SHAKESPEARE: Hamlet & Othello (comp.productions by Royal Shakespeare Co.), Blu-ray (2016)

SHAKESPEARE: Hamlet & Othello (comp.productions by Royal Shakespeare Co.), Blu-ray (2016)

SHAKESPEARE: Hamlet ‒ Paapa Essiedu, Hamlet / Natalie Simpson, Ophelia / Cyril Nri, Polonius / Clarence Smith, Claudius / Tanya Moodie, Gertrude / Hiran Abeysekera, Horatio / Marcus Griffiths, Laertes / Ewart James Walters, Ghost; Gravedigger / James Conney, Rosencrantz / Bethan Cullinane, Guildenstern / Kevin N Golding, Bernardo / Priest, Player King / Theo Ogundipe, Fortinbras; Marcellus; Lucianus / Doreene Blackstock, Player Queen / Marième Diouf, Cornelia; Player / Romayne Andrews, Osric / Eke Chukwu, Voltimand / Simon Godwin, Director / Royal Shakespeare Company ‒ Opus Arte Blu-ray OA 807172 D, 180 min., main features; 5 min., extras (10/28/16) ****:

SHAKESPEARE: Othello ‒ David Ajao, Montano / Nadia Albina, Duke of Venice / Scarlett Brookes, Bianca / James Corrigan, Roderigo / Ayesha Dharker, Emilia / Eva Feiler, Citizen of Venice / Owen Findlay, Gentleman of Cyprus / Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Cassio / Guy Hughes, Soldier / Gwilym Lloyd, Gratiano / Rina Mahoney, Citizen of Venice; Messenger / Lucian Msamati, Iago / Ken Nwosu, Gentleman of Cyprus / Brian Protheroe, Brabantio / Hugh Quarshie, Othello / Herald, Jay Saighal, Gentleman of Cyprus / Tim Samuels, Lodovico / Joanna Vanderham, Desdemona / Iqbal Khan, director / Royal Shakespeare Company ‒ Opus Arte Blu-ray OA 807161 D, 180 min., main features; 13 min., extras (11/18/16) ****:

Turnabout is fair play. Two nontraditional Shakespeare productions (music incidental): that of Hamlet the most provocative.

As of the 2015 season, the Metropolitan Opera announced it would no longer present leads in blackface in its productions of Verdi’s Otello. This overturns a tradition that goes back to the first Met production in 1891 and speaks to a simple truth: that producers have a hard time casting the role. Apparently, it remains a difficult proposition to find black tenors with the necessary vocal equipment. At least, so I hear. Productions of Shakespeare’s play, of course, are not similarly hobbled, as now the role is almost universally taken by black actors. Famous productions both on the stage and in the cinema, such as Orson Welles’ 1951 film version or Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1965 portrayal on screen now seem like historical curiosities.

Well, that may be a long-winded introduction to the subject, but it all goes to say that turnabout is fair play, and Royal Shakespeare Theater’s conceit of mounting Hamlet as the tale of a one-man coup d’état in some fictitious modern African nation is both intriguing and somehow fitting. Especially given that Paapa Essiedu’s performance as Hamlet is so commanding: both uniquely contemporary and universal in its message. Hamlet’s mad scenes project him as a harlequin in spray paint; Essiedu turns graffiti artist in the gestures through which he shows his disdain for the new king. This brings us some comic byplay of which the Bard may well have approved, such as pasting men’s- and women’s-room icons on the thrones of Claudius and his queen. Hamlet’s courting (and later rebuking) of Ophelia is casual and contemporary: he sends her love notes by way of romantic T-shirts and handmade Valentines.

The mise en scène is established through gestures that might give traditionalists headaches—African drumming, castle guards in camouflage gear and carrying assault rifles, plus a fencing match in which traditional African tribal weaponry are the death-dealing instruments of the grand climax. For those of a more adventurous bent, this is a most unusual Hamlet whose essential conceit is well and consistently executed.

Changing the locus of the play from Denmark to Africa does render somewhat absurd the references to Wittenberg (though I guess it does make sense for an African Laertes to study in Paris). This production begins with a brief scene, not a part of the original play of course, in which Hamlet receives his degree in a graduation ceremony at Wittenberg University, but that hardly helps the audience suspend its disbelief. This is especially true since the theological issues raised in the play (about which scholarly opinion is divided, if not entirely confused), make no sense in the African setting. Not to get into these questions too deeply, here is a brief synopsis: Hamlet studies in Wittenberg, the city where Luther issued his 95 Theses, the first salvo in the war of religion that would become the Reformation. On the other hand, Old Hamlet’s ghost tells us that during the daytime he suffers in Catholic Purgatory because he died without having his sins confessed and forgiven. Does this suggest that Hamlet is trapped in some sort of existential bind, caught between two theological stools and unable to resolve his crisis until he finds himself again a believer in Providence rather than human action? Does he return to the Protestant fold by the end of the play? Well, no one is quite sure what the theological discourse in the play adds up to, but it seems to have very little meaning in a production in which Old Hamlet appears dressed in African tribal robes, no matter what issues from his mouth.

I have another quibble. This being Shakespeare’s longest play, some of the dialog often goes by the board, but why did the director cut the few last lines of Hamlet’s speech over Yorick’s skull (“Now, get thee to thy lady’s chamber…”)? There may be some justification for cutting Hamlet’s explanation of how he escaped the ship that was taking him to his death in England; the tale of being saved by a bunch of pirates who board the ship is one long shaggy-dog story. Still, it explains how Hamlet got his brief new lease on life.

