A Black Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon.

ast summer I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet, and I have not been able to forget about it ever since.

I knew before the performance, that Hamlet was played by Paapa Essiedu, and when the opening of the performance started with loud African drums, I was pleasantly surprised – and also almost fell off my chair, as I didn’t expect an opening scene as impressive as that!

The setting of the play could have been in any African country, but I sensed a strong Ghanaian influence in it. The majority of the actors were black; only one servant of the King was a white man. I thought: ‘Nice! Role reversal! Well done!’ Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were also played by white actors – and unless I have overlooked someone – the rest of the cast was made up of black actors.

Although I appreciated the diversity on stage, throughout the performance, I was wondering what the director was trying to achieve by casting mostly black actors for the roles. Even though Hamlet is not my favourite play, I know that it is not really known for raising racially charged questions.

I hadn’t bought a programme before the show, as I always leave that decision for after the performance, mainly because I tend to only buy programmes of performances that I really like, and usually I am able to figure out the message the director tries to bring across by the end of the performance anyway. This performance, however, although mesmerizingly colourful and expertly cast, left me startled and wondering: why the African-inspired setting?

After the show, I strolled to the shop and bought a programme, and on my way back to London, I started reading it on the coach. Turns out that the performance drew links between Hamlet and his disjointedness with his old world and his family after his return as a graduate from Wittenberg University, and the sense of loss and disjointedness that many Africans in the diaspora experience. Upon their return ‘home’, they often find a place and a people that are utterly different from how they left them. Now I understood it.

I thought this was a beautiful homage to the many thousands of brilliant African students, who leave their homeland to come and study in Europe to develop their minds and intellect. That development, however, often comes at a cost: the cost of losing oneself to a degree, the cost of feeling misunderstood in the ‘old’ society, the ‘old’ home, and the cost of feeling like an outsider both in one’s own country and in the guest-country where one spent a considerable amount of time studying.

My experience in Stratford-upon-Avon was very thought provoking, and made me wonder how a play that was written over four centuries ago, could be adapted in such a way that accurately represents what certain people face in modern society. This, amongst other things, is what makes Shakespeare still relevant today, and explains to a certain extent what Ben Jonson meant in the Preface of the First Folio, when he said that: ‘he [Shakespeare] was not of an age but for all time.’

“he was not of an age but for all time.”
– Ben Jonson