Possibly my favourite Hamlet... so far... thanks to the RSC and Paapa Essiedu (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
I've seen Hamlet more times than any other play. I think my most recent trip to see Paapa Essiedu as the prince - directed by Simon Godwin for the RSC in Stratford - was my 15th different production.
In a good Hamlet I'll see something I haven't seen before or it will make me think about the play in a slightly different way. I've seen some really, really good productions but there is usually one or two characters or something else that hasn't quite worked for me. Ophelia is often a problem, she's a difficult character to make convincing. But I think this RSC version has come very close to getting it all right.
Production spoilers warning
First of all, the key characters felt rounded, fully formed and fleshed out, understandable and convincing - from Hamlet to Horatio. Simon Godwin has set the play in modern day Africa and stuck to that setting and culture throughout but crucially without any awkward contrivance. When Hamlet and Laertes fight armed with two sticks, the poisoned blade is concealed within one of them. It works brilliantly.
But I'm jumping ahead to the end of the play. Paapa Essiedu is a young Hamlet which is always more agreeable and Simon Godwin opens with his graduation. He's with his friends, happy and no doubt feeling on top of the world and a world away from Elsinore where we see him next sombrely following his father's glass coffin. He is visibly upset when we see him in the throne room with his mother and newly crowned uncle - Ben Whishaw was similarly snotty and teary - and you feel his grief, shock and bewilderment about the turn of events.
After he has seen the ghost of his father and learned the truth of his death, there is a moment when he notices the gun, that he'd snatched from the watch, in his hand properly for the first time. He recoils from it slightly as if it dawns on him what he actually has been asked to do: kill his uncle. It is another emotional weight he carries.
From there everything he does and says feels motivated by this sadness and responsibility, it's always there at the root of his performance. His 'madness' is calculated to distract but as he moves closer to having to do what he promised it becomes less fun and more a bitter necessity.
Paapa's is a transparent prince. When he tells Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) to 'get thee to a nunnery' you feel his confusion about the women in his life, not just the anger at his mother for marrying his uncle but also Ophelia, his girlfriend, who's been told to reject his advances. He's a truly likeable prince, treating his friends and the players with genuine warmth - he just seems like a nice bloke. Knowing how the play pans out it makes it all the more difficult to watch. I was secretly yearning for a twist and for it to end differently for once.
Claudius (Clarence Smith) is portrayed as a sort of military dictator. He cuts a menacing figure from the outset, a ruthless strategist that presents a real danger to Hamlet except that he seems genuinely smitten and attentive to Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) - is there history there? Gertrude is at first blinded by love and genuinely shocked when Hamlet tells her about the murder but - and this only the second time I've seen this done - she sees the ghost in the closet scene and that is enough for her to take Hamlet's side.
When she describes Ophelia's death Tanya Moodie is visibly upset and describes it as if she is trying to make something beautiful out of something horrific for Laertes's sake as well as her own.
I thought Ruth Negga's Ophelia at the National Theatre was the best I'd seen but Natalie Simpson's portrayal is perfect mix of teenage confidence and vulnerability. She's a dutiful and loving daughter and you feel the hurt of Polonius' distracted dismissiveness in matters that obviously mean a lot to her. It is rejection, loneliness and incomprehension at how her world is turning upside down that tips her over the edge. She is a victim of circumstance.
Rosencrantz (James Cooney) and Guildenstern (Bethan Cullinane) are two of only three white actors in the production and Godwin plays on this brilliantly. They are Hamlet's English university friends, wide-eyed at the culture of Hamlet's homeland and out of their depth at the royal court. They bring the wrong sort of gift for Claudius and Gertrude (that scene is very funny) and try and integrate themselves, adopting bits of the local dress. When the King asks them to watch Hamlet they are flattered and eager to please, their youth and inexperience means they fumble their way through - it is almost cruel to see them dispatched the way they are.
In then end this is a Hamlet which has emotional depth and subtle cruelty. It is youthful, clever, funny, vibrant and genuinely moving. It left me breathless and I can't stop thinking about it - it will be difficult to better as a production. It's such a shame the RSC isn't bringing it to London for its season at the Barbican because I would love to see it again.
Catch it at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until August 13 or there is a live broadcast at selected cinemas on June 8. It is three hours and 15 minutes with an interval and I'm giving it five stars.
A selection of other Hamlets I've seen:
The female Hamlet:Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange, Manchester
The young Hamlet: Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic (V&A archive video recording)
Another young Hamlet: Adam Lawrence at the Riverside Studios
The loner Hamlet: John Simm, Crucible Sheffield
Youthful and energetic Hamlet: David Tennant RSC
The angry Hamlet: Jude Law, Wyndhams Theatre
The mental Hamlet: Michael Sheen, Young Vic
The intelligent and present Hamlet: Rory Kinnear, National Theatre
The volatile and self-aware Hamlet: Benedict Cumberbatch, Barbican