Hamlet at the RSC

May 28, 2016

I’m just back from my Shakespeare week. We saw the RSC production of Hamlet, which has a mainly black cast, a black Hamlet, and African-themed set and music. I didn’t find that any of this added anything to the meaning of the play for me, although the opening scenes with Gertrude and Claudius briefly suggested Robert Mugabe and his consort, and I suppose quickly helped establish the idea of Denmark as a corrupt state. But the overall effect was as confusing as it was enlightening, I felt by the end.

What really stunned me was the actor playing Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu. He was amazingly energetic and expressive; his diction was very clear, illuminating the language and its meanings very effectively: I encountered some new ideas and meanings which had never before occurred to me in my years of teaching the play, and seeing it several times onstage, as well as on film. For me, he was one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen.

He was also really illuminating in his portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, which, I think, is one of the touchstones of a good performance: Hamlet sets out by saying he will put on an antic disposition from time to time as it suits him, implying that he will be in conscious control of it, but the text shows that madness takes control of him at times, and he is not able to master it, and a good actor will be able to show this happening. There must be a dynamic which emerges through rehearsal as the actor gradually realises how this can be presented onstage. Anyway, it really worked for me in Essiedu’s performance.

Ophelia was also well-played: again, her madness is something of a touchstone, and it seems to be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively nowadays: the twee-ness of the past no longer works, and some modern efforts, ranting, over-sexualised or just bizarre, can be positively toe-curling. But this Ophelia’s screams were quite spine-chilling, as part of the overall effect: she did seem like someone unhinged by what she had seen and been through.

Various things didn’t seem to work. Despite the brilliance of Hamlet’s performance, I didn’t feel a great sense of tragic loss at the end of the play. I felt that the dynamics between various pairs of characters didn’t come across terribly well: you need to feel that there’s a real connection between Hamlet and Horatio, between Laertes and Ophelia – and I didn’t. And the fight scene, done with African weapons – sticks of some sort, with small knives at the ends – didn’t work for me; nothing works better than the fencing foils which Shakespeare put in his text. I’m glad I saw it, just for Hamlet himself.

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