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  • Eddie Hewitt

The African Play

When I booked tickets for Hamlet at the Hackney Empire I was expecting the play to fall somewhere within the Conjectured Cultures brief, but I wasn’t expecting a full on African production. But to my great delight this was very much what was presented by the RSC.

There really was a vibrancy in director Simon Godwin’s Hamlet. His vision for Shakespeare's great presented us with something hot, something distant and other. Pulsating, rhythmic, bold and in bright colours. With loudness and clamour generated by the drums, ululating, and fighting with poisoned sticks. There was so much beauty and excitement in the music and the dance. Add to this the costumes, or at times, the lack of costumes – i.e. the bare chested male super heroes.

There was even a Wakanda moment on stage early on when Hamlet greeted Barnardo, Marcellus and Francisco, with arms forming Xs across their chests.

The African Prince

(photo: Manuel Harlan)

The cast, predominantly black, was led by the brilliant Paapa Essiedu (above), who was born in East London into a Ghanaian family. The creative team also included Sola Akingbole (Nigerian composer and percussionist) and Mbulelo Ndabeni (movement director, from South Africa).

The cast (photos: RSC)

The picture on the programme cover is of a glass skull overprinted with the Yoruba words ‘KA RANTI’, meaning ‘Remember’. A command issued by the Ghost of old King Hamlet to his son and by Ophelia to all of her loved ones in the lead up to her demise.

Alas, poor Yoruba

(photo: RSC)

I had originally wondered why would the RSC present a specifically African Hamlet. I soon turned things round and asked myself why they would not.

Hamlet, the play, could be set almost anywhere with a court, a king and queen, a prince, family rivalry, violence, jealousy, lust, true love, madness, swordplay, revenge, villainy, a spooky belief in the supernatural, ghosts and the afterlife (there may even be a link with Amos Tutuola there), heaven and hell. Pretty much any civilisation anywhere. There is extensive corruption and male patriarchy, so there is a hint of the west’s perception of Africa here, but again, this could be anywhere.

Execution style vengeance desired but not delivered: Hamlet targeting his Uncle Claudius (photo: Manuel Harlan)

And why not an African American Hamlet, even? It works. Hamlet brings a ghetto blaster onto the stage. There are Jean-Michel Basquiat-style wall hangings in the castle, with crowns, dinosaurs, skulls and all. Colours being turned up from bright to neon. Moreover, Hamlet carries a handgun, and uses it, in a heated moment of confusion. Hamlet shoots Polonius rather than slays him with a traditional Shakespearean sword. A hint of random and senseless hood violence rather than courtly duels and medieval justice.

Laertes (James Cooney) and Hamlet taking in some street art

Young Master Blaster

(photos: Manuel Harlan)

From a scholarly perspective, the programme notes are enlightening, as ever.

Augustus Casely-Hayford draws parallels between the fictional Hamlet and the

“the great Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah”

who returned to Ghana in 1949 after studying in London (Nb - Hamlet returned to Elsinore after a spell at university abroad). On Nkrumah:

“His speeches became suffused with prescient considerations of his mortality”

Hamlet's To be or not to be springs to mind immediately, but this is just one soundbite from his long spells of agonised soliloquising on mortality.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, returning scholar and leader

Further, Nkrumah felt “cast in a parallel world, as if hovering somewhere between life and death.”

And finally, in hammering home the similarity of circumstances:

“Hamlet, too, loses his anchors, his home, family, heritage, and a sense of dynasty all crumble away.”

And even more finally, Hamlet

“struggles against an existential crisis that simultaneously overcomes his psyche and his kingdom, he finds himself in a twilight between madness and powerful insight”

A lot of quotes there, supporting Casely-Hayford’s case for Hamlet and Nkrumah being kindred spirits with their similar laments and "hankering for continuity".

Agonising in love and in a lack of sense of belonging. Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) with Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) photo: Manuel Harlan

Casely-Hayford also makes reference to another great African figure, Ibn Battuta,

“the greatest medieval Berber chronicler”, who returned home after years of travel and

“found himself not just mourning the loss of his loved ones, but also his sense of place”

This again, is Hamlet in a nutshell. At least, it's Hamlet's starting point, from where all the dramatic tragedy ensues.

There are many more links between Shakespeare's Hamlet and African Culture. Creative, academic and social. And so, we have a Connected Cultures dream, emanating from this theatrical world. The challenge now is to explore further.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

Links:

The Connected Cultures Hamlet special:

Review of the RSC’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire

All the Hamlets: famous performances through the ages

Words Words Words: favourite lines from Hamlet

In a Nutshell: Hamlet - the Story

The RSC: Hamlet

Hackney Empire: Hamlet

© 2020 Eddie Hewitt. All rights reserved.