In a time where Black Panther, black-British artists and a host of young black creatives are sharing the black experience in the most beautiful and proud way; Simon Godwin’s Hamlet begins its string of nights at the revered Hackney Empire. What makes this particular production of Hamlet so special is the fact it features an almost entirely black cast with a fresh take on Hamlet which re-conceives Denmark as a modern state influenced by the ritual, traditions and beauty of Ghana, but also includes elements of British culture.
Ahead of its opening night at Hackney Empire, we sat down with Buom Tihngang who play Laertes who spoke to us about the production, Hamlet’s importance to young black creatives and much more. It’s for this reason I was eager to see the play; to see what black actors and actresses in lead roles could do for the next generation of black creatives.
While the premise of the play is maintained, with Elsinore going into a state of shock which later sees the king die and we find Hamlet not only mourning the death of his father but also dealing with his mother marrying his uncle. The ghost of his father appears and Hamlet is after revenge. But with Godwin’s adaptation, we see an African Elsinore which is led by Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet – the first black Hamlet might we add – who exceeds all expectations as the mighty Danish Prince.
Given the history and the general grandeur of Hackney Empire, it would take a lot for the most experienced actor and actresses to command the stage of the famous theatre. Nonetheless, Essiedu revelled in the pressure, leading the Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s bravest Hamlet production yet. His conversational style is gripping and triumphant, whether he’s on his own or alongside his castmates, Essiedu draws you into the beautiful tragedy that takes place in Elsinore. His soliloquies are easily some of the best I’ve witnessed and are beyond the years of his experience.
What I loved most is the music, which was arranged by Sola Akingbola, who brings the nucleus of African culture, its drums. The music combined with the choreography brought an energetic awakening between prose. The artwork too was Basquiat-esque – an illustration of rebellion – drawing upon an important black icon of artistry – especially when the spray cans come out for Hamlet to leave his mark. The darkness, torment, sense of rebellion alongside the colourful, vibrant and African roots were a perfect fit for the original play.
I especially felt connected to the play, not solely for the fact that I saw people who looked like me on stage, but the fact it draws upon the lived experiences of family ties, raw human emotion and navigating multiple cultures at once. This is something I relate to significantly, as I always find myself having to code-switch and flip between different Geralds to complement whoever my audience is, as does Essiedu this play. This is a great production of Hamlet that’s spearheaded by Essiedu’s brilliance and it’s easy to see why the tour extends to North America as deserves the attention of people beyond these isles. What a time it is to be black, aye?