Hamlet, directed by Simon Godwin, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 25 July 2016, right stalls.

Par Stéphanie Mercier
Publication en ligne le 05 septembre 2016

Texte intégral

1This was the 60th performance of Hamlet in the Shakespeare 1616-2016 celebratory season that sprawled from Stratford to London in tandem with the Stratford-based RSC Summer School and then the Stratford to London World Shakespeare Congress. The production, as a reinvigoration of one of Shakespeare’s most best known plays, could have been traditional. However, the stated purpose of Godwin was to search for a dream-world Denmark that was at once old-world European and new-world West African. Indeed, the production was set in what appeared to be an African martial stronghold, where Claudius (Clarence Smith) and then Fortinbras (Theo Ogundipe) successively ensured a military dictatorship, and oppression was all the more terrifyingly because it was understood rather than obvious. Further, the lead role was played by a refreshingly youthful actor, Paapa Essiedu, who was born in Britain but whose family originally came from Ghana. Consequently, common themes from his heritage and the play, such as respect for both the supernatural and tradition, meant that this Hamlet could be innovatively liberated and nuanced to credibly concern characters searching for societal foundation in a time that still seemed just as “out of joint” in modern-day Africa as it did, to Shakespeare’s audiences, four hundred years ago.

2Despite the discordant nature of the plot-line, rhythmic music was primordial to the production. The musical composer, Sola Akingbola, had been present throughout rehearsals and it quickly became evident that the actors had spent much time getting in touch with the drumming that was intended to accompany the iambic beats of the text like a heartthrob. The play was thus designed to run, in Godwin’s terms, as a multicultural symphony rather than the physiological drama that it tends to be in a unilateral European culture. Indeed, initial tension was provided by a four-tempo rhythm at the outset as the blue-bereted, camouflaged uniformed Bernardo (Kevin N Golding) and Marcellus (Theo Ogundipe) told Horatio (Hiran Abeysekera) of the appearance of a traditionally long-robe clad Ghost (Ewart James Walters). The latter was summoned as if by ritual : by incanting drummers from a smoke-filled below-stage “Hell” and their ensuing exchange was interspersed by hypnotic drumbeats that pulled back the concentrated, philosophising graduate from Wittenberg into the sate of a mesmerised child, listening attentively, cross-legged on the floor, to his authoritative father. Brubeckian “Take Five” drumbeats and dancing just as efficiently released the possibilities for both the supernatural and metatheatre as they announced the Players (Kevin N Golding, Doreene Blackstock, Marième Diouf, Temi Wilkey), who then performed the exchange between Phyrrhus, Hecuba and Priam, in mime, very expressively holding up masks as they did so. Live musicians (Dirk Campbell, Sidiki Dembélé, Joe Archer, Sola Akingbola, James Jones and Bruce O’Neil) next accompanied The Mousetrap, to both theatrically and musically propel Hamlet into a murderous netherworld and taking up of arms (here a pistol alternatively stuffed in the back of his trousers or a backpack). Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) seemed to sing her madness to a Blues-cum-Soul air and the gravediggers were alike to Reggae singers, one (Ewart James Walters) even emerged with Yorick’s skull whilst seemingly using a leg-bone as a microphone.


Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC

From left to right Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu), Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters)

3The ultimate sword (here African stick) fight was also joined by percussion, adding extra dramatic tension to the existing anxiety of the violence. All in all, the music literally hurtled the drama to its tragic end, the three-hour production rising to a theatrical crescendo that finished, not in silence, but in Horatio’s heart-wrenching scream that was interrupted only by the arrival of Fortinbras – who then composedly walked to, and sat upon, the double throne, which the inert-yet-ever-warm body of Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) still shared.

