Shakespeare’s plays conjure up the mental image of a person holding a skull and uttering the simple question “to be or not to be?” But those two things don’t even occur at the same time in Hamlet. Our historic memory lumps them together though. When you think of Shakespeare, you immediately associate him with that phrase and that skull.
2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare Company believed there was no better way to honour the writer than by doing a re-imagined version of the iconic Hamlet. A production which I argue situates itself between the old and the new. Tradition and modernity. It occupies the space in between. Hamlet like you have never seen him before but steeped in the long history of the play.
Paapa Essiedu takes on the titular role as the Prince of Denmark. This Hamlet is young and mischievous and impulsive. Essiedu is also the first black actor to take on the role at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Black actors fill this production and the setting for the show is inspired by African culture. Simon Godwin who directed this piece stated he “wanted to find a context where, as a character, Hamlet could feel dislocated, where he could feel conflicted by the demands of his ancestors against the pressure to find a new way of thinking.”
(Photo I took while inside the theatre waiting for the show to begin)
The show opened with a graduation scene at Wittenberg University where Hamlet had been studying before shifting the audience back to a space inspired by West African culture. Hamlet returns to ‘home’ where his father has passed away and his uncle (who represents a form of dictatorship) has married his mother. By starting the show this way, it immediately displaces Hamlet between two worlds. The prince has been experiencing a different way of life for the length of his education and now must return to a world of tradition and family expectations.
Hamlet returns motivated by his quick-thinking mind and the aggression he feels toward his mother and uncle. He sees their marriage as betraying the spirit of his father. Claudius (Clarence Smith) refuses to let him return to Wittenberg and so Hamlet is forced to return to a culture which he has not been a part of for years. This production of Hamlet quickly turns and becomes about a rejection of custom and family expectations rather than a revenge plotline.
Hamlet’s craziness is articulated through highly politicised artwork. He decorates the throne room with anti-monarchy graffiti. He does not wear traditional garb but instead decorates his own suit with artwork. Even getting Hamlet to do graffiti is important because it signifies his youth. He feels like a millennial. He feels like a new generation opposing the old.
One of the more playful aspects of the production was Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Culliane) who played two very Western characters coming into the African culture as tourists. Two millennials offered a grad trap in exchange for providing Claudius information about the prince. The most hilarious moment for me was watching Guildenstern parade around the stage in a dress from H&M. The only reason I know that is because I happen to own a dress with the same pattern from there. Their costumes articulated they tried to dress in an ‘African’ way but were so commercial and kitchy that it was laughable.
The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) even feels like modern dating. They are a young couple who’ve been having sex on the downlow. They are each other’s retreat from a world of various pressures and expectations. But when Hamlet abandons her, Ophelia is just a girl who feels used and turns to her father for strength. The argument between Hamlet and Ophelia feels reckless and impulsive. And then her (ex)-boyfriend kills her father and the whole young love storyline goes out the window. Sidenote: Simpson was hands down the best Ophelia I’ve seen to date.
I draw attention to the feeling of youth in this production of Hamlet because, in my opinion, the turning of generations is one of the strongest themes in the play. I believe the RSC’s Hamlet succeeded in achieving what Stratford’s 2015 production of Hamlet starring Jonathan Goad’s did not.
The end of Hamlet is an evisceration of Hamlet’s family line from history and he makes sure before he dies to pass the line onto Fortinbras. The Stratford Festival’s Hamlet tried to show the passage of generations through costumes which moved through different decades. But as an audience member I did not understand that until I was told the explanation for this choice.
The RSC’s production showed the turning of generations through its youthful cast. It was also a racially diverse cast which represents a world of today much like Hamilton is doing in musical theatre. Not that I’m comparing those two shows to each other but I do believe that an increasingly diverse cast signifies a more modern change in theatre. The selection of Essiedu for the part of Hamlet proves this within the RSC alone.
This Hamlet felt brand new. It felt like a new generation of Shakespeare. The reinvention and adaption of Shakespeare allows us to see new themes and new ideas and keeps things exciting. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and this show proves that Shakespeare contains endless possibilities for different interpretations which is why his plays will remain on stage for many years to come.
Article interviewing Simon Godwin: http://thersc.tumblr.com/post/134920897045/q-a-with-simon-godwin-director-of-hamlet
All photos were released by the Royal Shakespeare Company for promotional purposes.