Monday, 18 April 2016

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

I could mine Hamlet for quotes for ever, but one line has never been my motto: 'Brevity is the soul of wit' (see my Twitter feed if you don't believe me). Why Hamlet this morning? Well, because I went on a school trip to see it at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday. Students and colleagues all saw the matinée performance directed by Simon Godwin and starring Papa Essiedu in the title role.

The setting was still 'Denmark' but clearly in the present, and the rotten state was African: virtually the entire cast was African or of African origin, as were the music, accents, materials, furniture and politics. Over-elaborate military uniforms were the order of the day for Claudius and his subalterns, or shiny silk suits and brightly patterned fabrics.

The acting was superb without exception. Essiedu played Hamlet as sulky, sarcastic, sexually twisted and slyly mocking. Tanya Moodie was superb as Gertrude: a touch of Winnie Mandela about her, regal, morally adrift but determined to hang on to power. Cyril Nri had a tough job as Polonius: foolish old man or obsequious courtier who knows how to survive shifting power. The scenes with his daughter Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) are often played as evidence that he's a droning old bore, but this time his paternalistic advice seemed genuine and heartfelt. Simpson was just wonderful as Ophelia: it's a problematic part, moving from carefree teen to maddened victim but she made it comprehensible and moving. The other interesting casting choices were a pair of white actors as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane. They started out as Hamlet's old university mates, looking like a pair of Inter-railers, then very convincingly got sucked into his uncle's machinations initially out of concern but before long due to self-interest.

Visually it looked superb: all the light and heat of a tense African capital, though I was less convinced by the overly-complicated stage set, all moving panels and clever mechanics which seemed a bit distracting. The rather obvious paintings and graffiti used to convey Hamlet's madness also seemed a bit unnecessary too. My clever friend Hilary suggested that Basquiat was the model, and she's much cleverer than me.

However, I did have one problem with the production. I can imagine it working brilliantly in an African capital with an African audience because the African setting could easily be interpreted as a political intervention. I did feel slightly uncomfortable sitting in an almost all-white crowd in the heart of the UK watching a play about superstition and political decay set in Africa. I confess that I don't know what Denmark signified to Shakespeare's audience, but popular stereotypes of Africa as a place of political violence and superstition were fully reinforced by this play's staging. It's not the casting: this cast was just brilliant and would have been brilliant wherever and whenever the play was set. Maybe I'm just an over-sensitive liberal or putting too much emphasis on the difference between the cast and the audience but it did feel slightly like conspiracy and superstition were being exoticism rather than recognised as a fundamental part of European culture.

That aside: it was a wonderful performance. Highly recommended.

The other thing I did this weekend was co-host a meeting to propose a Literature Festival in this city. Well over 50 people turned up so it looks like it's happening. What, where and who is yet to be decided but these are merely details. Now we just have to form a committee (oh god, another committee) and find some money. It's going to be in January because a) there aren't any other literary festivals in the winter and b) there's nothing else to do. The plan is to have a small number of well-known people but to really make it a festival of local literary activity: workshops and so on rather than just sitting there listening to visitors from the world of Literature. We don't want to imply that Literature isn't going on here, or is the preserve of other kinds of people. We shall see…

No comments: