The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) has breezed into town (for a few days only) with its fresh, strikingly handsome, and wonderfully creative production of Hamlet.
Simon Godwin, the play’s young British director, explores this oft-produced work with care and insight. He employs a mostly black cast and infuses the design with colors and sounds that suggest, at various times, Africa and the Caribbean. (By the time Hamlet and Laertes square off bare-chested in the climactic duel, comparisons to the recent film Black Panther may have come to mind.)
The production begins with an exciting set-up sequence introducing the central characters and establishing Godwin’s use of booming drums (Sola Akingbola is the Composer; Christopher Shutt the Sound Designer) and tribal dance (Mbulelo Ndabeni is Movement Director). The production frequently spills into the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
Paul Wills designed a set (he also designed the colorful costumes) that establishes locale with seemingly effortless efficiency and that is grandly attractive beneath Paul Anderson’s lighting design.
The first scene proper, as Horatio is made aware of the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, sets the tone for the evening. The affect of the actors is contemporary, straightforward, believable. The text is delivered briskly yet clearly, and relationships between characters are equally clear. The exploration of the text is nuanced and detailed.
Paapa Essiedu plays Hamlet, and he is wildly likable and emotionally accessible. There are numerous moments when Godwin and he find crisp, unexpected turns on familiar lines or moments, and he nails, with superb timing, every opportunity for humor that presents itself.
That said, and my admiration for the production notwithstanding, there was something disengaged about his Hamlet that I found to be the one unsatisfying aspect of the production. Too often for my taste, his focus was inward, as if reacting mostly to some internal, as opposed to external, stimulus.
As an example of my competing reactions to this performance, consider the closet scene. The whipping off of a jacket to cover the body of Polonius played as a rote gesture, as opposed to an arrived-at solution to a troubling situation — very unsatisfying. Later, he takes in the body and allows us to see him process the shock of what has just happened and react to it in a remarkably spontaneous manner — very satisfying.
Essiedu’s first soliloquy was emotionally rich and pulled me in, but, as the play went on, there was a vocal uniformity that made those famous speeches less engaging as the evening progressed.
Produced by Royal Shakespeare Company
closes May 6, 2018
Details and tickets
Reliably, however, Essiedu would provide a bracingly original take on a line or moment that would re-engage me. As we were discussing, during intermission, our schizo reaction to the performance, my companion made the sharp observation that the less familiar moments were much more assured than were the iconic, familiar aspects of the role.
One of the coolest parts of the performance was when the drummers rev Hamlet into near-frenzy right before he sees the ghost of his father. (And a big shout-out to the talented Sola Akingbola — also the composer — and Sidiki Dembele, whose live drumming is intoxicating.)
The second half of the play doesn’t employ the music as often as does the first, but, when it returns, it elevates the mad scene — already strong — of Mimi Ndiweni’s Ophelia into the blissful highlight of the evening. So precise and flawless was her work that I had the cheeky thought that I would love to one day see her play Hamlet.
Ndiweni’s first scene, with the Polonius of Jospeh Mydell, threads, better than any production I can recall, the difficult needle of making the 17th century father-daughter relationship feel perfectly, naturally contemporary. Mydell’s affectionate portrayal mines the humor in the part without reducing Polonius to a buffoon.
Clarence Smith, without sugarcoating the play’s antagonist, King Claudius, makes the provocative choice of playing him as a complicated politician and step-father who hopes to mitigate his establishing crime by fulfilling his new (and usurped) roles as commendably as he is able. The scene when he restrains the grieving Laertes of Buom Tihngang brings out the best in both actors.
Lorna Brown’s Gertrude is a complex mix; by turns fiercely maternal, dutifully spousal, politically aware, and dignified. James Cooney is a steady and personable Horatio; I loved how clearly his student garb contrasted with the martial outfits of the guards, and his casual clothes matched his wonderfully natural acting style.
The gravitas of Ewart James Walters’ imposing Ghost contrasts marvelously with the twinkling wit he brings to the Gravedigger. Both Romayne Andrews and (particularly) Eleanor Wyld make strong impressions in the often thankless roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the scene when Hamlet susses out the purpose of their arrival is as clear as I’ve ever seen it, and is one of Essiedu’s strongest scenes.
The production is replete with sharp portraits; even the actors doing the play-within-the-play (Kevin N Golding, Maureen Hibbert, Patrick Elue) make strong impressions, and the Osric of Esther Niles, who seemed, at first, to enter from a different play, ended up delighting me.
Among many original embellishments, Godwin has found an unusual and (to me) unprecedented place at which to break for the interval. The work of Fight Director Kev McCurdy is impressive, never once feeling staged, and fitting seamlessly into the whole.
There is so much in this production that is beautiful and striking that I encourage you check it out during its brief stay in town.
If I was only partially enthusiastic about Essiedu’s Hamlet, I am extremely pleased to have seen it, and there was much about it — including a gorgeous Act Five scene with Horatio before the duel — that I will remember with great affection.
And I will definitely remember the name Simon Godwin. I will seek out any opportunity to further experience the work of this gifted director.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Simon Godwin. Featuring Romayne Andrews, Lorna Brown, James Cooney, Patrick Elue, Paapa Essiedu, Kevin N Golding, Tracy-Anne Green, Maureen Hibbert, Whitney Kehinde, Byron Mondahl, Joseph Mydell, Mimi Ndiweni, Esther Niles, John Omole, Clarence Smith, Buom Tihngang, Ewart James Walters, Eleanor Wyld. Music played live by Paul Johnson, Sola Akingbola, Sidiki Dembele, Phil James. [Set and Costume] Designer: Paul Wills. Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson. Composer: Sola Akingbola. Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt. Movement Director: Mbulelo Ndabeni. Fight Director: Kev McCurdy. Stage Manager: Maggie Mackay. Produced by Royal Shakespeare Company. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.