Nothing says ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t’ quite like a beat box, a can of spray paint, and a jacket decorated with a skull and paintball-match-style splodges. The RSC’s 2018 production of Hamlet was certainly, to all appearance, a transportation, a reframing, a new take. Set in a West Africa of an unspecified time – with soldiers on guard in uniforms which hinted at a colonial setting, and Claudius and Gertrude watching from the tiny box of a window on the stage’s back wall eerily evoking Mugabe and Grace – the distinct sense of state which lurks in Hamlet was certainly brought to the fore.
But on closer inspection, it’s still the same old Hamlet. And it feels almost like a betrayal of my loyalty to Shakespeare’s most-lauded play to say that I found that slightly disappointing. Whilst I understand the difficulty of revitalising and making your mark on a play which has probably been running at some theatre somewhere in the world for the past 400 years, the new angles in this production felt superficial, and didn’t veil the submission to existing tropes and conventional interpretations of characters which ultimately, for me, meant mediocrity.
There’s nothing wrong with emphasising Claudius and Gertrude’s smitten-ness, or playing Hamlet as a moody teenager, or having him aggressive and sexually charged in the closet scene – there is, of course, good reason why these are traditional characterisations. But my problem was that in this production traditional interpretations were accepted without question, without exploration, and, it seemed, intended for an audience in the know about what to expect from Hamlet.
To avoid getting too abstract, take the very beginning of the play as an example of what I felt was the surface-level renewal of this production. The traditional intrigue-filled start-point of the soldiers on the battlement is pushed back, and the play opens on Hamlet’s graduation from university in Wittenberg. Presumably this fore-fronting of his student status is intended to emphasise his youth (and so hint at the fragile strength of the shoulders which are to bear the weight of grief and vengeful duty), or his intellectual-ity (and so forebode his over-thinking, and tendency towards words over actions). Both are interesting interpretations of what makes Hamlet the Hamlet, but this felt tokenistic when neither were dwelt upon further through characterisation, beyond what the text necessitates.
Or we could take the production’s handling of Gertrude. In fairness, her character is complex and, though a minor character in terms of speech in the play, her portrayal is what clinches an excellent performance, for me. The many questions about her which the text raises can’t be answered except by taking a firm stance and deciding whether a) she’s innocent and politic, and Hamlet’s simply going off on one, b) she’s ignorant, and Hamlet genuinely turns her eyes to her ‘very soul’ in the closet scene (in which case her behaviour should alter notably from Act 4 onwards), or c) she’s complicit in her husband’s murder, cold-hearted, sex-hungry, and manipulative. All work based on the text. What does not work, is all three at once, simply because the text allows that. Great productions, and great actors, have theories and interpretations of characters which inform their whole performance, and that does mean being bold: it means shutting out at least one of Shakespeare’s suggested interpretations.
This production had a stern and stately Gertrude, all hands with Claudius, and relatively unconcerned about her ‘hasty marriage’ close upon his brother’s death. Unemotional and selfish, I thought: brilliant. Gertrude is a monster, a power-hungry sex-maniac. Bold, I thought, until she isn’t an unemotional monster in the closet scene, but plays the pretty intuitive eye-opened emotional torment. She’s got to be repulsed by Claudius now, I thought, edge-of-my-seat stuff, this. But then (I could have cried), Act 4 opens with the same old Gertrude, delivering her minimal lines as before, with no evidence of moral progress. At times it felt like each scene was played in a certain way because ‘that’s how you do that scene’, rather than because ‘that’s how [insert character] is thinking and feeling right now’.
Even ‘rising star’ Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet fell into this trap at times. In in the closet scene, for example, he was angry and topless, but without having placed remarkable emphasis earlier on the problematic, complex feelings about his own and his mother’s sexuality which cause this frustration.
Whilst the slam poetry vibe of some of his soliloquies was quite fun, I wasn’t as riveted as the programme suggested I would be by this chilled-out, casual, fidgety Hamlet. Shakespeare’s language in the soliloquies is explosive, intense, and emotive, but I don’t think the best was made of it. It’d be an exaggeration to say that I was weeping tears of frustration, but the lack of energy and momentum, the distance and breeziness of ‘to be or not to be’ and other points where we’re supposed to be forging a strong relationship (positive or negative) with Hamlet, left me unfulfilled.
There were, however, a lot of things about this performance which I did like. Fierce and atmospheric drumming between scenes seemed to echo an ‘antic disposition’ and hidden evil lurking at the heart of a court. Our first encounter with the Ghost draws out the suspense of our doubts about its reality and trustworthiness, using lighting, rather than the actor playing old Hamlet who only appears later, to give the impression of a disturbed spirit. His tribal robes, when he did come along, reminded us of the ancient savagery which caused his premature end, ‘the first murder’, and their contrast with his (murderer) brother’s clean-cut military suit hinted at what’s under the surface, and the deep chasm in this play between seeming and being.
The arrival of the players, exciting in the text as it is, is here an event, with a host of drummers, dancers, and actors forming a vivid and energetic parade – the spirit of excitement which travelling players might have evoked in Shakespeare’s time is brought back to life with the enrichment which the new cultural setting provides.
Moreover, the play diversifies what is otherwise an incredibly homogenous, white male cast. Like the National Theatre production, pairs like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Cornelius and Voltemand, become male-female to combat the worrying absence of women in this play, with an (impressive) female Guildenstern being given almost as much airtime as Horatio, and Cornelius becoming Cornelia. The black majority cast and new setting show us the exciting and amplifying results of breaking from the white Anglo-American tradition.
Ophelia, too, was brilliant. Strong, secure, and on it, she forced us to question Hamlet’s stability, as well as the legitimacy of most male power, rendering her father Polonius even more naïve and silly than he does by himself. This Ophelia was in control, and the ‘get thee to a nunnery scene’, intimate, suggestive of a deeply loving and formerly close relationship (in all senses), was executed superbly. When, at the point where the whole weight of Hamlet’s duty and mental turmoil seem to come crashing down on him and he turns on Ophelia, the movement and stance of the two actors were redolent of a rape, Ophelia’s real control and superiority, as a woman in that time, were brought into question, her ‘woe is me’ soliloquy-of-sorts hammering home the fragility of her power.
And, of course, there’s always Polonius, who is perhaps the best-drawn character in all of English literature. Shakespeare writes him so spectacularly that characterisation would have to be actively bad to disappoint, and Joseph Mydell’s foolish conniver didn’t fail to impress. And wouldn’t you know it, I said I’d do a quick review, and I’ve done a Polonius. Since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll round off with praise for the staging and resetting of this production, but admit that I understand why all of the reviews in the programme are four-star, but not quite five.