Review: ‘Hamlet’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The fabled Royal Shakespeare Company brought its Hamlet to the Kennedy Center this week, in a production fully worthy of its glittering reputation. The RSC Hamlet is lavish, bursting with freshness, and starring the young and gifted Paapa Essiedu as the brooding Prince. As noted by Director Simon Godwin, Denmark is re-conceived as a “modern state influenced by the ritual, traditions, and beauty of West Africa.” This version, directed by Godwin, was originally seen in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016.

Paapa Essiedu and Buom Tihngang with the cast of Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The RSC’s facility with Shakespeare’s language is breathtaking. The power of the music is heightened by the recurring beating of drums, and the riot of color which engulfs the stage throughout. This Hamlet, with a mostly black cast, accentuates the joy of Shakespeare even amidst the troubled landscape of Elsinore.

The first scene takes place at the University of Wittenberg, where Hamlet receives his degree, to general applause. Next, we see the night watch at a checkpoint. Sound kicks in with a great roar. Barnardo (Kevin N. Golding) replaces Francisca (Tracy-Anne Green) and joins Marcellus (Patrick Elue). The guards wear green fatigues and are heavily armed. Elsinore appears to be a military dictatorship. Horatio (James Cooney) has superb grasp of the language, like the rest of the cast. His Horatio, loyal and ever reassuring, is Hamlet’s ideal best friend. The Ghost (Ewart James Walters) once he appears, is majestic in every way, his sonorous voice thundering as he demands revenge.

The court setting is a large, dark red castle with long narrow windows. In the middle we see, Game-of-Thrones style, the thrones for Claudius and Gertrude, raised high above the action. Jean-Michel Basquiat-like paintings hang in the castle, art made by Hamlet himself.

Claudius (Clarence Smith) initially wears a much-decorated uniform. He and his lovely Gertrude (Lorna Brown) are also featured in a giant portrait which appears behind them, leaving no doubt as to who is ruling Denmark after the old King’s death. In a moment of mischief, Hamlet and Horatio put a large pink graffiti crown on the picture of Gertrude and Claudius, with an “H” under it.

Mimi Ndiweni and Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Brown’s Gertrude makes a point of exacting as much deference as possible, Eva-Peron like, and her scene with Hamlet is full of energy and suppressed fury. As Claudius, Clarence is hail-fellow-well-met, but deadly serious when he senses his throne is threatened.

Polonius (Joseph Mydell) is a comic delight, and his performance is one of the highlights of the production. Laertes, his son (Buom Tihngang) attempts to pay attention to his father’s bromides, but, like many a Laertes before him, cannot quite disguise his impatience.

Essiedu’s Prince is a complex creature, sometimes angry, sometimes witty, sometimes furious with himself for his lack of action. He is a very young Hamlet, for a new generation. In the scenes in which he castigates Ophelia, he becomes inward-looking and tortured. At times he brandishes a gun. Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) has moments of great intensity and power. Her performance, like her Prince’s, is full of variety and passion.

The Rosencrantz (Romayne Andrews) and Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld) roles are well-performed with a touch of amusement. I did have to suspend a bit of disbelief every time the word “Denmark” was mentioned, but the overwhelming energy of the performance soon made those qualms irrelevant.

At times, the atmosphere is almost carnival-like. The Player King (Kevin N. Golding) and Player Queen (Maureen Hibbert) are vividly drawn, and their costumes are extremely elaborate. Music, composed by Sola Akingbola and played live by Paul Johnson, Sola Akingbola, Sidiki Dembele, Phil James, is refreshing and vital, and the Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters) and his assistant (Tracy-Anne Green) have a stirring calypso number.

And then there are the drums. They are spectacular. The percussion sets the unforgettable beat which moves the action forward. Cuts in the script add to the overall momentum.

Designer Paul Wills has created an ambitious, visually opulent, and hugely appealing set.The costumes (Costume Supervisor Cathy Hill) are full of bright Day-Glo colors and as inventive as the production itself. Lighting by Paul Anderson, as recreated by Matt Peel, enhances the overall effect. Sound design by Christopher Shutt (recreated by Oliver Soames), and movement by Mbuelelo Ndabeni, matches the excellence of the other elements.

Director Simon Godwin’s Hamlet is a West African delight. Who knew it was possible to see Hamlet and come out singing?

Running Time: Two Hours and 55 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

Hamlet plays through May 6, 2018, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

Additional Cast Members:

Whitney Kehinde (Cornelia, Player 2), Esther Niles (Osric, Sailor), Byron Mondahl (Professor of Wittenberg, English Ambassador), John Omole (Voltemand).

Music Played Live by Paul Johnson (Woodwind/Nyatiti), Sola Akingbola(Percussion/Voice), Sidiki Dembele (Percussion/Voice), Phil James (Keyboard/Percussion).

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