Until 3 Feb
The Lowry

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) seeks to ensure that Shakespeare is accessible and entertaining, and the production of Hamlet at The Lowry was definitely these. For Black and Ethnic Minority (BaME) theatre goers, the majority Black cast bring an unusual and unexpected layer for us to appreciate and celebrate. It retains references to Denmark and is an authentic Shakespearean experience, but the play is somehow old and modern at the same time. The beating of African drums and the beautiful costumes, as well as graffiti and the Time magazine cover all bring new dimensions to an old classic.

The RSC website explains that the play has one of the “most unusual of earliest recorded performances”. “It was performed in 1607 on board the East India Company's ship, The Dragon, lying off the coast of Sierra Leone. The captain notes in his journal that the acting of it kept ‘my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep’.”

A faithful representation of the original play with a very contemporary edge, its brilliant cast were moving, humorous and engaging. Shakespearean poetry has been brought to life in a stunning piece of theatre, and for this director Simon Godwin should be highly commended. The play’s complexities and nuances are enhanced, allowing us to soak in the myriad meanings that Shakespeare might have wished the audience to dwell on.

The devastated and grief-stricken young Prince Hamlet - a very challenging role - is played excellently by Paapa Esssiedu. Godwin shows us how Hamlet comes to fall further and further into his grief, at times finding some relief in his graffiti and in his ‘madness’. Feeling betrayed by his mother and uncle, the young Prince Hamlet’s life turns another direction - revenge - once he meets the Old King Hamlet’s ghost, played by Ewart James Walters. Hamlet’s stunning soliloquy reveals his anxiety, anguish and confusion, as well as his rage at the injustice committed by those he feels have murdered his father, destroyed his trust and split his family. Will Hamlet avenge his father’s murder? Or will his melancholy and indecision lead to his self-destruction?

The very familiar quotes recited by the actors, the poetic lyrics ingrained in our popular consciousness, are especially poignant moments, reminding us that Shakespeare’s writings have heavily influenced our language use today. For example, the famous lines: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend” (Polonius), and “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (Hamlet). Or “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Marcellus), and “That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (Hamlet). Or “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Polonius), and “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't” (Polonius). Or “The lady protests too much, methinks” (Gertrude).

Some might recall the sober and serious play from school days, but for this production it’s transformed with a stunningly colourful set and costumes, fantastically choreographed scenes of fighting, and a cast whose performances are thrilling and stirring. This version of Hamlet is a dramatic success.

Sadia Habib

Photo inset by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC.