Hamlet (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

The RSC’s new Hamlet is an an unruly, firecracker presence

Hamlet has aged of late, mostly played by well-established stars. At only 25, elevated from understudying, Paapa Essiedu is every bit the student prince: precocious, supercilious and impulsive. It’s a novel interpretation – one that makes Hamlet an unruly, firecracker presence – but in emphasising the part’s immaturity, Essiedu gives up its nobility and, with that, its tragedy.

Simon Godwin has built his production around his star – both his youth and his Ghanaian heritage. First seen in cap and gown, graduating from an Ivy League-style Wittenberg, Essiedu’s prince returns home to an African nation Denmark with his head full of ideas, absolutely convinced of his own exceptional brilliance. Students, eh?

Essiedu gives us Hamlet as God’s gift: to his own mind, the rightful heir to Picasso, Camus and Homer – and far, far superior to Clarence Smith‘s Claudius. He delivers Hamlet’s musings as if sermonising on Mount Sinai, and speaks like a performance poet, conducting thoughts with his hands. At one point, he closes his eyes to savour the sound of his own voice. You can see how this cocksure kid might take on the crown, but you can’t admire him for it. His rebellion looks like teenage petulance – graffiti scrawled on the royal portrait. He buries himself in an artist’s studio, splashing vast Basquiat-like cavases – and himself – with colour, and painting skeletal, serpent kings. (What’s the old Spike Milligan joke? 2b or not 2b.)

Godwin stresses Hamlet as homecoming. His African setting is initially unclear, but (after scouring the programme notes) it seems influenced by imported ideas. It’s not one thing, but many – a composite nation. Hamlet returns with fresh thinking, but he comes back to a country marked by colonialism, from Claudius’s military uniform – gold aiguillette off the shoulder – to the Christian burial given to Natalie Simpson‘s Ophelia. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane) arrive like gap-year tourists, hoping for a taste of authentic Africa, they find themselves disappointed.

Here, Old Hamlet represents the real Africa. Ewart James Walters, who doubles as the gravedigger, a man in touch with the land, appears wrapped for burial in traditional tribal robes. He’s a cacophony of colour – and Essiedu’s paint-flecked Hamlet, looking like he’s just finished a Colour Run, makes a claim to that authenticity, albeit filtered through textbooks, not lived experience.

Outside influences are an interesting pattern in the play – Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) also returns a new man, and Fortinbras invades at the end – but they are not its main thrust. Perhaps that’s why this feels so uninvolving – all the tension, Hamlet as thriller, goes slack, despite guns and helicopter drops. Essiedu’s artist seems in no rush for revenge; an ideas, not an action-man. Next to soldiers, he looks like a spindle. When he says he’s been training, you wonder what in – Alexander Technique? You’re never rooting for him, nor worried what he might do. The final carnage – a Nguni stick fight – comes from nowhere.

That hinders the narrative, even if it draws out interesting performances. Smith is cool-headed Claudius, a concerned stepfather, and Cyril Nri’s chuckling Polonius is a fusspot at work, but a father at home – his mistake is to put politics first. Simpson’s Ophelia, not sent abroad, unravels sharply, unlike Hiran Abeysekera’s slight, sprightly Horatio. What these fine performances can’t do, however, is cohere.

Hamlet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 13th August.