Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. Simon Godwin, RSC Live. City Screen cinema, York. 8 June 2016.
By Sarah Olive
Cast: Hiran Abeysekera, Romayne Andrews, Doreene Blackstock, Eke Chukwa, James Cooney, Bethan Cullinane, Marième Diouf, Paapa Essiedu, Kevin N. Golding, Marcus Griffiths, Byron Mondahl, Tanya Moodie, Cyril Nri, Theo Ogundipe, Natalie Simpson, Clarence Smith, Ewart James Walters, Temi Wilkey.
This is a review I had no intention of writing. I had great plans for catching up with my frolleague (if ‘frenemy’ is a portmanteau in common parlance, then there needs to be one for the happy scenario of a friend who’s a colleague); for dinner, which barely stumbled at our favourite dishes being out of supply; and for a G&T on the balcony dangling over the Ouse (who was I kidding? On a 21 degree evening in the UK, everyone was outside); for seeing more work by Simon Godwin, having seen him in a workshop at University of York’s Theatre, Film and Television department where he exhibited an irrepressible, un-Hamlet-like* correlation between thought and action that kept him out of his chair for (what seemed like) ninety per cent of the session. Hamlet was almost incidental: a good excuse for all these other activities. Also, I had just travelled three hours to watch a production on a screen for 20 quid, that I could have seen the same night at the RST for free (while many writers suggest that live theatre leads to larger total audiences and as – if not more – enjoyable cinema than theatre experiences, it would seem that not all theatre-goers agree about the parity).
There’s no resisting the lottery of destiny, however. Having interests in postcolonialism, orientalism, social justice, globalisation, and globe-trotting, plus having heard three excellent papers on live theatre broadcasts at the previous week’s Britgrad conference, I started scribbling notes on my hand, arm, and fingers only few minutes in. Here’s why. The publicity had alerted me to Paapa Essiedu’s casting as Hamlet, but I hadn’t realised that the RSC was approaching a reprise of the casting principles behind Greg Doran’s 2012 all Afro-British cast, modern-African set (sometimes referred to as the ‘all black’) Julius Caesar. For a production from the same company, using a similar colour-blind casting policy, the pre-publicity was strikingly different and thought provoking. Was the difference down to the directors’ preferences? Was it somehow related to Julius Caesar having been part of the World Shakespeare Festival whereas this production was part of the RSC’s offerings in the Shakespeare 400 anniversary year? Did the RSC regret the hype around the casting of and concept for, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Julius Caesar? Had it come under criticism then for commodifying race and decided that the next time it assembled a similarly exceptional (even given their regular, colour-blind policies) cast, the more truly progressive thing to do would be to play it cool? I don’t know. A glance back at its reviews as well as the work of the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project at Warwick might have some answers.
Along with Julius Caesar and Iqbal Khan’s Othello (RSC 2015), the production could have formed part of an African dictator trilogy (except that the RSC itself seemed a bit conflicted about whether its Julius Caesar was set in Rome or London’s Colindale or contemporary Africa, and Othello’s action was still split between Venice and Cyprus). Both these RSC productions connoted Idi Amin (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Robert Mugabe), through the choice of military uniforms and scenes of torture. In this production’s case, a Time magazine look-a-like front cover with freshly-invested Claudius’ face on it, was brandished by Hamlet at Gertrude during the closet scene.
Amin ruled Uganda. Mugabe rules Zimbabwe. The pre-performance interview with Godwin alerted us to Essiedu’s Ghanaian heritage as inspiring some of the production concept: the characters’ reactions to hearing of or seeing a ghost, for example. Yet, whether because of the concept’s realisation, or because UK, Shakespeare theatre-going audiences (read: I) don’t know enough about Sub-Saharan Africa to avoid collapsing differences between its many countries and ethnicities, much of that specificity was lost (on me). Instead, I experienced it as a pan-African cultural jumble with, at times, West Indian inflections (literally, in some of the characters’ accents): there were plantain chips, gorgeous wax print fabrics, bright and breezy silk shirts, an animal print throw, drums, a stunning, carved wooden throne and masks. I caught myself early on thinking ‘this reminds me of the Lion King’; then telling myself I only thought that because the two productions (four, if you count my viewing the film, stage musical and playing the video game of Lion King as a teenager) constitute part of my all too limited repertoire of representations of Africa; excusing my conflation by thinking about similarities in the way that Old Hamlet’s (Ewart James Walters) and Mufasa’s ghostly visitations worked; then thinking, during the gravediggers’ scene, that I’d never previously noticed the parallels between the comic relief they provide and that of Timon and Pumbaa; trying to cancel out my possible complicity in WASPish assumptions by fretting about the eroticisation of black male torsos during Laertes and Hamlet’s capoeira(?) duel and the politics of black women’s hair when the actress playing Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) seemed to be wearing her hair in its ‘natural state’ to designate the character’s madness, yanking a chunk out of her scalp that became her herbs and flowers. Finally, I found that I was excusing myself another way by locating the problem with historically/predominantly white, Western institutions representing Africa (Disney and the RSC). It’s not the first time I’ve worried about global Shakespeare during and after the 2012 Globe to Globe festival – 37 plays in 37 languages, many brought to the UK by companies based in other countries. Nor is it the first time I’ve enjoyed a director culturally transposing, othering, interculturating or making multicultural Shakespeare, only to simultaneously experience it as part of an amorphous-seeming problem. (There are also times I’ve winced at some of the above – like the rap battle in Khan’s Othello).
For the umpteenth time, I caught myself considering whether productions such as this represent a renewed ‘Globe to centre’, or ‘centre raiding the Globe’, colonising impulse. Happily, a similar thought seemed to have occurred to Godwin. He incorporated a welcome parody of such attitudes and behaviours. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (James Cooney, Bethan Cullinane) were played as a couple of straight, white, privileged but unprincipled graduates – I’m pretty sure many audience members, academics and critics will have felt the ‘smack’ of R&G. Possibly on a ‘gap yah’, they arrived in Elsinore all cosmopolitan, hipster holiday-maker (FjallRaven backpack, man bun, and colour-pop, local craft accessories) only to be quickly corrupted by Claudius (Clarence Smith), his wealth and status. This was reflected in their adoption of increasingly Western, corporate wear.
This review has done justice at considerable length to my unease as an audience member and academic about cross-cultural appropriations in RSC productions. It has not done much to the superb direction and performances. (More unintended bias?) For me, this was the most engaged I’ve been during a production of Hamlet. (It’s also the best view and comfiest seat I’ve ever had for a performance of the play, only slightly problematized by body microphones being inadvertently thumped or snagged on clothing). Essiedu’s soliloquies were always compelling. Hamlet’s voice modulated to a childlike whine in his ‘antic disposition’; when he also developed a restless, itching tic, which arguably underscored his lack of action elsewhere. The production was pacey; largely naturalistic; and captured well a small-scale domesticity, particularly in Polonius’ family scenes, where many productions dwarf the sense of family tragedy with Elsinore’s turrets and towers. Likewise, Hamlet’s rebellion against Claudius and Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) and his regression to happier, student days was genuinely affecting. He holed himself up in a squalid studio space. Part atelier, part junkie’s squat, it contained a bare mattress, graffitied walls, paint-stained dust sheets and many of the materials for his protest: spray cans (mightier than swords, they had been used to spray crown icons and the word ‘King’ on diverse surfaces including his own suit and a state portrait of the new King and Queen), placards and the travelling players’ stage. Hamlet had his father’s face inked on his pectoral muscles, which stuck a chord of authenticity: it reminded me of the excessive, slightly deranged (but nonetheless genuine) dedication of clients on Channel 4’s My Tattoo Addiction getting permanent portraits of their sometimes-estranged children, with the tattooist working from baby photos. A similarly moving act of mourning was enacted by Ophelia, mad with grief, who removed her own trousers and stretched them out next to a blazer, as though engaged in her father’s ‘laying out’. Finally, a casting choice that I haven’t seen often worked well. Too often, the ghost is played by a big name, big-chinned actor, while Claudius is the slightly ugly duckling of the family (presumably a hang-over from older assumptions about beauty and morality). I’m often left unconvinced by the efficacy of such Claudius’ charm or intimidation in wooing Gertrude. Here, however, Claudius was inescapably the much younger, fitter brother: something that might not have escaped this Hamlet’s attention, proved unpalatable and (perhaps even before the ghost’s tale) presented an insurmountable barrier to accepting his mother’s remarriage.
*For subscribers to Goethe, Coleridge, Schlegel and co.’s criticism.