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  • Eddie Hewitt


Updated: Nov 12, 2020


RSC at The Hackney Empire

2018 is proving to be a year of exceptionally high drama. I am revelling in this theatrically. And I'm going for a Shakespeare Slam. Based loosely on the concept of the Serena Slam (winning all four Grand Slam titles in the course of twelve months), I’m taking in the big four Shakespeare tragedies in one calendar year.

Every time I want to express myself in writing I put myself in Hamlet’s position. Prince of procrastination. To write or not to write. That wasn’t the question.

And yet I am ashamed that this, my review of the greatest tragedy of them all, Hamlet, has not found its way onto the Connected Cultures pages until now. After marvelling at the RSC performance, I found myself in the position of Sir Lenny Henry earlier in his career, I simply had so much things to say. I was overwhelmed. There were just too many Words, words, words. Finally, after so much rumination and delaying, I am ready to present my thoughts. In 5 Acts.

I’d heard great things about the RSC on tour. The company itself made quite a song and dance about this play. Rightly so. I was excited, nay, thrilled about the prospect of seeing Paapa Essiedu reprising his own 2016 Stratford role. This time at the Hackney Empire and around the country. Hackney may be an unlikely venue for the RSC, but the location provided a wonderful opportunity for sharing Shakespeare.

Hamlet the musical

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

The Empire is a beautiful theatre. Ornate, prestigious. In one sense it deserves to be in the West End, but it stands proudly nearer the East End and actually it is totally at home there. A theatre for ‘ordinary’ people (i.e. not tourists, lovies, and star-struck London excitement seekers). But far from an ordinary theatre.

The majestic Hackney Empire

I’d previously seen Essiedu as a policeman in Ken Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and as Otto In the BBC’s dramatization of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, both in 2017. Remember the name. Radio 4 Today’s Justin Webb could not, even after Paapa pronounced his surname twice for him. But I’m digressing from the stage. The play was the thing.

Here, as the young Prince, Essiedu was simply magnificent. For me, Essiedu was the definitive Hamlet. Agonised, introspective, wavering, mischievous, cunning, cruel, intellectually tangled up, emotionally in ruins and trying to put himself back together again; eventually cold, steely, and incisive. All Hamlets have fun with the skull, and Essiedu was no exception. I knew, him, Horatio. He slipped this line in perfectly, effortlessly.

At ease joking with an old friend

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

In so many other moments, his thought process was stilted and painful, deliberately so. This was a Hamlet who entertained and appalled in exactly the right combination. Shakespeare’s finest are torn between at least two minds, and Essiedu made all the right moves and said what he had to, to his fellow characters, to the audience, to himself, in exactly the right tone and with perfect delivery.

Missing Words

At times, there were some notable missing lines. Shakespeare took pains to have Polonius say “O, I am slain!” after the courtier has been pierced through the arras by Hamlet’s sword in Queen Gertrude’s boudoir. But the line was not spoken by Joseph Mydell. Do the line, Joe! Presumably since the prolix courtier was shot by Hamlet’s hand gun. Shakespeare would be surprised by the use of this prop. Still, contemporising is all about presenting what we have now to represent the same or a variation on what we had them. Gun crime and semi-accidental killing seem entirely appropriate. And it made a welcome bang. Or maybe the line was left out because it’s so difficult to say without sounding ridiculous. But Mydell could still have pulled this off. Polonius does, after all, come out with some surprising and unnecessary lines.

Polonius: a man with rather too much to say

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

Mydell's Polonius was a revelation as a father. I had previously thought the character to be just a ‘prolix courtier’ and little more. But here, he was warm and loving. Still wordy, but a nice, good man. His death was the first in a long line of tragedies within the tragedy.

More on weapons. There was no sword action throughout the RSC’s performance. How could this be? The fencing at the climax of the play is essential, I hear you cry.

“A hit, a very palpable hit.”

So said Osric as Hamlet scores the first point against Laertes. Moments later, Hamlet’s rapier strikes again. But no, there is no rapier on stage at the Hackney Empire. This was an innovative, African themed production, where the foils were replaced by wooden sticks. Still, the poison was conveyed equally well.

About to connect with some rather non-traditional weapons of choice?

Or perhaps very traditional.

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

Another word on the swordplay, or lack of. The only slaying on stage was performed by Cornelia, the Norwegian ambassador to the Danish court. She took no prisoners in her stiletto heels and an impossibly close fitting contemporary Shakespearean garment.

Alas, there are no on-stage pictures of Whitney Kehinde available to illustrate the point!

Hamlet is all about multiplicity of forms; of love, humour, emotional control, madness and action. Mimi Ndiweni was superb as Ophelia in all of these domains. Amusing, loving and wretched. Searching through her brother Laertes’s going away bag to expose his stash of protectives, after he had told her to preserve her chastity. Having her heart broken when Hamlet goes all weird. Heartbroken again when her father is murdered by her seemingly deranged and lost boyfriend. Pulling her hair out. Literally (a much misused adverb, but here it applied perfectly). Even if it was a wig. Using the twists for all the herbs she gave away. Finally drowning off stage. A devastating performance.

Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) pointing out some of the inconsistences in family life

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

Sadly, here, another of my all-time favourite lines was missing:

“When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions!”

Normally spoken by Claudius, cleverly played here by Clarence Smith as a fine, multi-faced, fratricidal villain, on hearing the latest piece of bad news in the court of Elsinore. Polonius was slain. Hamlet had temporarily disappeared after killing Polonius. Ophelia had just gone mad on hearing of her father’s death. Laertes had returned, from France, a different kind of mad, raging and not listening to anyone.

Claudius (Clarence Smith) exerting his regal influence over Laertes (Buom Tihngang)

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

An extraordinary omission. Or did I miss it? I find that hard to entertain. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, listening intently. Still, no matter. Wait. I don’t mean that. Hamlet style, I’m not convincing myself. I wanted to hear that line. This was not a moment of prolixity. It was one of many outpourings of despair, but that's the point. Hamlet is meant to batter us with sorrow after sorrow.

Final Reflections

It’s rare to come away from the theatre uplifted and despondent in equal measure. But that was how I felt. Enraptured by a brilliant performance of a very, very, tragic tale. Captivated by a haunting outpouring of the soul. I do tend to get caught up in these stories.

It’s such a shame that Shakespeare cannot enjoy the way his works have been staged through the centuries. The RSC excelled themselves in this production. A repeat triumph of a fantastic version of the greatest play ever written. With some surprising props, beautifully designed costumes, invigorating music and stunning scenery, the sublime cast delivered a hit. A very palpable hit.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018


The Connected Cultures Hamlet special: The African Hamlet

Words Words Words: favourite lines from Hamlet

In a Nutshell: Hamlet - the Story

The RSC: Hamlet

Hackney Empire: Hamlet

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