When Paapa Essiedu stepped on stage at Stratford earlier this year, Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph noted that he was the first black actor to be given the role of Hamlet since the RSC’s inception in 1961. It is difficult to fathom if this move should have been celebrated or met with an exclamation of incredulity that we have had to wait for over half a century for it to happen. Likewise this version, with adapted text by Mark Norfolk, hangs its main selling point on the fact that this is the very first time an all-black cast has performed Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy in Britain. Sam Cooke sang ‘It’s been a long time coming’, but perhaps 400 years is a tad excessive.
The actor playing Hamlet cannot be too old to reflect his youthful naivety, yet has to be mature enough to convey successfully the emotional complexities of the character; the contrasts and paradoxes of the character are a microcosm for the play. Raphael Sowole manages to achieve this on the whole but lacks some of the grey area in between. His treatment of Ophelia (Abiona Omonua) borders on the abusive without necessarily being enough to drive her to the madness that will become her own demise.
As with any adaptation, edits are to be expected. One of the most surprising is to have Rosencrantz (Mark Ebulue) minus Guildenstern. You can’t have fish without chips, strawberries without cream, Eric without Ernie. The murmuring of disquieted audience members was palpable, followed by the threats of strongly worded letters to whoever might have listened. Some might say that it doesn’t really matter because Stoppard gave them a play unto themselves anyway. However – and for the purist amongst you please forgive this next statement – it worked. The mistrusting relationship between Hamlet and Rosencrantz was a well-balanced foil for the almost lap-dog loyalty displayed by Horatio (Offue Okegbe).
There are no prizes on offer for knowing the first line of ‘that’ speech. The difficulty for any actor is where to put the stress or where to pause. Unfortunately, Mr Sowole inserted a pause after the first two words, allowing just enough time for a compelling Mexican wave of whispered ‘…or not to be’ to ripple through the audience. Although delivered well, this contrasted disappointingly with the ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech, which was thrown away slightly with a lack of clarity which made it hard to distinguish from the sixth row back, something which become a more prominent feature in the second half.
The Ghost of Hamlet’s father (Patrick Miller) required the sense of the supernatural needed to define the character. Death scenes, particularly those of Polonius (Trevor Laird) and Ophelia lacked a significant build-up to hit the necessary motivation, making them awkward and GCSE coursework-like in delivery. Contrast this with Ophelia’s funeral procession, which was atmospherically very good, and the effective underplaying of the final scene: this production proved to be a frustrating mix of genuinely mesmerising moments and back-to-reality breeze-blocks of ungainly tangents, irrelevant to the previous action.
All of this was forgivable compared with some members of school parties attending this performance. Since when has it become acceptable to take pictures of a production in full flow and then post instantly to an Instagram account? Add to the mix a plethora of texting, a veritable picnic of confectionery and sniggers at any tenuous double entendre and erroneous sound effects. Manners and pre-determined unwritten contracts of behaviour in certain situations cost nothing.
Future performances: 21-22 October at 7.45.