Hamlet (RSC, 2016) directed by Simon Godwin
I have seen a lot of Hamlet adaptations. When I was in my first year of University, we spent a week studying the text of Hamlet and then spent an entire term watching through a myriad of different adaptations: so many that I no longer remember them as specific adaptations and more just a blur of ‘to be or not to be’ in different settings. Maybe it was the number we watched, but none of them stood out to me at all; a huge disappointment given that Hamlet remains one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. So when I saw that the RSC would be screening their new adaptation of Hamlet, with Paapa Essiedu playing the eponymous character, live to cinemas across the country, I made sure that I would be able to get tickets. I am so glad that I was able to do so: this was such a fantastic, lively, and engaging adaptation.
Before the show started, as a cinema audience we were treated to two interviews: firstly, with director Simon Godwin, and secondly, with Paapa Essiedu. Their starting point with this adaptation came across really clearly: first and foremost, they wanted to move away from the traditional and make a stage adaptation of Hamlet that would bring younger viewers into the theatre. This comes through in every aspect of the play: despite the language remaining exactly as in the original text, every utterance, gesture, and tone feels new and modern. Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern could easily be 21st century students, and their struggles resonate particularly with a twenty-something audience.
Part of the reason for this, which came through clearly in the interviews, is that they are drawing on the actors’ own experiences to influence the adaptation. Essiedu was the first actor to be cast, and it was through discussion between Godwin and himself that the direction of the production really began to become clear. Essiedu talked about his experiences of the culture shock in moving between Ghana and the UK throughout his life: a culture shock which is prominent throughout Hamlet, between Hamlet’s university life in Wittenberg and his responsibilities in Elsinore. Drawing on this parallel, West African cultures permeate every aspect of the adaptation, particularly in terms of the music and the costumes; I thought this was all extremely well done, and the music especially was fantastic.
Having Hamlet as a West African International Student allowed ‘British Students’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to really exemplify the culture clash here: out of their depth in a culture of which they have little understanding, they cannot hope to comprehend the complexity of the situation Hamlet is facing. I went to see this with another friend who works with International Students, and this is definitely something we thought was very relevant to the overseas students we know: many of them find that, when trying to explain their home culture to British students, even the most well-meaning of their friends struggle to fully understand the implications of the culture shock.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention in this review the outstanding quality of acting, particularly amongst the younger actors. Paapa Essiedu has been deservedly acknowledged as ‘one to watch’, clearly portraying Hamlet’s anger, grief, and confusion, and engaging the audience with his character even when he is making some truly terrible decisions. However, I also want to particularly mention Natalie Simpson, who played Ophelia, and Marcus Griffiths, who played Laertes. The first scene between these two was one of the most natural stage-sibling scenes I have ever seen, firmly establishing their characters in a few short exchanges. Simpson brings a fantastic duality to Ophelia: her strength and confidence balanced with a vulnerability that leads to her downwards spiral after the death of her father. The infamous flower scene was heartbreaking, and I was definitely tearing up at her distress. Griffiths also had me tearing up at his attempt to remain composed after being told of his sister’s death: every part of his physicality in that moment showed his grief much more clearly than his words ever could.
Overall, this was a fantastic production which was inherently relatable and engaging. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to see it, since I would not have been able to make it down to Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch it on stage. If you have the opportunity to go and see it while it is still being performed in Stratford, you absolutely should (according to the RSC website, you have until 13th August)! This is definitely one of my favourite adaptations of Hamlet, and I really can’t recommend it enough. The standard here has also made me really excited for Cymbeline, which I hope to be able to see in the same way later in the year.