Review: the RSC’s Hamlet at Hackney Empire

Hackney Empire on Mare Street. Credit: Ewan Munro.

Director Simon Godwin and Paapa Essiedu bring something different to the table in this all-black production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

The thing about Hamlet is that there are no surprises. Everyone in the room knows exactly what is going to happen. So, if you’re going to do it, originality is key.  

Simon Godwin’s production goes some way to achieving this. Denmark is now an African country; Essiedu’s Hamlet is a scholar-turned-graffiti artist who smears Elsinore with green and pink paint; pounding drums announce the arrival of his father’s ghost; and Mimi Ndiweni’s sassy Ophelia hands out strands of her own hair as flowers.

But as well-devised as Godwin’s production is, it feels like his actors are too used to the atrocities being committed before their eyes.

Lorna Brown’s Gertrude sees her son go mad and kill a man. She whines a little, then moves on. Considering his father is murdered and sister drowned, Buom Tihngang’s Laertes doesn’t reach the heights of devastation one would expect.

Essiedu leads the cast valiantly as the revenge-bent intellectual. He embraces the comedy of Hamlet’s antic disposition, and clearly knows the difference between feigned madness and authentic grief.

However, as with the rest of the cast, his performance is not fully-formed. The gravity of the surrounding action doesn’t hit home. And ultimately, his death is not tragic. It’s just a good ending.