This was a close call! The snow meant the Royal and Derngate cancelled all performances on Friday 2nd March, including the comedy night with Adam Hess and Glenn Moore, for which we had tickets and about which I was expecting to be writing today! Big shame. Fortunately, all shows for Saturday went ahead – and I would estimate about 70% of the almost fully booked audience managed to struggle in to see the play. If they had cancelled Hamlet on the Saturday we would have had no chance of seeing it… which would have been very regrettable as this is one of those rare shows that has 5 stars written all over it within five minutes of the start. But let me not get ahead of myself…
This is the first time (or the first time for ages, not entirely sure) that the Royal Shakespeare Company have taken one of their touring productions to Northampton, and I for one welcome them with open arms; with any luck this will be the start of a very fruitful co-operation between the two theatres. I also realised this is only the fourth time I’ve seen Hamlet on stage – pretty poor showing for what I always consider to be my Favourite Play Of All Time. The first time was at the National Theatre in 1976 for a four hour, uncut performance with Albert Finney as the Great Dane, Denis Quilley as Claudius, Simon Ward as Laertes and Barbara Jefford as Gertrude. I remember it mesmerised me. Then I saw an Oxford University production at the Oxford Playhouse in 1979, where, low down among the castlist, a young Tim McInnerney was a fabulously foppish Osric – definitely a forerunner to his Lord Percy in Blackadder II. In 2008 we saw the RSC production starring David Tennant – but we had tickets for when he was off sick, so we saw Edward Bennett instead and he was superb.
And now this! This production was first seen in Stratford in 2016 and is now settled in its brief tour of the UK and USA. It’s a production that takes everything you would expect from a standard production of Hamlet and throws it out of the nearest window, whilst remaining delightfully true to the original characterisations and the powerful story. The only addition to the original text that I could make out was the short opening scene where we see Hamlet awarded his degree from the University of Wittenburg – so appropriate on the Derngate stage, which is where the University of Northampton graduation ceremonies take place.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – we know this, as Marcellus tells us so. Shakespeare’s text confirms that there are invasions from Norway, and that England and France are within relatively easy reach. But where are we really? The pounding drums that permeate the production suggest Africa, as do the appearance and accents of many of the cast – all but a few of the actors are black. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in grand traditional West African robes, and Gertrude is bedecked in the splendid colourful dresses one might associate with Nigeria. However, the gravediggers sing a calypso, which suggests (to me) the West Indies; and Guildenstern, with her (yes, her) pale skin and fair hair could be taken for pure Danish through and through. So what’s all that about? No need for alarm. All we really need to know is that this is a different universe for Hamlet; the story has been taken up and replaced in a new geographical and racial setting, helping its accessibility to a whole new young, vibrant audience. However, rest assured that its age-old themes are as relevant and dynamic as ever.
I don’t think I’m a purist (whatever that means) when it comes to Shakespeare, because he’s big and clever enough to survive any re-imagination of his plays, no matter what a gifted director might throw at him. But he’s also incredibly versatile at lending himself to a variety of new interpretations and, if done well, each one illuminates his plays in a different way. Simon Godwin’s extraordinary production reveals so much more about Hamlet the man than most other productions. The sight of Hamlet in his first scene, his face runny with crying and nasal mucus (sorry if you’re having lunch) said so much more about his very real and solitary grief for his late father than any smart words or sarcastic glances. His interaction with the characters who are his friends is one of true joy; you can tell he and Horatio have that kind of friendship where they could tell each other anything with the absolute trust; Horatio’s grief at his friend’s death in the final scene (oops, spoilers) was truly moving. Hamlet has a roister-doister type of friendship with the guard Marcellus; a slightly more ambivalent friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who prove themselves to be lousy liars when admitting that they were “sent for”. Everyone else he either distrusts or keeps up a wary distance from; seen beautifully in his brief hello to the guard Barnardo.
One of those unanswerable questions that always crops up with Hamlet is – is he mad or not? There’s no question in my mind that this particular Hamlet is 100% sane all the way through. His explanation that he will only be mad north-north-west is very definite and convincing, and every scene clearly shows his manipulations and detailed planning, to bring about the downfall of Claudius and thus take revenge on the death of his father, as his father’s Ghost so clearly insisted. Paapa Essiedu, as Hamlet, is simply stunning. His ability to get to the heart of the character is so rewarding and fulfilling to the audience. His clarity of speech, the way he juxtaposes nobility with wretchedness, his lightness of humour, his depth of tragedy… it’s a blistering performance. He’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off. The clarity with which Mr Essiedu takes on all those intricate soliloquies, the deliberate way in which his Hamlet picks a fight with Ophelia, the precision of his dealings with the Players, even his paint-spattered appearance in his studio, all convinced me this was a portrayal of an intelligent and witty brain, knowing exactly what he was trying to achieve, by an equally intelligent and witty actor. Hamlet’s fore-runner, Kyd’s Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy may well be mad againe but I’m pretty sure Hamlet isn’t.
