BWW Review: HAMLET, Hackney Empire
"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark!" The announcement at Wittenberg's graduation ceremony is barely made as beating drums accompany Hamlet Senior's glass hearse across the stage while Gertrude and Claudius look down woefully. He is flung unceremoniously into a vortex of revenge and pain.
Originally performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet - directed by Simon Godwin and starring Paapa Essiedu - lands at Hackney Empire after a short UK tour before transferring overseas to Washington.
Shakespeare's most familiar tragedy comes alive with bold strokes of colour in a vibrant and breathtaking shape. Godwin sets the play in Denmark, but gives it the ambience and colours of a West African state.
Designer Paul Wills infuses geometry in the set, managing to give it a subtly imposing vibe. The actors wear suits and dresses that recall tradition, with pops of strong colour, but that are mixed with modernity and preppy styles.
However, this classically grandiose nature is balanced by the presence of graffitied elements: Hamlet himself defaces the portrait of the reigning couple that hangs above the throne, and later on painted bedsheets (featuring a dinosaur, a skull, and a brain among other imagery) hang as curtains.
The director tops the production with a throbbing sound design by Christopher Shutt. He accompanies the show with diegetic drums, actively giving a rhythm to it and making the energy rise in the room. The pulsating tattoo created by the musicians stresses the pivotal moments in the plot and creates a peculiar and grounding atmosphere.
Essiedu is well-spoken and confident, bringing irony and sarcasm to the role and delivering a defining performance as the title character. He flies off the handle halfway through his lines, snapping in and out of tones with remarkable comfort. He's ecstatic to see Yorick's skull and he sighs wistfully while he details the fun he had with the jester.
The failing aspects of his personal relationship are bandaged by his deep friendship with Horatio (James Cooney). Cooney indulges Hamlet's every decision, but eyes his journey with concern and uneasiness. He shadows him whenever he can and is shattered to pieces during the Prince's last moments.
Godwin focuses on family ties and human emotion, steering away from the play's politics. Essiedu establishes a network with the other characters and successfully paints an intricate pattern of emotions depending on who's standing in front of him.
His sternness and harshness with Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) falter as he sees the grief he's brought upon her; he mocks and teases Polonius (Joseph Midell) for blubbering on; his hate for Gertrude (Lorna Brown) hides a more profound love for his mother.
The RSC triumphs in diversity and accessibility, presenting a Hamlet that crosses cultural and geographical boundaries. Tradition and progress come together vividly in Godwin's hands as he tells the bold and gut-wrenching story of a family ripped apart.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan