In school, despite English being one of my favourite subjects, I was always disengaged when learning Shakespeare. Whether it was the early modern English or the sheer theatrics of the acting; it just never resonated with me. Perhaps, had it been one that reflected a culture that I know and understand I would’ve taken more of an interest in history’s greatest playwright’s work. And this is exactly what Simon Godwin’s doing with his production of one of Shakespeare’s most adored plays, Hamlet. The production sees a cast that is almost entirely black and re-conceives Denmark as a modern state influenced by the ritual, traditions and beauty of Ghana. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Hamlet kicked off its tour in January in Salford, Manchester and is heading to London’s Hackney Empire on March 6th before closing in Washington, USA. Ahead of its London dates, we chatted with Buom Tihngang, one of the UK’s emerging actors, who plays Laertes talking about his role, education, Black Panther and the importance of this production of Hamlet.
Gerald: First congrats on getting the role as Laertes – that’s a huge honour, especially for someone so young. Haven’t you just finished your studies?
Buom: I left drama school early, I was just about to start my third year when I got the [Shakepeare’s] Globe. So technically this is the third role – which is quite nice.
Gerald: Tell us about our character and how you play him differently to the most recent production in 2016?
Buom: My character is Laertes who is the brother of Ophelia and the son of Polonius. My role in the play is to come back and avenge my family and maintain my family’s honour at the very end of the play. My main objective when I come into the play is to leave and go back to France and continue my studies at university. I then have a massive gap in the play, but when I do come back it’s in search for answers and to avenge my father. When my sister dies it then escalates to avenge my family’s name. He’s a man of complete honour and loyalty – a family man.
I guess the difference between the production this year and 2016, a lot of Laertes that I have seen before have been driven by anger and rage – a lot of the time King Claudius keeps telling me to calm down my rage but I don’t think it stems from anger, I think it stems from love. He loves his family so much, he’s willing to do anything – he’s willing to kill.
So the difference between the production in 2016 and how I play him; I think before there was a strong emphasis on Laertes being quite a womanizer – you don’t really know why he keeps going back to France but the main assumption is he is going to go and sleep with a lot of people and he’s going to have a good time. So for me in terms of my characterisation it was important to establish why he was going back to France – was it that he had a girlfriend or was it that he genuinely wanted to take exams. In my mind, it’s because he had a person back in France and because I went to university and drama school – I did Economics before I went to drama school – so I very much am aware of the university experience and how going away from home can be very very addictive.
Gerald: [Cuts in] believe me, I know it.
Buom: Yeah [laughs], so there was a big emphasis on why I was going back.
Gerald: I think it’s interesting to go back to you studying Economics and then going to drama school. At Bespoke, we see ourselves as the voice of the emerging adult and many young adults feel conflicted on whether to follow their passions over doing that something that’ll provide security. What was your reasoning to go to drama school?
Buom: To be completely honest with you, I’m quite an academic person. I did very well in my A-Levels and I have a lot of passions for different things and it’s not just the acting. My parents are both from Cameroon, so there was a strong emphasis in my household on me doing something that allowed me to be secure in my life. I guess at the time I felt pressured, but now I can look back in hindsight and actually understand that your parents had your best interests at heart.
Buom: But from an early age I’ve always been interested in telling stories; especially through the medium of acting as well as movement, interpretation and dance. I was very active in productions at school and also at university. It was never a thing that I thought I could do this professionally, because there was always a route and there was always a specific demographic of person who would be able to act, particularly in theatre. And also from a personal point of view, you don’t really get to see a lot of people like yourself of your skin tone, of your background and of my person doing what I do. So I guess all of those factors combined made me go down the Economics route. Even then there was no real intention of me going to drama school it was only when I finished that I realised I could never forgive myself if I didn’t at least give myself the opportunity to do something I’m so passionate about. And that’s when I was lucky enough to get into drama school and I was given financial assistance and support in order to do it, which was great.
Gerald: We’ve seen the triumphs of Black Panther in the past month and I can’t help but think about how young black people now have a superhero who they can identify with, unlike how we did. What do you think the likes of Black Panther and this production of Hamlet can do for people of colour?
Buom: I’m very aware that we as black actors and creatives are in a transitional stage. I hate when people say there’s an end goal because we will always be progressing and I think especially with Black Panther and Hamlet at the moment. What people will resonate with, especially people of colour, is that people’s stories are told and people think there is a common assumption in society that ethnic minority people are one specific type of person and that we can’t shift. You can be a working-class person, you can be an upper-class person; there’s a lot of scopes to which we can play.
And what I think is beautiful about Hamlet, is that it tells the story of a man in grief who’s going through some psychological issues and it’s beautiful there’s no specific stereotype that he adheres to. I think the reason why people will resonate so well with it is that for the first time it shows black people in our light; that we are people that we have a story that is completely the same as people of other demographics. The themes that we go through and this is why I say Shakespeare is so brilliant, I think it’s a waste that black stories are not told through this medium because we go through the exact same grief process and feelings as anyone else.
What I think is great about it, and what I think is great about Black Panther too, is they’re both very unapologetic; they’re unapologetic about who they are. There’re accents at the very start of the play we’re not trying to hide away from who we are. But more what is great is that it shows royalty, which as a concept, dates back to Africa and is an African concept and it really shows that traditional aspect of it as well and it’s not just an African piece – it’s a universal piece that anyone can get behind. But ultimately, it’s showing people of colour in positions of power and setting that as a norm. The only way I can liken it is to Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses – the premise of that is effective that Africa gained the same technological advancements that Europe had and minority is effectively white. It kind of in a way when I first saw the production and read the original concept that’s the first thing that came to mind.
Gerald: Yeah, that’s what was my first impression of Black Panther is that it shows what could’ve happened had we never been colonised!
Buom: Yes and that’s it being able to see people on screen who are like you and showing the different types of black people – we’re not all one type of black person. And that’s the beauty of Black Panther – there are black people from the Bronx, LA, black people who are royal, black people in lower classes – we are everything, we are beautiful. It’s very good for people, and unfortunately the demographic of people who tend to go to the theatre are not black – stats prove this. It’s so important and for black people, especially, for this elitist place of the theatre should be open for everyone and that’s why I feel it’s important for black people to see Hamlet and go I’m there and that could be me. Of course, the story is very important but all of these other things intertwine.
Gerald: Do you feel Hamlet can inspire the next generation of black people to be braver and dive into a creative career?
Buom: I just feel it’s so important, what I said at the very start about us being in this transitional stage. It’s even more important now that it isn’t just a one trick pony thing you see Julius Caesar in 2012 and now Hamlet. You can see the progression and seeing black people in leading roles is majorly important seeing Paapa Essiedu playing Hamlet and other black people playing leading roles in plays. And that’s important to see black people playing leading roles – not just having the one black person in the cast for the pointer.
Buom: Also, Simon, the director, it’s important to mention how much Simon has really embodied the world. A lot of people would seem to think you’ve got a middle-class white director coming in and he’s really going to put his spin on an African story. When actually he’s really been instrumental and making sure that if there’s anything he doesn’t understand he really comes to us. He went out to Ghana, the music the composers are all west African people. The story really does come from within and it’s important to mention people seem to think you have an English director and he’s going to ruin but it’s actually been ours and he’s been great in letting us take ownership of the story
Gerald: This has been inspirational thanks, Buom.
You can grab tickets and read all you need to know about Hamlet here.