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 The Theatreguide.London Review

RSC at Hackney Empire  Spring 2018

The Royal Shakespeare Company's new touring Hamlet is an ideal introduction to the play for those who have never seen it.

It is clean, it is clear, and it has enough novel elements to attract and hold the attention of audiences who would not ordinarily choose a Shakespeare play.

It has less to offer Hamlet veterans, however. Despite the surface novelties, there is little in the way of staging or performances to illuminate the play or suggest fresh interpretation or insight. 

Director Simon Godwin and designer Paul Wills have set the play in a modern African kingdom, with an almost entirely Afro-Caribbean cast. 

Costumes are European with just the touch of the exotic (colourful headwear for the women, military finery for the men), the younger characters prefer casual Americanised clothes, and ceremonial drumming punctuates the more formal scenes. (Casting actresses to play Guildenstern, Osric and a few minor characters as women has little effect.) 

Throughout the play the emphasis in speaking is on clarity. Bits of exposition and backstory are explained very slowly, and even the soliloquies are structured and paced to allow us to follow Hamlet's thought processes without losing the thread. 

What the director has clearly chosen to sacrifice to this end is any depth of emotion or complexity of characterisation, and any exploration of the play's metaphysical and philosophical subtexts. 

Paapa Essiedu's Hamlet is an attractive and manly youth without very much in the way of intellect or passion. 'To be or not' goes by almost unnoticed as a bit of incidental thought, and even the more passionate soliloquies are emotions of the moment – only briefly in 'rogue and peasant slave' do we get a sense of real anguish. 

The other characters are even less developed. Clarence Smith's Claudius is so controlled and formal that his more open villainy late in the play comes as a bit of surprise, while Lorna Brown is given little more to do as Gertrude than wear a succession of elegant gowns elegantly. 

Given the choice between a dangerously political Polonius and a dottering fool, Joseph Mydell does neither, and the strongest impression you are likely to get of Mimi Ndiweni is that she sings much better than most Ophelias, bringing a not-inappropriate blues tone to the mad scenes. 

To the credit of director and actors, the over-three-hours running time moves by swiftly, the text being trimmed here and there for clarity rather than being heavily cut (Noticeable omissions include Polonius's instructions to Reynaldo on how to spy on his son, the dumb show, and some of Hamlet's reaction to Yorick.) 

Much of the rest is a matter of incidental bits rather than coherent interpretation. The first act is extended to the middle of the prayer scene with Hamlet poised to kill Claudius, leaving him the interval in which to decide whether to do it pat (Spoiler alert: he doesn't). 

The director has Hamlet take up painting in his spare time, creating large canvasses of monsters and displaying his supposed madness by wandering around the formal court in paint-spattered clothes. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more obsequiously toadying than usual, and Horatio more invisible than usual. In one thought-provoking touch Gertrude reports on Ophelia's death in a wet dress, suggesting that she attempted to save the drowning girl, and the climactic duel is not with swords but with wooden sticks. 

The RSC is to be commended for making the play so accessible and for touring it to fresh venues like the Hackney Empire, and every new convert it brings to the play is a full justification. But if you've ever seen the play before there is little real reason to see this version.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Hamlet - Hackney Empire 2018  
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