Hamlet at Tara Theatre
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is reimagined once again, this time by an all-black cast and creative team, resulting in a powerful staging of the bard’s psychological tragedy as well as a statement on the politics of representation.
Performing a script adapted by playwright Mark Norfolk, the Black Theatre production follows one of Shakespeare’s most-played tragic heroes as a bright young black man contemplating revenge against his uncle Claudius, urged on by the ghost of his murdered father. Hamlet’s mental state, and that of those around him – including his mother, who has now married Claudius, and the object of his affections, young Ophelia – become increasingly destabilised as tensions rise and blood starts to flow. Set in Denmark, a “black Empire of modern England”, Hamlet’s self-destructive journey explores timeless themes of identity, family breakdown and mental illness, as well as ethnicity and African culture in contemporary society.
Director Jeffery Kissoon, in some respects, takes a traditional interpretation of the well-known verse, yet he also aspires for something new through a provocative use of mixed religious, contemporary and ancient, African and Western imagery, and – a UK first for Hamlet – an all-black cast. Within the intimate space of the Tara Theatre, the performance reaches incredible levels of intensity: scenes are made haunting through a dramatic use of lighting against the backdrop on an imposing neon crucifix. The sometimes static stage is enlivened by the visual impact of seductress-Queen Gertrude’s skin-tight, floor-length red dress or Ophelia’s “white-Hollywood” Marilyn Monroe-esque number that she prances madly around the stage in. Though the first half perhaps feels too rigid, the second comes into its own, the whole cast being whipped up into a dancing frenzy to an African drum beat and the violence of Hamlet’s killing spree portrayed in a contemporarily vivid way.
Raphael Sowole navigates the volatility of the protagonist’s psychological turmoil with authenticity, demonstrating detachment, palpable indecision as well as spit-flying rage with fervour. The confrontation with his mother is particularly impassioned and physically intimidating, conjuring emotions of hate and pain yet somewhat Freudian love and jealousy. The production moves beyond a fixation on Hamlet to create full-bodied support characters: Joy Elias-Rilwan plays a powerful, nuanced Queen Gertrude, commenting that she wants to show “black women as women”. Abiona Omonua is a stunning and gloriously troubled Ophelia. Trevor Laird offers some comic relief as Polonius and Mark Ebulué brings gravitas to Rosencrantz. Theo Solomon shows star potential as a charismatic and despairing Horatio.
Its message may not always be clear and perfectly delivered but the UK’s first all-black production of Hamlet offers a fresh and hot-blooded re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s classic text, proving both that the play’s potential for adaptation has not yet been exhausted and that there are no limits on those able to do it.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Hamlet is at Tara Theatre from 25th until 29th October 2016 before playing at Stratford Circus Arts Centre from 2nd until 5th November 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Hamlet here: