An Antiracist Hamlet

Bob Whitehead reviews Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford:

Hamlet is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, at 4000 lines. The full performance would take about four hours, which was twice the time customarily allotted to his plays in Elizabethan times. London being a less than safe place to return home in the dark in those days, matinee performances were customarily restricted to two hours, so that people could return during daylight.

No such danger on a sunny afternoon in Stratford in June, 2016, yet three hours were allotted; giving just enough time for the essential plot and main speeches to be incorporated into a modern setting (Hamlet threatens Claudius with a gun, not a dagger, in the prayer scene).

The main feature of the performance was that the cast was almost entirely black/African, including Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes and Horatio. It was striking that, apart from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the only other white performer was the stage sweeper.

Photos by Manuel Harland. (c) RSC
Photos by Manuel Harland. (c) RSC

There are of course many interpretations of this play, apart from the obvious one of revenge, but the intention to have an anti-racist component in this production was quite clear. In the programme notes, the link between Hamlet’s return from studying in Wittenberg only to find his familiar home maddeningly changed was compared to Kwame Nkrumah’s return to Ghana, to an Africa of change and instability, after studying in London.

Ekow Eshun writes about how, after returning from Ghana as a child, he was confronted by a Britain that was hostile, racist and scary, with Thatcher talking about British people feeling “swamped” by immigrants, how black men were described as ‘muggers, rioters and miscreants’. Somewhere between Ghana and coming back to London he realised he had got lost, he no longer had a place to call home.

“Hamlet possibly experiences something similar on his return from University in Wittenberg to an Elsinore made strange by the world he had seen beyond its walls. And I now see what I once took for a private sorrow is a universal condition. It is what black people of the diaspora – those of us born beyond Africa in white, Western countries – hold as a collective heritage, whether we arrived in the West by choice or as a descendent of forbears forcibly transported across the Atlantic 400 years ago”.

Ekow also notes that great art can come from continents being crossed, identities being lost and general displacement, citing Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going on? “What else is there to do when you have no home of your own after all, but to create a place of your own?”

Eric B and Rakim said “It ain’t where you’re from; it’s where you’re at.” Ophelia was a bit too soon to be acquainted with hip-hop, but was “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” so different?

Now, how did Shakespeare create such art and stand out from his contemporaries? It was probably less to do with his physical displacement from Stratford to London and more to do with the huge transformations in English history that were stirring in the decades leading up to the English revolution. The lack of straight answers to Hamlet’s own questions reflected a period where many things were opening to question.

Hamlet’s weakness was that he was a man who could not make up his mind, but he would have been a master of evasion at PMQs and would certainly have been able to put Cameron to shame.

And while referring to present times, in our current period of decay and degeneration, where everything is rotten, where sorrows come in battalions, should we not anticipate a new era, and expect some kind of Shakespeare phenomenon to arise and herald its dawn? Can we go beyond looking pale and trembling at this chance? ?
Paapa Essiedu, Cyril Nri and Natalie Simpson make the most of the opportunities provided by the roles of Hamlet, Polonius and Ophelia, and, complemented by the occasional African music, dance and scenery in the newly designed theatre; it makes for a memorable event.
Hamlet is open at Stratford until August 13th.

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