This production is also much funnier than any production of Hamlet has any right to be, but without taking liberties; it’s all legitimate humour, stemming from the text. Hamlet dragging out the dead Polonius with all the mundanity of helping with the shopping is hilarious. Talking of whom, this production actually made all those bumbling pomposities of Polonius genuinely funny; Laertes’ constant attempts to take his leave, but returning because his father hasn’t quite finished yet, surprised the audience with its modern irreverence. The Yorick scene is light, creative and almost bubbly in its freshness. By contrast, when this production gets dark, it gets really dark. Ophelia’s madness is performed with such deep sadness, with the observing characters visibly shrinking with embarrassment and confusion, that it really disconcerts the audience that you feel horrified – in a simple way of looking at it – that this lovely girl has come to this.
Paul Wills’ magnificent design is arresting from the start. The panelled halls of Elsinore, the King and Queen’s thrones (I loved how cheekily they were redesignated as the Ladies and Gents toilets for the play within a play scene), the artistic designs of Hamlet’s hanging tapestries, are all lively and ingenious. By comparison, I loved the simplicity of depicting the offstage Ghost as simply a bright light in the distance. The costumes are superb: Gertrude’s fine large-print gowns, the Ghost’s dignified formal dress, Hamlet’s colourful painter’s suit, the military garb of the soldiers, the sharp business suits of the envoys, the fancy dress of the Players, even Rosencrantz’s office geeky look (was he meant to look like the guy from the IT Crowd?) all stand out and just make the visual presentation of the play so much more enjoyable.
Clarence Smith, as Claudius, gives an excellent performance as someone who can’t quite believe his luck that his evil plan to become King was so successful, so easily. He has just the right amount of smugness for someone who’s got the power, got the girl and now wants to enjoy the fruits of his achievements. But his fright at the false fire of the murder scene performed by the Players felt genuinely horrific and from then he cuts a suitably weak figure. Hamlet almost kills him whilst praying – but such a fate is too good for him, so worthless is he. Even when presiding over the fight between Hamlet and Laertes, no one listens to him any more.
Lorna Brown is a very regal queen Gertrude, full of her high office and revelling in the stimulation of a fresh husband, until Hamlet devastates her with the truth of what she has done, when her remorse is genuine. Ewart James Walters has a strong presence as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, cutting a truly noble and furious figure; and he’s also a wily and humorous gravedigger, riposting Hamlet’s questions with his unlearned wit. I enjoyed Patrick Elue’s hearty Marcellus and his statesmanlike Fortinbras; I liked how Kevin N Golding underplayed the Player King and didn’t make him out to be a pantomime character, although his portrayal of the King in the play within the play was delightfully cruel. Buom Tihngang gives an entertaining performance as Laertes, telling Ophelia how to behave whilst not anticipating doing the same himself (hence the condoms in his case) and returning as a noble, avenging foe.
The play benefits from a magnificent ensemble who don’t put a foot wrong, but there are also three simply superb performances in supporting roles that I must mention. James Cooney is brilliant as Horatio; honest, supportive, constructive, Hamlet’s right-hand man always there to help, moving me (almost) to tears as he mourns at the end. Mimi Ndiweni is wonderful as Ophelia; full of schoolgirl cheek, hope, kindness as well as duty when we first encounter her; destroyed though grief later in the play when her mad transformation is truly painful to watch. But maybe best of all Joseph Mydell, a dignified Egeon in the National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors six years ago, who creates a real character our of Polonius’ nonsensical ditherings, genuinely funny as the well-meaning bighead. Mrs Chrisparkle announced at the end of the show that she “finally got Polonius” as a character. But, when all’s said and done, it’s Mr Essiedu whom you can’t get out of your mind for days.
This production has almost finished its tour, with a month at the Hackney Empire coming up and then a week at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in May. I don’t do star ratings; but in this instance I’ll make an exception. This is as five star a production as you can get. Scintillating, riveting, yet so true to the classic original. Can’t recommend it too strongly.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan