The first black actor to play Hamlet on the RSC on why the arts needs more than tokensim

Papaa Essiedu as Hamlet.
Papaa Essiedu as Hamlet.
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Last year, Papaa Essiedu became the first black actor to play Hamlet at the RSC. Now, as he prepares to bring the history- making production to Yorkshire, he talks to Sarah Freeman.

Some actors wait their entire life for a career-defining role. Papaa Essiedu was just 25 when he became the first black actor to play Hamlet in the 61-year history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Simon Godwin, who shifted the action from Denmark to West Africa, the production opened at the RSC’s home in Stratford in 2016 and the critics were agreed – in Essiedu a star had most definitely been born.

With the plaudits still fresh in his mind, Essideu has once again been pouring over those soliloquies for an RSC touring production, which will see him reprise his role as Shakespeare’s most tragic hero.

“When I found out I was cast in Hamlet I felt euphoric and utterly terrified in equal measure,” says the 27-year-old. “It’s a part which is often put on a pedestal and it’s easy to see why. You read that play and some of the language is so iconic, so recognisable that while I was just gagging to play with it, it was also impossible not to be aware of everyone who has been there before.”

From Kenneth Branagh to David Tennant and Roy Kinnear, the list of those who have played the part to critical acclaim reads like a who’s who of British acting. “You have to park everything you know or have seen of the role and start afresh. I am young, and I don’t think that whatever age you take on a role like this that you are ever really ready for it but I do think that there is something youth can bring to a role,” says Essiedu.

“Shakespeare’s Hamlet is around 30, but throughout the course of the play he discovers everything anew. All the certainties he has at the start, disappear and it is as though he is forced to grow up all over again in front of the audience.

“The key for me was to get the timing right in the soliloquies. Those moments are really special, because it’s about sharing someone’s thought process with the audience. You have to take your time, but if you are too ponderous you risk boring them.”

In Godwin’s production, the setting is a contemporary one. The action opens with Hamlet graduating from Wittenberg University, but what really makes this version stand apart from countless others is the light and the colour.

Given the subject matter – murder, betrayal and political machinations – Hamlet is often played out on dark, gloomy stages. Not here. That monochrome world has been given an injection of Technicolor with Essiedu’s prince daubing graffiti and wearing a suit that looks like it has been designed by small children let loose with a set of crayons.

“It’s not a gimmick. Gimmicks never work. However, with Shakespeare I think you have to be relevant rather than reverential. The African influence which has been distilled into this production I think helps to universalise the play. It might be set in Denmark, but in truth the issues it addresses means that it can belong anywhere.

“Some of the text has also been cut. That’s not to say it is a radical interpretation of the text, but it does make it more like a taut thriller. The action really zips along.”

Since Christmas, Essiedu has been back in rehearsals and he knows that there is no easy way to ensure a repeat of those glowing reviews of two years ago. “It’s lovely to have the opportunity to give it another ago because while it’s familiar a lot of the cast are new so it will inevitably have a different feel to it. Plus I am a couple of years older and maybe a little wiser so again that changes things.

“The reviews last time around were lovely, but I try my best not to read them during a run. I think you have to be confident in your own performance.”

While many of Essiedu’s peers knew they wanted to be on stage from an early age, he had his sights set on a career in medicine. Growing up in east London in a single-parent family, his first taste of acting came in a school production of Me and My Girl, although his main motivation was catching the eye of one of his fellow cast members.

“I really liked this girl and I thought if I landed a part it might help her notice me. I played the postman, which is the smallest part in the whole show, but I got a great big laugh and while I didn’t realise it at the time, it was life-changing.”

Buoyed by that early reception, at A-level he opted to take theatre studies alongside biology, chemistry and French and successive visit to the theatre to the see the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello caused Essiedu to wonder whether his own future lay in a different direction.

“I didn’t grow up being part of youth theatres and for a long time I thought I was going to be a doctor. Then I joined the National Youth Theatre, which apart from anything else was a brilliant way of meeting people, and I suppose that’s when I began to think about acting. Even then, when I applied to university it was still to do medicine.

“My mum was a typical African mother. She was incredibly proud that her son was going to become a doctor, so when I told her I was going to take a gap year and was thinking about being an actor she burst into tears.”

His mother died while he was studying at the Guildhall, but she had come to terms with her son’s choice of career, which has seen Shakespeare become pretty much a constant in his life.

At the age of 20, Essiedu bagged the male lead in Antony and Cleopatra and, by the final curtain call, his journey to the RSC seemed inevitable. His first production in Stratford was a minor role in the Merry Wives of Windsor, which took him on to King Lear at the National Theatre.

He was cast as Burgundy, which should have been just another notch on the CV, but Essiedu hit the headlines when he stepped in mid-performance as the machiavellian Edmund when Sam Troughton lost his voice.

He has since landed parts in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and most recently has been seen playing Otto in the BBC adaptation of The Miniaturist, all of which now seems a long way from his school days in Walthamstow.

“It’s funny, like most people my first introduction to Shakespeare was studying Romeo and Juliet at GCSE and I hated it. The Eureka moment came when I started doing A-level drama. We were given copies of Macbeth and that’s when I realised that Shakespeare needs to be performed.”

With one history-making role under his belt, Essiedu has emerged as something of a poster boy for black actors, but as he admits it will take more than one black Hamlet to rebalance the largely white, largely middle-class British stage.

“These are very early steps and the one thing we have to avoid is tokenism. To truly reflect the society we live in then we do need to be bolder, much bolder.”

Hamlet, Hull New Theatre, February 13 to 17. 01482 300306, hulltheatres.co.uk