This youthful, bleak, exuberant Hamlet is played with panache and at full tilt. The set design is two parts West African court, one part Basquiat. Live African master drummers bring a stormy atmosphere to proceedings at court. The cast is predominantly black. It’s a black Hamlet.
I used to think it’s a bizarre play, Hamlet, because nothing much happens yet it somehow grips. Essentially a young man thinks of killing his step-father for three hours. Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet does not so much illuminate the play as set fire to the stage, and makes transparent that the play’s grip is all in its psychological narrative – the torment, rage and grief – the hell Hamlet is trapped in. Imagine having to face your father’s killer every day, and he’s sleeping with your mum too – wrong on so many levels! Paapa Essiedu is a real star turn – I can’t believe he will not go on to be a king of stage and film and I felt privileged to see him perform on Wednesday at The Lowry. I’ll be able to look back and say, “I was there!” I watched in awe. He seemed so supple in movement and in voice, so contemporary, alive, pacing, sauntering, sharing space with and yet on another plane to the other actors, the characters around him, as he is meant to be – it’s his play. He’s a young Hamlet. Essiedu’s vocal control and range, his informal, sinuous bodily flow, his sneering disdain, his juvenile jests – the timing he lands every time, his whiplash wit, his almost wilful beckoning of hot insanity to come take him – anything is better than the cold hell he is in – all feed into this whirl who works the stage like a man possessed, like some Orisha has descended upon him and is inhabiting him. Inspired and tortured. Blazing. Watching his youthful burn and torment, it struck me Hamlet is a play that speaks so well to the hot topic of mental health and young people.
Enough about Hamlet. The stage was blessed with many superb performances. Mimi Ndiweni’s Ophelia is a multi-faceted gem – solicitous with her father, endearing, tender even in her manoeuvrings around Hamlet. Her harrowing disintegration after the death of her father is painful to the max. Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, combines haughtiness and conniving with a surprising warmth. Clarence Smith’s Claudius, the murdering step-father is magnificent – his pragmatist, realpolitik reasoning simultaneously repellent and utterly convincing. The grave scene, done with a West African inflection, is rip-roaringly funny, testament to the impression I got that even the bit part actors such as the grave-diggers had serious acting chops.