aside Review: Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Hamlet’ is riveting

It’s not your grandmothers Hamlet.  The Royal Shakespeare Company brought a modern take of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to the Kennedy Center. Make no mistake, this is still Hamlet in all its glory as it it weaves the tragic tale of betrayal, revenge,and a descent into madness.

In this version of Hamlet, the protagonist is a well-educated college student in modern attire and is surrounded by preppy friends as well. But at the core of the story is  the loss of Hamlet’s father, replaced in no short-order as king by his Uncle who marries Hamlet’s mother and ascends to the throne.   Needless to say new family ties do not go over well with Hamlet, since his father died merely two months prior.

Played exquisitely by Paapa Essiedu, Hamlet is bent on revenge after seeing an apparition of his dead father (or did he?).  Hamlet’s vision drives him to a singularity of thought: revenge on his uncle Claudius. It is this quest for vengeance that moves the play forward.

Paapa Essiedu shines brightly as he embodies Hamlet. Even if one is very familiar with the story will keep you enthralled about what happens next. Essiedu’s soliloquies are raw and impassioned, yet he is able to also deftly offer comedic lines. His passion make you root for Hamlet , while also wondering if Hamlet has just gone mad. His ability to walk that dichotomous line is brilliant.

The also includes strong performances by  Clarence Smith as Claudius, Joseph Mydell as Polonius — who is kind, crafty and part of the play’s comic relief.   Ewart James Walters powerfully plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father, arrayed in his African robes and underscored by the rhythmic beat of African drums. James Cooney as Horatio is Hamlet’s loyal best friend.

Mimi Ndiweni as  Ophelia is both subtle and heart-wrenching as she goes from being smitten with to Hamlet to a descent into madness after a tragic loss. He.r performance is powerful and intense.

Mimi Ndiweni and Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The pivotol fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes which leads up to the inevitable conclusion is also mesmerizing.

Hamlet, as directed by Simon Godwin is a delightful take on an age-old classic. The bard would be pleased.

Hamlet runs through Sunday, May 6 at the Kennedy Center. For ticket information, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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