4Conflicts were also shown visually and verbally. Tellingly, the obviously European, gift bearing – one thistle branded shortbread tin, one teapot-shaped red telephone biscuit box – Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) only managed a three beat amateurish attempt at drumming on bongos whilst illicitly smoking hashish in a water pipe. Their wasting by Hamlet seemed, therefore, just as much due to their inability to adapt to their new environment as to Hamlet – and provided a wry comment upon a discordant condescension of the western intrusion on the African continent in the process. Moreover, in this intensely political, rather than merely personal, production of the play, divisional tension was provided not only on an international but also on a domestic level. The royal family was all through aware of its superiority with regards to inferiors. Polonius (Cyril Nri) was purposely played as, what Nri himself has described as a generally subservient civil servant, who nonetheless realised the dangers of Elsinore and was, for example, eager for his son, Laertes (Marcus Griffiths), to flee to France. He was also, in Nri’s terms, a “single father” who genuinely cared about his children. Polonius’s grinningly servile over wordiness in this production, therefore, very logically served as a protective shield in the unsettled court and, more generally, in the very unstable conditions of a country in a complete state of flux. The confusion was also revealed by Moddie’s fluctuating attitudes on stage as Gertrude. For example, if, as Moodie claimed, her Gertrude was modernly compassionate towards Ophelia despite her being below their station, the Queen’s initially obviously false, almost cartoon-like over-smiling compliance to Claudius’s dictatorial regime seemed nonetheless to only superficially cover a deeper attachment to tradition. Even her loaded language and diction used in an attempt to convince her son to condone her new marital status was contradicted by a still-strong affiliation to an ancestral past. This was innovatively revealed by the production choice to have her, as well as Hamlet, see her former husband’s ghost in her chamber : a fact that gave currency to Claudius’s guilt. It led her, here, to refuse to follow him after her own attempt (shown on stage by her barefeet and muddied dress) to save the initially level-headed, sensibly modern, Ophelia. Moreover, the latter’s madness was wonderfully demonstrated by her literally tearing her hair out and then distributing it around instead of the traditional flowers. It was even more impressive because of Simpson’s interpretation of Ophelia’s calmness with regards to Hamlet that contrasted so well with the confusion after her father’s death later on in the play. In this way, as in many others, the insurmountable tensions inherent to the individual and the familial, the private and public, the local and national, the domestic and global were brought to the audience members’ attention all through the production.

5In this innovative context, the younger characters nonetheless very traditionally remained the victims of the senseless violence provoked by the inability of their elders to deal with their own shortcomings in any other fashion than by further manipulative violence. Laertes’s malleability in the hands of Claudius thus inevitably brought to mind modern-day, globalised, Machiavellian political strategy. And, even if, as here, Hamlet was allowed an artist’s den – to seemingly give a free reign to his “antic disposition” and from which he emerged, with his clothes and himself covered in paint (skulls, hearts and crowns...) to graffiti the royal portrait or contrast the picture of his father tattooed on his chest over his heart with the front cover of Claudius on a Time-like magazine – the enclosed space also revealed a greater design of ciphering his madness and ultimately stifle any hope of his becoming independent from his parents’, or even general political, control. The avant-garde artist’s workshop thus contrasted with, and put into perspective, a more traditionalist interpretation of the play. It also emphasised, because, for example, Hamlet sported his father’s portrait across his heart, what Essiedu himself has termed as the intense pressure the character puts upon himself, along with an increasingly complicated exterior situation and the task of revenge that had been imposed upon him by his father. This is surely why, here, in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the “and by opposing ends them” coda was on rising intonation – suggesting that tension between cultural references can still, as then, lead to question whether being spurred into action, especially when that action involves an “eye for eye” justice that inexorably continues rather than cuts short, further violence, is not an unsatisfying response in a rational world. This particularly generous and open-hearted production invited audience members to ponder, concentrate and centre on such considerations as these to the last.

Pour citer ce document

Par Stéphanie Mercier, «Hamlet, directed by Simon Godwin, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 25 July 2016, right stalls.», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°8 - Saison 2015-2016, Adaptations scéniques de pièces de Shakespeare et de ses contemporains, mis à jour le : 05/09/2016, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1025.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Stéphanie Mercier

Stephanie Mercier holds a B. A. Hons. in French and Economics from the University College of North Wales and a Master in English Studies from Poitiers University. She is a professeur agrégé who gives Science-Politiques and French Business School entrance exams preparatory English classes and who also teaches English to Theatre and Film Studies undergraduate students and undergraduate-level Translation, when applied to the economic environment. As a mature student, she is completing her PhD : “Th ...