paapa Essiedu steps into centre stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon, to don the mantle of the troubled Dane and he is electrifying.
Godwin opens Shakespeare’s tragedy with two quick-fire scenes – of Hamlet’s university graduation and his father’s stately funeral – that are over in a blink of an eye. But they set the pace for a lively rendition of the story that, geographically, pitches Denmark somewhere in Africa.
Elsinore is richly dressed in wonderfully coloured fabrics with joint thrones for Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) and her new husband, Claudius, adorned with elaborate marquetry.
And here, in the dead of night, Hamlet meets the ghost of his dead father. Ewart James Walters has two small roles, but both are memorable, with his deep rich voice effortlessly filling the RSC’s lofty auditorium.
Rising from the ground, amid a dense cloud of smoke, he appears as the dead king, resplendent in ceremonial robes, to demand justice for his untimely death.
Later he dominates the Yorick scene as an eccentrically-dressed, and pedantic, gravedigger who jests with an enquiring Hamlet about the ownership of the grave and the nature of his profession.
This modern-dress production sees our anti-hero quickly dispense with funereal black for a bizarre, paint splattered suit that does him through his grief, outrage and pretence of madness. He later reveals a tattoo on his left breast of his father’s face, which strikes me as a rather extreme way to remember your dad (but at least he is always close to Hamlet’s heart).
There’s very little nobility in Essiedu’s vengeful prince. In one scene he sets about vandalising the stateroom with spray paint and, in another, he resorts to carrying a gun, waving it about like a wannabe neighbourhood gangsta.
His behaviour towards Natalie Simpson’s doomed Ophelia is sadistic and largely unnecessary. The poor girl is thrown across the room, dragged onto a bed and smeared with paint as Hamlet demands she “get thee to a nunnery.”
Hamlet’s big speeches are delivered with intensity and passion and come straight from the heart of a bereft son mourning the loss of his father.
Godwin has dispensed with the traditional sword-fighting finale between Hamlet and an incensed Laertes wanting revenge for his father’s sudden death.
Instead the audience is treated to an athletic bout of stick-fighting which is far more exciting and brutal especially when the prince hurls his opponent (Marcus Griffiths) across the hard stage as the well-choreographed fight becomes increasingly dirty.
Cyril Nri makes a jovial, ever-smiling, Polonius, counsellor to the king, and father to Laertes and Ophelia, though his dramatic exit is rather wasted, hidden behind a massive bed, with his murderer showing little concern for his demise.
Paul Wills’ design is spectacular with the back of the stage opening to reveal a vast ship’s deck and pieces of set swiftly dropping onto the stage, and huge bolts of brightly coloured fabric uncoil from balconies, as the intense drumming heralds a new scene.
Still tragic but this Hamlet is given a fresh vibrancy in the telling.
Hamlet runs at the RSC until August 13 with the production beamed live into cinemas around the world on June 8.
Vibrant, visceral and thrilling. Simon Godwin’s intense production of Hamlet at the RSC finds a passionate troubled prince in the young pretender Paapa Essiedu.