This 2016 Royal Shakespeare production of 'Hamlet' was quite a unique one. While the play has been no stranger to non-traditional productions, none before or since had a West African military twist while apparently still in Denmark. The production is also interesting for the first time in the company's history where the title role was played by a black actor, something of a milestone in an already milestone year (400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death).
While not one of the best productions the Royal Shakespeare Company have ever done (they have done so many gems though) or one of my favourite 'Hamlet' productions, this is regardless very well done on the whole. It is not easy making 'Hamlet' fresh, this production does so brilliantly without making it unrecognisable. Do be warned though that this is not a traditional production, if that is a bother for some it's best looking elsewhere. For those always open to different interpretations, this 'Hamlet' may appeal to you more. Am a traditionalist myself, but have always been open to new and different interpretations as long as they are done well, this 'Hamlet' does that mostly very well indeed.
For my tastes though the setting was rather vague, it was actually not clear to me where it was meant to be set. With the setting in the play actually being pretty specific, it didn't always fit and the look was at times a little too simple.
Although Clarence Smith brings smoothness and nobility to Claudius, playing him well within the concept, this viewer prefers to see Claudius performed with a serpentine edge which was slightly missing with Smith. Just personal preference though.
Having said all this, the production is very well performed and it is the cast that make the production close to special. Starting with a very youthful and confident lead performance from Paapa Essiedu, who brings a lot of burning passion, charisma and poignancy to the difficult title role. Natalie Smith portrays the most interesting and most refreshing Ophelia in a long time, an Ophelia that isn't passive and one that develops as a character. As well as the pathos there is a refreshing and rarely seen before sass and ferocity. Tanya Moodle is an initially dignified Gertrude whose descent into shell-shock is quite chilling. Edward James Walters is very spooky as the Ghost in a suitably unsettling entrance, while Cyril Nri is humorous, scheming yet noble Polonius.
Despite reservations with the setting, there are no reservations to be had with the stage direction. Taking an oft-told and old story and making it emotionally raw and fresh, with the themes being remarkably current. There are a lot of touches, big and little, not seen before in any production of Hamlet (including what is done with Ophelia) and they were all done tastefully and it never came over as irrelevant. There is a good deal of tension and the moving parts did move me. The soundtrack is thrilling and authentic within the concept, have come across people that felt that it was stereotypical but it didn't come over that way to me. The video directing is intimate, you actually feel like you are there, while successfully opening up the action enough. It allows one to see some lovely details and reactions, Hamlet's madness and despair can be seen visibly with telling use of the eyes.
In a nutshell, very good and nearly great. To be seen for mainly the cast. 8/10