Theatre Review: RSC HAMLET – The Lowry, Salford

Paapa Essiedu in the title role of RSC’s touring production of HAMLET. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Simon Godwin’s stirring interpretation of HAMLET takes Shakespeare’s dark tragedy and thrusts it into the light

Following its critically acclaimed run in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) finally takes its landmark production of HAMLET out on tour.

Written by William Shakespeare, HAMLET tells the story of Prince Hamlet who is visited by the ghost of his father to avenge his brutal death. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius has murdered his own brother in order to seize the throne and marry his deceased brother’s widow and Hamlet is called upon to expose the truth leading to a perilous journey of madness, murder and lost love.

Bright, bold and incredibly riveting, RSC’s contemporary take on HAMLET brings a fresh energy to Shakespeare’s famous tale. Transported from traditional Denmark to an African military state, Simon Godwin’s stirring interpretation takes the dark tragedy and thrusts it into the light with its colourful costumes, playful choreography and wildly energetic ensemble scenes. The famous ghost scene features spine-tingling ceremonial drumming, calypsos are performed at the graveside and even the travelling players’ sequence is enlivened by a riot of tie-dye colours and jerking-limb dancing. Add in an exceptional cast performance from a predominantly black ensemble and it feels like you are seeing the play anew.

Focusing less on the politics and more on Hamlet’s psychological unravelling, Godwin’s production also feels refreshingly authentic. As the young Prince finds himself stuck between two worlds – adolescence and adulthood, Prince and King, nephew and son, friend and lover – we’re left wondering whether Hamlet really is mad or merely a victim of circumstance.

The cast of RSC’s touring production of HAMLET. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Rising star Paapa Essiedu is intensely likeable in the title role. Young, quick-witted and sarcastic, Essiedu not only speaks the verse intelligently but convincingly conveys the character’s pain, as well as his confidence, charisma and energy. He truly makes the part his own, which is incredibly impressive when you consider the list of actors who have played the role in the past.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, particularly Buom Tihngang as the strong and fearless Laertes and Clarence Smith as an impressively composed Claudius. Mimi Ndiweni also captivates as the convincingly distraught Ophelia, singing softly and sadly as she tears out her hair in madness, which is both unnerving and tragic.

Godwin’s decision to bring out the energy and humour of the piece means this is not the most emotionally wrenching of Hamlets nor the most psychologically complex. The production also takes a little while to get going but when it does, it charges forward with the energy and suspense of a thriller.

That said, with its stunning central performance, exceptional cast and inventive direction, RSC’s HAMLET makes for an incredibly arresting and entertaining production and a successful contemporary outlook on the feudal tale of murder, revenge and madness.

4 out of 5 stars

RSC’s HAMLET runs at The Lowry until 3 February 2018.