by Ann Greer
It has been a while since I’ve been unable to take my eyes off an actor in performance, despite plenty of activity elsewhere on stage. But it happened with Paapa Essiedu, playing Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, for England’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) on tour at the Kennedy Center.
It didn’t hurt that my seat was close to the stage and on the side where Essiedu was standing in an early scene. With tears streaming down his face, he watches the flurry of activity around his mother and her new husband, also his uncle and the new King of Denmark, following the death of Hamlet’s father. It isn’t just the tears; it is his stillness, with waves of grief, anger, and disbelief crossing his face.
Although there are several other strong actors in the cast, I found my gaze returning to Essiedu as the play progressed to its tragic end. By turns manic and tortured, deliberate and calculating, he beautifully conveys the multitude of Hamlet’s emotions. Sometimes they come in rapid succession, other times they linger, all in the service of the complicated young man he portrays.
Mimi Ndiweni, Paapa Essiedu
Essiedu is the first black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC; this production opened at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016. It is set in a West African nation, features a largely black cast, and is filled with the compelling beat of drums and vibrantly colored costumes.
Paapa Essiedu, Buom Tihngang
What makes this production particularly riveting is Essiedu, who grew up in East London with his mother, an immigrant from Ghana. After an early aspiration to be a doctor, Essiedu turned to acting and went to drama school. He got his break as understudy for the villainous Edmund in “King Lear” at London’s National Theatre, when he filled in to much acclaim. He then played the same role in Stratford, where I first encountered and took note of his work.
Watch a RSC video interview with Essiedu on YouTube, and you’ll find a confident, engaging 27-year-old, a far cry from the grieving, disillusioned Hamlet. But of course that’s what good actors do -- transform.
Eleanor Wyld, Paapa Essiedu
In an interview in “The Guardian” newspaper, Essiedu was asked about the significance of the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.
“This is the question at the center of all our lives. Should we act? …It is magnified in Hamlet’s case because the action is so enormous: whether to murder his uncle or not,” he said.
This young actor studies the work of his more experienced colleagues, and cites Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Twelve Years a Slave”) among those whom he admires.
But the greatest influence in his life is his mother, who said to him, “You don’t slow down when you come close to a finishing line, you go harder to win.”
“Hamlet,” at the Kennedy Center through May 6, kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4800.
Photos by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC.
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.