Review - Hamlet (Hackney Empire)

In 2016 the RSC's acclaimed production of Hamlet, starring (then) relative newcomer Paapa Essiedu as the eponymous prince, was first seen staged in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of a celebration, to mark Shakespeare's 400th birthday. The production is now touring the UK before heading over to the states for a brief stint at the Washington Theater. 

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan  © RSC
With its seamless melded of Shakespeare's timeless language with a modern West African backdrop, director Simon Godwin’s Hamlet is a benchmark for modernised productions, which highlights the play's undying relevance from start to end.

The story of Hamlet, the young prince who discovers that his deceased father was murdered by his uncle in a bid to seize the throne is a tale which has been told and retold in hundreds of different ways, and yet few recent productions have managed to capture Hamlet's youthful brazenness and tireless loyalty so successfully. Compared to his many (often rather more senior) predecessors at the RSC, Paapa Essiedu is a somewhat precocious Hamlet for the modern day, who perfectly captures the balance between grieving son and smart alecky student. He and James Cooney's Horatio make a brilliant duo, with the realistic bond between them strengthening the already entirely believable world in which this Hamlet takes place.

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet and Buom Tihngang as Laertes
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan  © RSC
Contrasting Essiedu’s youthful swagger and zeal, in the role of Hamlet's backstabbing uncle Claudius Clarence Smith is understated and yet totally engrossing. Every pang of doubt and guilt, or look of defiance, is hidden under several layers of regal charm, and so just as Hamlet endlessly debates his uncle's crimes, so too does the audience. Especially as Hamlet becomes more and more unhinged from reality, and finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into his own vengeful mind.

Designer Paul Wills' vibrant sets and costumes undoubtedly make a large impact in this vivid production. As Hamlet pulls away from quiet submission to his uncle, his rather ordinary clothes are abandoned in favour of a white suit jacket and trousers, spattered with a multitude of different coloured paints.

He defiantly graffitis a portrait of his mother and uncle with a crown atop a bold letter H. The brilliant fuschia spray-paint contrasts the rich and regal portrait’s tones, markedly establishing Hamlet’s volatile and disruptive intentions. This production overthrows all expectations. A fast paced and thrilling ride.