Digital theatre review: Hamlet (2016)
Ivan Radford | On 20, Aug 2020
“To be or not to be” are perhaps the most well known words in theatre history. Everyone, at some point, has likely encountered Hamlet, Shakespeare’s masterful tragedy. But even someone who’s seen the play countless times will be blown away by this 2016 RSC production, which presents us with a Dane whose inability to decide on his own mind has never been clearer.
Paapa Essiedu plays Hamlet in this remarkable staging of the familiar text, and he finds all manner of ways to make it feel unfamiliar. He’s a chameleonic, quick-witted presence, able to slide seamlessly from anger to depression, from mockery to madness, from rebellion to resigned indifference, often all within the same speech. His soliloquies sing with lively youth and a lived-in intensity, and watching him interact with his mother (a surprisingly sympathetic turn from Tanya Moodie) and Polonius (Cyril Nri), in particular, is a delight. When the three cross paths in a deadly manner, he manages to be simultaneously funny yet wracked with grief – the same kind of range and heartfelt intensity that made Paapa Essiedu such a compelling presence in Michaela Coel’s uncompromisingly brilliant I May Destroy You.
He’s back up by a fantastic supporting cast, from Moodie’s concerned mother to Natalie Simpson’s committed Ophelia and Hiran Abeysekera as Horatio. James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane as Rosencranz and Guildenstenstern, meanwhile, bring an intriguing subtext to their bond with Hamlet and the favour they find at court – a court where Claudius (an imperious Clarence Smith) has been featured in the front cover of TIME magazine.
Those kind of little touches are rife in director Simon Godwin’s version of the play, and while having a predominantly Black ensemble cast is noteworthy, the rest of the production is just as commendable. From the using of drumming to ramp up the tension to the bright colours of paint splattered over Hamlet’s expressive jacket, part Banksy and part Jackson Pollock. The result feels refreshingly unique and thrillingly personal – right down to the crucial moral dilemma that prompts the play to break for its interval. All the way to the physical finale, Essiedu leads a show that delves into the inner conflicts of a troubled young man without flinching. There’s no question whether this should be (or not be) on your watchlist.
Hamlet (2016) is available on BBC iPlayer until 1st September 2020