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A CurtainUp London Review

"More matter with less art." — Gertrude
Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet and Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
When I saw the cast list for Simon Godwin and the RSC's touring production of Hamlet, I saw a character I had never before seen in Shakespeare's play. This was Byron Mondahl as the Professor of Wittenburg, the university where Hamlet studied and met Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld), and probably Horatio (James Cooney). So the opening scene of this production was a graduation ceremony with Hamlet's name being called, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, for him to ascend the stage and receive his degree. This serves to underline Hamlet as our student prince.

The graduation ceremony is rapidly followed by a funeral as the glass coffin containing the body of King Hamlet (Ewart James Walters) is pulled across the stage. We understand that Hamlet is away from the kingdom as the news comes of the death of his father. The next surprise is the setting of this play in sub Saharan Africa.

I remember Gregory Doran's highly successful Julius Caesar in 2012 which was set in an African state. The power struggle worked well in such a political context but I am not sure that Hamlet does and the setting becomes an artifice rather than making sound dramatic sense. All the textual references to Purgatory and to Denmark are still there and I feel Hamlet is set in a cold country rather than a hot one.

It is Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet who is outstanding, one of the very best I have seen in recent years. He is a student, likeable rather than morose, and his antic disposition is put on as a piece of art as he paints or spray paints graffiti on the state portrait of his mother (Lorna Brown) and his uncle (Clarence Smith) which dominates the Ghanaian Palace set. The soliloquies are spoken with real intelligence and a freshness as if they are his words and not those lines we know so well. He convinces from the first lines of the "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt" speech. As a young black actor, Essiedu must have a great future and I was thinking about Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Kaluuya, both of whom I saw in their first stage performances on the London stage, who have lived up to their early promise.

We get the feeling from Paapa Essiedu that his prince would be popular and well liked. His Ophelia (Mimi Ndweni) is also very successful in what is often a difficult part. Experienced actor and warhorse, Joseph Mydell is an exceptionally good, affable and natural Polonius, with Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia able to echo those oft repeated speeches and Laertes picking up his bags to leave as he, and we hope, Polonius might be coming to a close.

On the battlements, with drumming and smoke, it is almost as if Hamlet is going into a spirit trance to conjure up the ghost of his father (Ewart James Walters). As he feigns madness and is involved in painting the back drop for the play, in his "Get thee to a nunnery" scene with Ophelia, he daubs her with grease paint. It feels to us like she has been violated. For these scenes Hamlet wears a hand painted suit and on his face are a multitude of colours.

I didn't think Clarence Smith's Claudius was particularly strong with no indication as to his power base and Lorna Brown's Gertrude isn't memorable but they may have been casualties to the outstanding performance of Paapa Essiedu as their son and stepson.

Well done to the RSC for bringing this play to the Hackney Empire in London's gentrifying East End to close the tour. This production is also coming to Washington DC for a short week in May this year. Don't miss this young star!

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Starring: Paapa Essiedu, Joseph Mydell, Mimi Ndiweni, Clarence Smith, Buom Tihngang, Ewart James Walters, Lorna Brown, James Cooney
With: Byron Mondahl, Esther Niles, John Omole, Eleanor Wyld, Romayne Andrews, Patrick Elue, Kevin N Golding, Tracy-Anne Green, Maureen Hibbert, Whitney Kehinde
Design: Paul Wills
Music: Sola Akingbola
Movement Director: Mbuelo Ndabeni
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Music Associate: Jon Nicholls
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Lighting Design: Paul Anderson
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 8985 2424
Booking to 31st March 2018 at Hackney Empire and then
2nd to 6th May at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th March 2018 performance at the Hackney Empire 291 Mare Street London E8 1EJ (Rail: Hackney Central)
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