For a heritage theatre company, the challenge of keeping familiar material fresh is a perennial one, perhaps never more so than with Hamlet.
The success of Shakespeare's classic tragedy spans centuries, its history with the RSC dating back decades. It’s easy to believe that the imaginative possibilities are exhausted, then, yet with a simple relocation from Northern Europe to West Africa, Simon Godwin hopes to breathe new life into the story, imbuing its physical, spiritual and psychological conflicts with a new and visceral immediacy.
Taking on the role of the King's officious advisor, Polonius, is Cyril Nri, who last year starred in Russell T Davies' riveting Channel Four series, Cucumber. We spoke to him to find out more about these two very different productions.
“We're setting [Hamlet] in a fictional country that's somewhere between Ghana and Nigeria,” Nri explains. “I think Shakespeare's plays sit a lot more easily in modern African settings than in contemporary western ones. In parts of modern Africa, as there was in Shakespeare's England, there's very much an understanding of the world in terms of gods, kings and men. You have tribal beliefs sitting alongside Catholicism, tribal kings alongside democratically elected governments and extreme riches alongside extreme wealth.”
Nri isn't alone in this view. In a 2010 interview, Wallander author Henning Mankell spoke of the time he spent with the Teatro Avenido in Mozambique and his desire to stage Shakespeare there, saying that, “Shakespeare is in many ways an African writer and Hamlet would be seen as a very accurate historical saga about an African kingdom.”
In 2006, a production by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre toured to Stratford's Swan Theatre as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival. Nevertheless, as far as the RSC's own productions of the play are concerned, it's not just the setting that's surprisingly new.
“Paapa Esseidou is the Royal Shakespeare Company's first black Hamlet,” says Nri. “He's a brilliant young actor who previously played Edmund in the National Theatre's King Lear. He was actually the understudy for Edmund, but when he came on, he just kicked it out of the park. I was in a show with him called Black Jesus a little while ago and he's fantastic.”
Contemporary UK stagings tend to emphasise Hamlet's complex inner life over and above the political turmoil that surrounds him. A change of setting could help remind us, then, of what an intensely political play this is.
“You can't get away from the fact that this is a state in which the king has killed his predecessor, everywhere has ears and things are really up in the air. I'm playing [Polonius] as a kind of Gus O’ Donnell-type cabinet minister. He's very methodical - perhaps too methodical, even forensic about things - but he's a single dad, so he has to be both mother and father to his children in a very dangerous place that's on the brink of war. I think that's why he sends Laertes out of the country, and it's also why he doesn't want his daughter getting too close to the royals.”
Nri's last RSC role explored some of the same tensions. In 2012, he played Cassius in Greg Doran's production of Julius Caesar, also set in a fictionalised African country. As in Hamlet, the catalyst for action in Julius Caesar is the murder of the country's leader, and like Polonius, Cassius is a high-status figure who eventually meets a terrible end.
“For me, the most important thing about playing Cassius was that he was a manic depressive - at least that's how I understood him. If you look at the symptoms that he goes through over the course of the play, you can almost make a clinical diagnosis.”
Unlike in Hamlet, a decision was made with Julius Caesar to cast only black actors. In recent years, there's been a move towards what's been dubbed ‘colour-blind’ casting in theatre, particularly where Shakespeare is concerned. Nevertheless, as the Twitterstorm over Noma Dumezweni's casting as Hermione in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child amply demonstrates, there's still significant resistance to this in some quarters.
“The fact is that nowadays, in 2016, anybody who’s right for a part, immaterial of their colour or background, should be given the chance to play it. I think that Noma proved that beautifully in Linda at the Royal Court, where she took over the lead role from Kim Cattrall. I went to see it, and it just didn't matter that she had two daughters in it and one was white and the other was mixed race: it was the story of a mother and mothers aren't one colour. She got a standing ovation for it, and when I spoke to her afterwards, she said that the great thing is just getting the chance to play these parts.”
Previously known for his TV roles as Superintendent Adam Okaro in The Bill and barrister Graham in This Life, Nri recently gained a new surge of attention as the loveable Lance in Cucumber and its sister series, Banana. Envisioned by Russell T Davies as the spiritual successor to his 1999-2000 drama Queer As Folk, Cucumber sees Davies turn his attention back to the Manchester gay scene, this time following the lives of a middle-aged couple and their clashes with an out-and-proud younger generation. As Lance and Henry attempt to navigate a brave new world of single-sex marriage, YouTube, Grindr, sexting and porn on-demand, their nine-year relationship finally falls apart, and both set out in search of what they've been lacking for the best part of a decade.
Unfortunately, it all ends horrifically for Lance when, in a fit of fear and self-loathing, his in-denial date turns suddenly and violently against him. The shocking murder of the character sent viewers into instant mourning. For the cast, emotions ran even higher.
“It took us two days to film that because of the way it was shot - there were no tricks, no CGI or anything. From reading the script, I knew it was going to be difficult but I also knew it would be fantastic. When you do a death scene, you have to show a sense of someone's whole life flashing before them, and you're trying to capture all that with your eyes. It's quite something to do, especially when you're having to sit in the same position for four-hour stretches while they change the lights and cameras. It was hugely emotional, because you're playing a character who’s not only in physical danger, but who’s also being ritually humiliated, and at the end of the sequence, I just burst into uncontrollable tears for about fifteen minutes.”
Of course, there's more to this than simply making brilliant TV drama: Lance's death served as a potent reminder of the danger and discrimination the gay community still faces even today.
“There's still a lot of issues that we need to deal with. Yes, we have gay marriage and civil partnerships, but homophobia hasn't gone away, whether it's people being thrown off buildings in Syria or just that feeling of having to come out every day here. Every time you meet new people, you constantly have to make it part of the conversation, which most heterosexual people never have to do. On the day after Episode Six went out, Owen Jones wrote something about the sense of danger that goes with living a gay life, and if you look at the statistics for the number of gay men that drown in and around Canal Street where we were filming, it's still huge.”
While much has changed since Queer As Folk first shocked Channel Four viewers, both Cucumber and Banana found plenty of room to break new ground, exploring what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender in the modern world from a hugely diverse array of perspectives.
“I think Cucumber broke new ground just in the fact that it centred on an interracial gay relationship. And even before you get to Banana, you see the differences in how sex and relationships are perceived by the younger and middle-aged generations. Most importantly, it had gay characters who were just normal folk going through all sorts of emotions. I challenge anyone not to feel for Lance when he proposes and goes through that rejection.”
It's a curious thing, but there is an interesting connection between Nri's recent roles in Cucumber, Julius Caesar and Hamlet: look closely, and you might just spot it.
“Yeah, I did notice that I'm becoming known for characters who are bludgeoned in some way or another,” he laughed. “I was thinking I'm going to end up like the guy in Star Trek in the red shirt - you always knew he'd be the first one killed. I don't know what the link is. Hopefully I die pretty well. I suppose there are worse things to be known for than a good death on stage!”
Hamlet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Straford-upon-Avon from Saturday 12 March until Saturday 13 August.
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