Actor Eleanor Wyld discusses the new, reimagined Hamlet

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Stoke Newington, actor Eleanor Wyld plays Guildenstern in the RSC's production of Hamlet. Credit: Manuel Harlan copyright RSC

Born and raised in Stoke Newington, actor Eleanor Wyld has landed her fourth role in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, playing Guildenstern in its latest production of Hamlet. She attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she studied alongside Paapa Essiedu, who plays the lead.

“Doing Hamlet at the Hackney Empire with the RSC is my dream,” said Wyld. “I’d seen the production in Stratford because they did it originally in 2016 and thought it would fit in really well here at the Empire.”

A challenge for the director Simon Godwin is reimagining the play in order to appeal to a wider, and younger audience. After watching Marvel’s latest film Black Panther together, the cast made a unanimous decision to include references to the characters in the play, in an effort to relate the Shakespearean tragedy to a contemporary audience.

Wyld has worked closely with the Big House Theatre Company, which guides young people who have been through the care system in Hackney. The children she works with have received free tickets to see the play – a move that Wyld hopes will inspire them to engage with theatre.

“The most exciting thing about this production is that Hamlet is young. What we have here is Paapa who is a brilliant young actor but has a very modern stance on it,” she said. “I as Guildenstern come and visit him as an outsider in this West African setting and we’re kind of his hipster mates from Hackney. So I think for [Paapa] it’s really original and current.”

The play constitutes a majority BME cast, which Godwin hopes will make the play more accessible. But for Wyld, the characterisation of the play by critics as the “black Hamlet” has been reductive.

“Calling it the Black Hamlet feels really lazy and micro-aggressive,” she said. “But I think what’s more important is that there’s an entire Shakespeare production in an area that is full of black people. Young people can see 17 actors on stage who are all ethnic minorities and feel like Shakespeare isn’t just a thing for white people in Stratford-upon-Avon.”

The tragedy of Hamlet is itself a story about “depression and suicide”. According to Wyld, these elements make the play one of Shakespeare’s most important to perform for young people, at a time when conversations around mental health are at the fore.

“What I think is really beautiful about this production is that with Mimi [Ndiweni] who plays Ophelia and Paapa who plays Hamlet – and Simon’s direction as well – the mental health aspect is really brought out and I think that’s what a lot of young people are really grappling with.

“So I think when people watch it, they feel like they associate with it a lot,” she said.

Hamlet is playing at the Hackney Empire until 30 March.