It's a measure of Hamlet as Shakespeare's most famous and most popular play that it seems to have the ability to endure and withstand a variety of imaginative interpretations. As is apparent with the RSC's bold 2016 production directed by Simon Godwin, the willingness to stage the play in inventive new ways is not so much a case of a director or an actor wanting to leave their individual mark on a production as much as the play itself exerts a deeper level of personal identification that invites fresh attempts to get inside it. With each new production we seem to learn something new about Hamlet, as each person brings their own experience and personality to bear on it we continue to discover new facets of this infinitely rewarding work.
That says a lot for a play that essentially adheres to the common form of the Renaissance revenge drama and is in fact derived from several other works on the same character and theme. In Shakespeare's account however Prince Hamlet is not just a person seeking bloody revenge for the murder of his father as some kind of retribution or justice, but the course he embarks upon is an attempt to reveal a deeper truth. Not just over the circumstances in which his uncle might have committed the murder of his brother the king, marrying Hamlet's recently widowed mother soon after, but attempting to understand how person in his position as a grieving son ought to react. His reactions are obviously complex - driven as much by grief in his bereavement, love for his father, feeling betrayed by his mother - and it leads him to question the nature of existence, his own mortality and fate. Who ultimately can we turn to and hold accountable for "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"?
Does his grief and attempts to grapple with these questions drive him mad or is he just feigning madness? And if there is method in the madness, does there not come a point when he does succumb to madness as the only rational or irrational response to what he has endured and to how events unravel in response to his madness, feigned or not? Such is the richness of the inner life of the subject and the variety of interpretations over how Hamlet responds to his situation that it will come as no surprise and hold no trepidation for the viewer to see the drama played out at the RSC in Simon Godwin's 2016 production with an almost entirely black cast in an African/Caribbean setting. There's no need for brooding gothic darkness here; the questions that Hamlet raises are still relevant and modern and applicable to any situation where an individual feels powerless in the face of overwhelming forces of corruption and adversity. How often to we think that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" and evidently we are not talking about Denmark?
While there are all kinds of issues to be found in Hamlet regarding corruption in a police state - just one of the many layers that are there to be drawn out - it's not the main theme or purpose that is explored in Simon Godwin's production. It's an important aspect of the work certainly, and the climate of fear is cultivated perfectly in the third-world Caribbean republic or unstable post-colonial African setting of this production. The reason for Hamlet's reaction to this world is established effectively in what looks like a throwaway opening scene - one that includes the actual title of the play as part of the play - that sees Hamlet graduating after completing his studies in Wittenberg. When he returns however - his dead father having been borne away in his absence - he finds a world that doesn't conform to the expectations he has gained from his education. Struck painfully with grief - grief truly on another level - Hamlet is unable to reconcile the sense of fear and superstition that conjures up the dead King in a voodoo ritual with any rational philosophy he might have been able to cling to. Giving in to madness and revenge is the only answer he can find to the questions that plague him. As Claudius tells Laertes, "Revenge should have no bounds", and Hamlet is all seeking answers beyond common human boundaries.
The setting and casting aside, there's nothing particularly radical about the themes explored in this RSC production, and I would argue that there's nothing radical or out of place in the setting and casting either. It's simply, or perhaps not so simply, a great production that gives Hamlet the kind of in-depth treatment, exploration and presentation it merits. What the production does have going for it however is youth. There's a very young cast of fresh new actors here who have also been making an impression in the other plays at the RSC this season; Cymbeline and King Lear. Sure, many of the greatest Hamlets were undertaken by actors who have played the central role in their younger days, but few of them have embraced the nature of that youthful impetuosity with all the wild energy poured inwards as Paapa Essiedu. The other roles are just as vitally youthful; Natalie Simpson's Ophelia, Hiran Abeysekera's Horatio, Marcus Griffith's Laertes all presenting edgy, angry performances of a generation living in fear in a state run by a corrupt older establishment. For their part the 'older generation' actors are also full of real character, particularly Cyril Nri's marvellous Polonius, Clarence Smith's Claudius and Tanya Moodie's Gertrud.
Abridged to a three hour running time with no intervals, Godwin's production does feel like it moves along a little too quickly in places and doesn't establish mood and situation as well as it might and I thought the final scene lacked the impact of the best Hamlets, but it does provide the play with an uncommon urgency and a rhythm that is essential to the weight and balance of the play. Percussive beats evidently play a part in measuring this out through the incidental music and with the ghost drummers for the stunning apparition scene, but Godwin uses it well to highlight the rhythms in the speech patterns and the interplay, finding the rhythms between action and meditation, darkness and colour, life and death - all the contrasts and rhythms that make up the play itself. There is certainly never a dull moment, nor a moment when you are longing for the play to get to certain favoured key scenes and speeches. Nor for one second does the drama seem contrived to fit a situation. It feels like a whole coherent drama with all the meaning and implications laid out as a tragedy. Instead of attempting to provide answers or imposing unsatisfactory interpretations, that, above all, is what Hamlet should be.
The RSC's 2016 Hamlet is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The Blu-ray is BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcasts is 1080/60p (as opposed to the typical 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.
Filmed for live broadcast in High Definition to cinemas, the quality of the HD transfer to Blu-ray is of the same exceptionally high standard as previous RSC releases. This production of Hamlet is a boldly colourful one, but one also that works in strong contrasts of light. The image quality on the Blu-ray release however is pristine, the transfer handling the theatrical effects and the strong lighting conditions well. Several scenes - most notably the dead King's first apparition scene - use smoke effects and these come across superbly, capturing all the impact of the theatrical presentation. Perhaps it's just the stronger use of lighting, but on this release the image always looks sharp and detailed. There are no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.
Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live, under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there are no significant issues. The dialogue is always perfectly clear.
The enclosed booklet contains an essay on the work and a synopsis in English, French and German, but there are only English subtitles for the performance, presenting Shakespeare's original text. Subtitles are white and always clear and readable.
As with all the releases from the RSC so far, there's a full Director's Commentary here from Simon Godwin alongside Assistant Director Anna Girvan that can be listened to over the performance. The only other extra features on the disc are Playing Hamlet, a short interview with Paapa Essiedu about his role in this production, and a Cast Gallery.
Clearly more than just a revenge drama, Hamlet lays out all the implications and existential questions this raises and, as if classical Greek drama hadn't already warned us of it, shows us how tragic the devastating results of embarking upon this road to madness can be. "Tell my story", are Hamlet's dying words to Horatio and it's in the energetic rhythms and flows of Simon Godwin's direction that the telling reveals many of the play's qualities. Principally however, the 2016 RSC Hamlet is characterised by its youthful cast who bring new energy and freshness to a very familiar work, giving it a renewed vigour that testifies to the enduring appeal of this remarkable play.