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Review: Hamlet, at Hackney Empire

Sparkling performances as director Simon Godwin treats Denmark as a West African country in must-see production

16 March, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet

FORGET Hamlet the Gloomy Dane, this Royal Shakespeare Company production is colourful and funny without losing the play’s essential gravity.

Director Simon Godwin treats Denmark as a West African country – bright with patterned cloths, where pounding drums accompany official occasions and Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet paints Basquiat-like artwork.

This active Hamlet, sometimes feigning madness, doesn’t slow down until, in a self-searching soliloquy, he reveals his heart to the audience.

Clarence Smith plays Claudius with smooth authority. Lorna Brown’s gentle Queen Gertrude perhaps going along with things out of royal duty rather than passion.

Joseph Mydell’s Polonius is as much family friend as royal counsellor. When son Laertes (Buom Tihngang) tries to lecture his sister Ophelia, sexual euphemisms become a joke and she pulls condoms from his holdall, making it more moving when Mimi Ndiweni portrays her descent into broken-hearted madness.

Ewart James Walters, a tribal chief ghost of Hamlet’s father who seems to inhabit all parts of the theatre, also plays a jovial Jamaican gravedigger who has brought his accent to Africa and also taught his assistant calypso.

Essiedu’s Hamlet is a sparkling performance and this a most enjoyable production (you can’t always say that of a tragedy).

Sometimes, however, the lively delivery is too fast for full comprehension and the decision to turn the fatal fencing bout into an stylish African stick fight makes its poisoned blade cheat seem unlikely – but this is still a must-see production.

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