Hamlet’s inability to act and pursue vengeance for his father’s murder has long been a source of debate. The recent Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet (directed by Simon Godwin), featuring black British actors, takes a different approach. The play is set in an unidentified former British colony. While unnamed, the locale may well be intended to represent Ghana, the former British colony which gained its independence in 1957. The program notes compare this Dane to the Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was deposed by a military coup in 1966. However, this production should not be interpreted in reference to one nation or region because the character of Hamlet unleashes chaos and a loss of reason found not only in the political life of postcolonial Africa, but in other nations as well.
The play is given a late twentieth-century look with hanging banners, a platform (that is used as a stage for Hamlet’s actors, Gertrude’s bed, and a raised dais for two thrones), and IKEA-style table and chairs to represent Claudius’ home. The production also uses sound effects and spotlights to suggest a helicopter landing at the return Laertes (Marcus Griffiths). Subtle details in props also emphasize specificity of time. In one scene, for example, Claudius reads Time magazine with an image of King Hamlet on the cover. Without any further explanation, the cover photo signifies the death of a good (democratic) leader to a contemporary audience. The casting of two white actors as Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) connotates continued Western involvement in the former colony.
The production also has an Afro-Caribbean flavor, which is particularly evident in the scenes where the ghost of Old Hamlet (Ewart James Walters) appears accompanied by two drummers in the upper galleries. The drummers, under an orange light, drum with their heads upward as Old Hamlet appears in an African garb, as though the power of the drums conjured him from the world of the dead. The Afro-Caribbean atmosphere is also used to good effect in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. The duel, normally done as a fencing game, is done in this production in the form of Capoeira with sticks, which makes the scene acculturated, choreographed, and stylized.
It is the unusual portrayal of Hamlet that gives this production a truly modern flavor. He is driven by a desire for vengeance without regard for justice. Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet achieves “ 'a strange state of self-sacrificing religious inspiration' to avenge his father's death,” as Shakespearean scholar Ewan Fernie writes in his program notes. This aspect is heightened with a ritualistic atmosphere through the use of African drums, dance, and costumes. This is not a Hamlet that continues to question; Essiedu’s Hamlet has a clear intention to kill Claudius and to avoid imprisonment or execution. In pursuit of this aim, Hamlet presents himself as a madman.
Essiedu’s mad Hamlet enjoys his role-playing. He indulges himself in poetry, music, art, and theatre; but as a madman he has artistic license to insult Claudius (Clarence Smith), Gertrude (Tanya Moodie), and Polonius (Cyril Nri) through words, attitudes, and “art.” He does so by creating the uncouth painting of “The Serpent King” and spray-painting graffiti on the portrait of Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet’s art is both a reflection of his true nature and feelings as well as a tactic in pursuit of his vengeance.
It is against this madness of Hamlet that the madness of Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) becomes even more heart-wrenching. It becomes clear it's not just the despair of having lost her father that has driven her mad, but also her fear of her own fate in this politically unstable kingdom.
Godwin’s ending is powerful and compelling. By this time, Hamlet has caused enough of his own destruction, including the death of Claudius, his mother, Polonius (chief counselor to the King), as well as Polonious’ son (Laertes) and daughter (Ophelia). Fortinbras (Theo Ogundipe) closes the performance by entering and stepping over the corpses to sit on the throne. After experiencing this take of the story of Hamlet in a disorderly regime, it's left up to us to conclude if the King of Norway will restore reason to the kingdom or the lone figure of Fortinbras means the arrival of a new dictator. Either way, it's a remarkable journey.