Socialist Worker

Hackney’s Hamlet seeks to answer questions of today

by Richard Donnelly
Issue No. 2596

Pappa Essiedu as Hamlet

Pappa Essiedu as Hamlet

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Hamlet breathes fresh air into the play.

It’s performed in Hackney—one of London’s most diverse boroughs. And Hamlet has an overwhelmingly black cast.

The play is a spectacle as Hamlet’s Denmark is transformed into a modern African nation.

The new setting gives the play a lush exuberance, contrasting strikingly with the meloncholia of Hamlet himself.

It begins with Prince Hamlet returning home from university after the news of the death of his father, the King of Denmark, who was a fearsome and famed warrior.

But Hamlet’s mourning turns to rage after his father appears to him as a ghost.

He tells him that he was in fact murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle.


Hamlet swears revenge against Claudius, but this is frustrated by the constant surveillance of the new king’s spymaster, Polonius.

The storyline’s focus on the reigns of different kings speaks to the complexities of Shakespeare’s times.

Feudal ways of life were breaking down as a new individualism arose in the expanding towns. The themes of Hamlet make it an enduring work. The 1964 film adaption of Pasternak’s translation was popular in Egypt.

Here it spoke to people’s frustration with the authoritarianism of the state and the fading into memory of the golden age of anti-colonial struggle.

Unfortunately, despite being set in Africa, these themes are largely absent from this production.

It focuses more on the motif of Hamlet returning from abroad to a homeland to which he is now an outsider.

That an establishment institution such as the Royal Shakespeare Company is having to face up to these questions is a sign of the huge cultural and political debate about race taking place in British society.

This choice of casting reflects the conversation raging about black representation in popular culture.

People should go watch this to see how a classic text can respond to contemporary questions.

At the Hackney Empire until 31 March. Go to

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Mon 19 Mar 2018, 09:42 GMT
Issue No. 2596
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