How do you follow Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet? Whatever one’s equivocations about the production in which he starred last autumn, there can be no denying the tarantara that surrounded the work. The only possible way for the Royal Shakespeare Company to go for this next major production of the tragedy was in a different direction entirely, which means we have the little-known Paapa Essiedu as the company’s first black Hamlet, going to psychological pieces in a modern African state ruled by a military leader.
The RSC, under the inspired artistic direction of Gregory Doran and Erica Whyman, is in unrivalled form at the moment, working its way carefully through all of Shakespeare’s plays over a six-year period. It thus has both the space and confidence for such a take on the rotten state of Denmark, which includes a pleasingly non-Caucasian-dominated acting ensemble. Yet it can’t be denied that the most famous play in world drama does require a little bit of razzle-dazzle each time to stave off any creeping feelings of ennui on the audience’s part. (This is my 14th Hamlet, not including some mad Fringe reworkings). Simon Godwin’s production is clear-eyed and perfectly serviceable, but it lacks that final dusting of magic to send it shooting into the realm of the memorable greats. Hamlet’s many contradictions seem more perplexing than ever by the end here.
The action starts with a short scene showing Hamlet’s graduation ceremony at Wittenberg University. Hardly has he received his degree certificate than we’re in Elsinore, where soldiers in uniform guard the palace walls. Inside the brightly coloured throne room sit the regal, unreadable Gertrude (the always excellent Tanya Moodie) and the usurping Claudius (Clarence Smith). Essiedu scores most highly in these opening scenes. Hamlet’s feelings are painfully close to the surface, and Essiedu is utterly convincing as a still emotionally unformed young man highjacked by sudden grief and wrenched out of the student surroundings he knows to return to a home whose ways he is struggling to recognise.
Cyril Nri has good fun with that tiresome old windbag Polonius, and Marcus Griffiths makes for an energetic and headstrong Laertes. Natalie Simpson struggles to reconcile Ophelia’s confusion, although she’s a perky foil to Hamlet before the machinations of state grind her down. An inspired touch of Godwin’s is to have Guildenstern as a woman (confident work from Bethan Cullinane) and thus her and Rosencrantz romantically involved as Hamlet’s old university pals. It’s a simple but effective switch. In these days of heightened awareness of gender imbalance on our stages, I wonder why it isn’t done more often.
The African setting, with its uneasy tussle between military and civilian rule, could usefully be played up even further, but there’s striking accompaniment throughout from two African drummers. The climactic showdown between Hamlet and Laertes is rendered not via a fencing match but by a ferocious clash of traditional African stick combat. If this production isn’t world-beating, it certainly takes us into a different world and shows how easily Shakespeare’s text sits there. In this 400th anniversary year of his death, that’s heartening to see.