2016: Simon Godwin
This is a recent production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, filmed from a live performance on a thrust stage. Its presentational conceit seems to be that Hamlet is set somewhere in Africa; the preponderance of the cast is black, the costumes are a mix of European and African clothes, and much of the decor is overtly African, with odd little bits of Western symbolism superimposed (for example, the universal men’s room and women’s room symbols marking the thrones of the king and queen — one takes it, as an irony). The play is accompanied predominantly by drums as well.
I’m not persuaded that that conceit works especially well; the actors are still talking about Denmark, after all, and Fortinbras of Norway, which still isn’t in Africa. That being said, however, the transposition is only marginally intrusive. There are also a few gender swaps for minor roles. This always makes me a bit itchy, but they don’t get in the way seriously.
The acting is where this production really shines, to my way of thinking. Almost every part is played at least satisfactorily, and more than a few of the leading parts are real standouts. Having seen probably thirty different performances of Hamlet, I’m still surprised by the capacity of the play, in the hands of really good actors, to continue to afford new and insightful perspectives on the roles that have been done so many times over the centuries.
Chief among these here — as is probably inevitable in this play — is Hamlet himself. Paapa Essiedu, a young man and new on the scene, brings to the role an intense, manic behavior that capitalizes on the fun the play has to offer (and oddly enough, that’s quite a bit) and has the audience roaring with laughter; a moment or two later he’s plumbing the emotional depths of the character with the best of them, and more convincingly than most. His diction is excellent, but he’s also a very physical actor, creating moments of tension and amusement by seemingly random gestures like wagging his feet back and forth.
Opehelia’s performance is similarly arresting. She brings and edgy desperation to the role — entirely appropriate for it, especially toward the end — that defies easy analysis, but is, I think, as good as any Ophelia I’ve seen. I will want to watch this again.
The play runs for nearly three hours, and it even includes bits of the player’s speech and other things that are often cut. It’s not quite complete, which is always regrettable, but it does nevertheless provide enough time for the narrative to develop. The critical pieces of the play remain intact. If one is not likely to be overly distracted by the transposition of the play, this is a very compelling version to see.
Barnardo / Player King Kevin Golding
Claudius Clarence Smith
Cornelia Marième Diouf
Francisca / Gravedigger's AssistantTemi Wilkey
Gertrude Tanya Moodie
Ghost / Gravedigger Ewart James Walters
Guildenstern Bethan Cullinane
Hamlet Paapa Essiedu
Horatio Hiran Abeysekera
Laertes Marcus Griffiths
Marcellus / Fortinbras Theo Ogundipe
Ophelia Natalie Simpson
Osric Romayne Andrews
Player Queen Doreene Blackstock
Polonius Cyril Nri
Professor of Wittenberg / English Ambassador Byron Mondahl
Rosencrantz James Cooney
Voltemand Eke Chukwu