June 2, 2016
Something is happening to me that I would have considered inconceivable a year ago, or even seven months ago. I am falling in love with Shakespeare. His plays are so complex and can be analyzed on so many different levels; they can be adapted and changed to reflect any facet of the human condition. Shakespeare’s are still doing today what they did 500 years ago. They fulfill the quintessential goal of theater: to hold a mirror up to society.
“He was not of an age, but for all time.” -Ben Johnson
On Thursday evening, we had the pleasure of seeing Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I must say that it is my favorite show that I have seen so far on this trip. This rendition of Shakespeare’s classic was set in modern day west Africa, though the place was still referred to as Denmark. This adaptation was revolutionary in mirroring modern day issues and reaching a modern audience. All elements of design were well built and congruently updated for the time period. Though condensed from the play’s original four hour run time, three hours was very sufficient to portray a powerful and memorable story.
The light design was subtle, but nonetheless contributed to the tale as a whole. I particularly liked that a simple spotlight was used to represent King Hamlet’s ghost in the first few scenes of act one. This enabled the moment of the ghost’s true revelation to be as dramatic as possible. I think this was a successful tactic that excellently avoided the cheese factor. In the final scene of the play where Hamlet and Laertes battle to the death, four small cauldrons of fire were placed at the corners of the stage. At the beginning of the battle they were lit, and one cauldron extinguished itself with each of the four deaths on stage, first of Queen Gertrude, then King Claudius, then Laertes, and the final slow death of Hamlet.
The sound design was a highlight for me. West African influences were taken into account when designing the music. There were two off-stage musicians, both drummers, one with a large drum slung over his shoulder, and the other was the best djembe player I have ever seen. Both would join in the action on stage at times, but for the majority of the play, they stood on platforms at the Dress Circle level. Aside from the music, the subtle chirping of crickets could be heard during the nighttime scenes.
The set was fantastic. The back wall of the stage is a series of intermingles blocks that can be moved apart in several directions to create versatile locations. This is a permanent installation of the theater space, and a very smart one, in my opinion. The set pieces were detailed and well-made, each fitting the tone of the production perfectly, while at the same time, not smothering the actors on stage. My favorite pieces of the set were large canvases covered in graffiti that flew in from the rails. This production played with the theme of madness manifesting itself through art. In his fits of madness, or feigned madness, Hamlet can be seen graffitiing a portrait of his royal parents, and painting on a canvases with the words “Serpent King.” His costume for the majority of the play is a fabulous white day suit that has been covered in paint. I loved it. I loved the exploration of the idea that geniuses might all be a little mad.
“Visionaries and dreamers have always been dusted with a little oddity.” -Trevor Baylis
The morning after the show, we had the extreme pleasure of meeting with the actor who played Hamlet, Mr. Paapa Essiedu. He was a pleasure to listen to both on and off the stage. He indulged all our questions about this fascinating production while sipping coffee at our bed and breakfast. He said that the director had the ultimate goal of making this production so that a ten year old could understand it. And indeed it was very easy to understand, and wonderfully enjoyable to boot. Paapa is only 24 years old and playing one of the world’s most famous roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Shakespeare’s own birthplace. In my humble opinion, he is deserving of an Olivier Award, and I have high hopes for the future of his career.
I saw lots of talent throughout the cast, especially in Hamlet and Laertes, foils and rivals. Both men show lots of passion for their roles and what they do for a living. It would be an honor to see them perform on stage again.
If you would like to read more about the production, you can do so here. I highly recommend that you do.
Actors in any capacity, artists of any stripe, are inspired by their curiosity, by their desire to explore all quarters of life, in light and in dark, and reflect what they find in their work. Artists instinctively want to reflect humanity, their own and each other’s, in all its intermittent virtue and vitality, frailty and fallibility.”
― Tom Hiddleston