Saturday, March 11, 2017

Paapa Essiedu is Hamlet in 2016 Simon Godwin Production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" by the Royal Shakespeare Company on an Opus Arte DVD

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Opus Arte OA 1164 D

Opus Arte has released a complete DVD of the 2016 Simon Godwin production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England.  A distinguishing characteristic of the production is the fact that the majority of the characters are played by actors of African descent.

Selected members of the cast include:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark 
Paapa Essiedu

Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, his mother
Tanya Moodie

Claudius, new King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle 
Clarence Smith

Ghost of Hamlet's father, late King of Denmark 
Ewart James Walters

Polonius, chief counsellor to the King
 Cyril Nri

Laertes, his son
 Marcus Griffiths

Ophelia, his daughter
Natalie Simpson

Horatio, Hamlet's university friend
Hiran Abeysekera

Rosencrantz, Hamlet's old school friend
James Cooney

Guildenstern, Hamlet's old school friend
Bethan Cullinane

The liner notes of the DVD include an essay entitled Poem Unlimited, by Ewan Fernie, Professor at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham in England.  The essay says, in part: 

"Hamlet wages war against cliche.  It turns its own established genre of revenge tragedy inside out to the point that in the end - even though Hamlet has duly killed Claudius, and so revenged his murdered father - we can no longer be sure we're really watching a revenge play at all.  I mean, to what extent can Hamlet be considered a regular avenging hero, or even a regular guy?  He effectively puts the kybosh on his own most royal prospects, and in the process he utterly removes himself from sex and sexuality.  After an interlude of madcap clowning [his famous ántic disposition'], he avenges his father's death in a strange state of self-sacrificing religious inspiration.  His ultimate achievement is to completely eviscerate his family line, handing Denmark on a plate to its rival, Norway. 

"And yet, Hamlet is the figure who, in Western culture, has become our tragic hero par excellence..."

Later Prof. Fernie writes:

"Take its most famous speech - the most famous speech in all drama: 'To be, or not to be'.  It's a straight question.  But typically of this drama, Hamlet doesn't give a straight answer."

Another section of the DVD liner notes is The Play, which begins:

"Old Hamlet, King of Denmark, has died and been succeeded by his brother, Claudius, who has married Gertrude, the widowed Queen.  Prince Hamlet, distressed by his father's death and his mother's hasty remarriage, sees the ghost of his father who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius.  Hamlet vows to avenge the murder but, to cover his intentions, feigns madness."  

This reviewer majored in English as a college undergraduate.  I still have a textbook version of the play from those days half a century ago, and I referred to it while working on this review.  Seeing this magnificent production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, on the DVD as performed by this cast, greatly enhanced my appreciation of this monumental work of literature in the English language. It even triggered memories of classroom discussions of the play.

A very wide range of publications gave excellent reviews to the live performances of this production in 2016.  Hamlet is probably among those Shakespeare plays which have the most universal appeal. It certainly deals with issues which are central to the human experience. We highly recommend this DVD.

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