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Hamlet review at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘Paapa Essiedu soars’

Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Tristram Kenton Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

He’s got it. Paapa Essiedu has that quality, that magical indefinable thing, that makes you sit up and pay attention.

His Hamlet is mischievous and flirtatious, charismatic and sarcastic. He’s kind of obnoxious at times, true, but he also conveys the character’s pain – the mask falls and suddenly there are whole stanzas in his eyes.

While his youth is foregrounded – Simon Godwin’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company begins with Hamlet’s graduation ceremony – there’s a lot more to him then that. Essiedu launches himself into the language as if it were a ball-pit. He makes the words his own. He has a clarity of voice, a musicality of delivery and a precision of gesture that’s incredibly engaging, and yet he also brings real menace to certain exchanges, particularly the ‘will you play upon this pipe?’ scene with Bethane Cullinane’s Guildenstern.

Essiedu had already made an impression on critics and audiences with his Romeo at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory last year and here he builds on that promise, donning a paint-stained jacket along with his antic disposition and daubing the set with Basquiat-inspired art. Essiedu’s Hamlet is a fresh prince, confident, cocky, compelling, hopping from foot to foot, fizzing like an aerosol can.

Set in an African state, Godwin’s production takes a while to get going but when it does it has the zip of a thriller. Hamlet brandishes a pistol and dreams about taking out his uncle, Laertes returns home via helicopter, and the whole thing concludes in a shirtless martial arts showdown.

While this results in a loss of nuance – this is not the most emotionally wrenching of Hamlets nor the most psychologically complex – it makes for an arresting, accessible and entertaining production, with a shooting star of a central performance.

He’s supported by a very capable cast, with Cyril Nri a kindly and highly endearing Polonius and Natalie Simpson one of the more convincingly distraught Ophelias I’ve seen, singing softly and sadly, tearing at her hair. Clarence Smith’s Claudius is an intriguingly benign figure, a man who has let events overtake him, and Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude out-suns his moon by some degree. Hers is the smaller role and yet she is the dominant presence (come on RSC, cast her as Macbeth, make her a Henry V)

This is not earthquaking Shakespeare – there’s little tenderness in Hamlet’s relationship with Horatio and the graffiti aesthetic, the work of designer Paul Wills, feels a bit awkward, but it has an energy and momentum that’s really appealing.

Long as the production is, it rarely flags once it’s found its feet, and the whole production feels open and clear in intention. And Essiedu, as I said: he’s got it.

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Paapa Essiedu brings confidence, charisma and energy to his star-making turn for the Royal Shakespeare Company