This African-Style Hamlet Gives The Classic A New Vibe

Hamlet, Hackney Empire ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 18 months ago

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This African-Style Hamlet Gives The Classic A New Vibe Hamlet, Hackney Empire 4
Photo: Manuel Harlan

This Royal Shakespeare Company touring production of Hamlet (first seen in Stratford in 2016) brings a new, pulsating vibrancy to Shakespeare’s most quoted play. Set in a contemporary black African military state, this revenge tragedy is a genuinely exciting affair that tells the story with real clarity and compelling momentum.

Colourful costumes and tribal drumming take this show well away from northern Danish gloom, while the play’s plentiful comedy is fully embraced. Yet the poignancy of the protagonist’s predicament is deeply moving, as is the way Hamlet’s personal struggle impacts on those around him in the Elsinore court.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Paul Wills’s set suggests a grand fortified palace, with an emerging throne topped by a portrait of the king and queen, in a flexible design that makes for impressively quick scene-changing. Though the politics of the drama is underplayed, Simon Godwin’s dynamic direction (which makes good use of the auditorium) ensures our attention is held tight on this double family tragedy for three hours plus.

The largely black cast perform with persuasive urgency. At the centre is Paapa Essiedu, in a star-making turn full of restless energy, heartrending grief and sardonic humour, as a mercurial artist-prince à la Jean-Michel Basquiat, fresh-minting Shakespeare’s poetry. This Hackney Hamlet is far from hackneyed.

Hamlet, Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ. Until 31 March 2018. Tickets £10–£49.50.

Last Updated 13 March 2018