Thursday, 11 August 2016

Theatre Review: Hamlet

Guilty confessions of a Shakespeare fan: until this year I had never seen Hamlet live.

Even worse, I’d never seen it in any format all the way through in one go. I’ve seen various film versions (including to the surprise of literally no one the epic Branagh version) but never made it all the way through without having to take a ‘holy shit this really is long’ tea break.

My Hamlet live v plates were recently removed courtesy of the RSC’s brilliant current production, starring Paapa Essiedu in the title role.

Image source.

The exciting and noteworthy thing about that casting is that Essiedu is actually the right age to be playing Hamlet who is after all supposed to be a student. Understandably given how huge the part is it’s normally played by someone considerably older and with more experience under their belt, but giving it to a (relative) youngster newbie breathes new life into the whole production. It feels edgier, more current and more dangerous.

It of course helps that Essiedu is spectacularly good in the part. His Hamlet is a sassy, electric, maniac; all quick wit, sharp tongue and twitchiness. There’s not so much as a hint of the stately grandeur that Hamlet is usually afforded (and the same goes for the whole production, not just this central performance), he is played exactly as he should be: an angry, intelligent, vengeful young man. The big soliloquies benefit from this particularly as there’s a real effort from Essiedu to concentrate on their meaning and not their world famous language (quoth my mother, who did Hamlet in school: “I’ve never really understood ‘Alas poor Yorick’ until tonight”). It’s more revelatory than it probably should be.

Essiedu is backed up by a strong ensemble of whom my personal favourites were the ever excellent Cyril Nri as a funny but not pantomime Polonius and Clarence Smith as a pleasingly nasty and dramatic Claudius. As seems to be the pattern with my theatre trips at the moment, I also saw a brace of understudies stepping effortlessly up to the plate in leading roles but as I lost the sheet telling me who they were somewhere on the Chiltern mainline train route I can’t credit them. They were all very good - understudies rock.

Directed by one of my favourites, Simon Godwin, on reliably excellent form, the pace of this production is perfect. The three hours positively fly by - which when you consider the first act is an arse numbing one hour forty five is no mean feat - and putting the interval in the middle of a line is a ballsy move that pays off with an increase in tension and shove of momentum into the second act. Paul Wills design is lively, anarchic and beautiful. I defy you to find a more colourful production of Hamlet, in any medium, anywhere. The use of music is great and the whole production combines with the performances and treatment of the text to give a refreshingly irreverent take on this most classic of plays. It feels genuinely modern, not in a gimmicky way, but in a natural way that gives the real impression that the play could have been written yesterday.

I was a big fan of this production and, if you can get to Stratford Upon Avon between now and Saturday when the production ends its run, would very highly recommend it. It has been filmed for cinemas so watch out for encore screenings too. Genuinely top drawer stuff.

Hamlet plays at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until Saturday 13th August.

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