So that is as much as I have to say both pro and con about production values. Despite my quibbles, I’m mostly a fan. As far as the casting is concerned, as I say, Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet is intriguing, a wild blend of passion and urban-contemporary punkishness. It’s a virtuoso performance, certainly. Clarence Smith’s Claudius is excellent as well; he’s the perfect embodiment of African Machiavellianism. Smith maps very convincingly Claudius’ slow decline from the in-control strong man to the desperate thing he becomes in the final acts, ending his life as a clawing, screaming coward.

Cyril Nri’s Polonius is not so old and doddering a figure as we often see. Instead, he merely emerges as the sycophantic beast he is, naturally devoid of intellect, for which he substitutes his king’s initiatives. He’s also not quite as vile as Polonius often appears in the scene where he counsels Ophelia to rebuff Hamlet’s advances. In fact, the entire portrayal flirts with making Polonius seem less awful than he really is, as does his death scene. Hamlet shoots Polonius as he hides behind the arras (tapestry), which then falls on his head in pure slapstick fashion. This seems to reinforce the portrayal of Polonius as more a well-meaning fool than a devious instrument of the king, which I find pretty much wrongheaded.

Ophelia and Gertrude are well if not outstandingly played; Marcus Griffiths’ wrathful Laertes is finer. Unfortunately, Hiran Abeysekera is not a compelling Horatio. Small in stature and with a voice that’s less than compelling, Abeysekera doesn’t seem the embodiment of the Stoic wisdom he’s supposed to be, hardly a credible boon companion for Hamlet. The important roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in good hands though, Guildenstern being played by the pretty Bethan Cullinane, another turnabout that seems quite fair: in Shakespeare’s theater, young boys always portrayed female characters.

Blu-ray sound and picture are excellent. The extended-apron stage that the Royal Shakespeare Company employs sends the players into the midst of the audience, so entrances and exits (as well as the aforementioned drumming) come from the rear speakers, enhancing the armchair experience.


Though RSC’s production of Othello is also set in the modern world, the action takes place in Venice and Cyprus, where Shakespeare himself placed the action. As usual, the modern setting introduces some silliness, as for instance when Othello commands, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” What are Brabantio’s followers doing with swords when everybody else is armed to the teeth with the latest firepower? Also, it’s harder to sympathize with Othello’s supposed sense of racial isolation when there are a number of black actors in the cast and therefore a certain colorblindness seems to inform Venetian society, as is true of contemporary Europe. But for the most part, the modern military and political context into which the play is thrust (including a female Duke of Venice!) do not distract. I must say, however, that the dance party with which the Venetians celebrate the defeat of the Turks is so rowdy and pop-oriented and goes on so long that it comes perilously close to derailing the action of the play. It finally devolves into a session of “doing the dozens” over a microphone—entertaining, but again distracting.

That’s my biggest gripe, and for me it’s a fair-sized one; those of a more experimental bent may not find the scene objectionable. On the other hand, there is much to praise about the production, starting with the flexible and creative sets. Most striking of all, a large grating at the center of the stage that can be removed to expose a watery trough representing by turns the canals of Venice, a water garden (?), and Desdemona’s bath. The background in the scenes set in Cyprus seems to suggest a ruined cathedral, a shattered rose window brooding far above the back of the stage. It speaks subtly but eloquently to Othello’s fall from grace, the struggle through which the Moor sells his soul to the devil Iago and so loses his angel Desdemona. “I am your own forever,” says Iago when Othello makes him lieutenant, with special meaning that the Moor understands only too late.

As Othello, Hugh Quarshie has the commanding presence and dignity that are hallmarks of the best Othellos. His descent into jealous rage and finally tortured remorse is well modulated, perhaps a trifle understated but a believable trajectory of grief. Another fascinating turnabout: Iago (Lucian Msamati) is a black man. Thus when Iago lays out his plan to Roderigo in Act 1, Roderigo is delighted to learn what Othello is in for: “What a full fortune does the Thick-lips owe / If he can carry’t thus!” At this point, Iago looks down at Roderigo with hatred and contempt, a visual double-entendre. Black Iago reacts to Roderigo’s slur on black Othello and thus foreshadows how he will requite Roderigo for his foolishly misplaced trust. From this moment on, Msamati’s Iago is a thoroughly virulent presence in the play, a palpable source of evil that informs all the action.

Among the other players, James Corrigan’s Roderigo is the perfect fool, while Jacob Fortune-Lloyd seems a bit callow as Michael Cassio. However, Joanna Vanderham is a fine actress who captures Desdemona’s forthright goodness well and certainly looks the part—tall, blonde, fair-featured, she’s the perfect foil to Msamati’s devilish Iago. Even better is Ayesha Dharker as Emilia, whose amicable demeanor with Desdemona and ironic treatment of her difficult husband are capped by passionate grieving for her dead mistress. Dharker is compelling throughout.

The final scene is powerfully mounted, the tragic happenings in Othello’s bedchamber perfectly choreographed. As to that dance party in Act 2—all is forgiven. This is a memorable Othello that will repay repeated viewing!

—Lee Passarella

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