‘I secretly hate Hamlet’, my teenage niece Mayowa confessed, when I mentioned I was going to see Hamlet at Hackney Empire. Her friend called him a ‘whiny ass white dude’ (FYI, her friend’s white too).
Sounds a bit harsh, given the scope of the guy’s issues e.g. an uncle who killed his dad and married his mum in the space of weeks. But I get what they’re saying. Hamlet’s endless self-contemplation sometimes comes across like #firstworldproblems. To be or not to be… yada yada.
However, I was swept away by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fresh, often surprisingly funny take on Hamlet. I’m sure my niece would love it too. In a Shakespeare goes to Wakanda style twist, the drama shifts from Denmark to Africa. And it’s totally dope.
This is a Hamlet brimming with mischief and mysticism. A vivid spectacle of music, dancing and masquerades.
We open on the young prince (Ghanaian-Brit Paapa Essiedu), graduating from uni overseas. He returns to bury his dad and to meet his despot stepfather on the throne.
King Claudius and his wife Gertrude pose against kente cloth banners, beneath massive vanity portraits. Their entrances and exits are marked by feverish drumming (composed by former Jamiroquai drummer Sola Akingbola). The palace guards dress like African soldiers in combat fatigues. When Horatio utters: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, it’s a fitting metaphor for Africa’s human paper chain of military dictatorships.
The actors, mostly of African descent, are all strong. Just 27, Paapa Essiedu owns every scene he’s in. He clowns, he banters, he’s so tightly wound — you’re never sure what to expect. Underneath it all, you feel his pain. It’s an exciting, explosive portrait of a young man in mourning.
Joseph Mydell is brilliant as chief windbag Polonius. Typically, his speeches make my eyes glaze over. But here, Polonius nearly steals the show and I wished he could have stuck around for longer.
Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia also stands out: the confident young girl whose descent into madness is genuinely heartbreaking. The production never loses its rhythm or its ability to surprise. Even though I knew it would all end in tears, I was on the edge of my seat at the final clash.
The RSC has produced a dynamic, truly accessible version of the play for audiences of any age and background. It’s a great way to draw in older kids or people who think of Shakespeare as too ‘stuffy’.
I took my 12 year old along and this was his first ‘grown up’ Shakespeare experience (he’s seen child-friendly versions of Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night). Ezra found it hard going at times, especially since the first half was almost 2 hours long! For the most part, though, he enjoyed it (review below).
To see or not to see? There’s no question. Go see it!
Hamlet at Hackney Empire (Babes Review)
(Reviewed by Ezra, age 12)
‘I thought Hamlet was a very interesting (although long!) show. It was a brilliant adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original play. The actors were brilliant and for a moment when Hamlet was pretending to be crazy, I actually thought he was crazy! His uncle made you annoyed just looking at him. They made their characters very realistic. The costumes were brilliant especially Hamlet’s shirt and shorts with paint all over them. They created tension very well and the audience was always trying to guess what was going to happen next. The music was very sudden and it had an element of surprise about it. It was quite unique having the play set in Africa, even though they were in Denmark, but it all made sense in the end. Overall it was very gripping as Hamlet carried out his plan for vengeance. Even though the show was over three hours long, it was totally worth it for the immersive experience. I’d rate it 9.9 out of 10, because you can always improve!’
Hamlet is at Hackney Empire, 291 Mare St, E8 1EJ (Hackney Central overground). Open to all ages, but we’d recommend for minimum age 10+ (running time 3 hours and 15 minutes). Shows at 7.15pm (Mon-Sat) and 1.15pm (Wed & Sat); tickets £10-£49.50/family rate: half-price tickets for up to 4 under 18s with every paying adult (until Mar 31)