At long last, a black actor is playing Hamlet at Stratford. And with a crack, predominantly black cast, to boot, in a vibrant main-stage production, by Simon Godwin, set in a modern African state. The proceedings begin here with a glimpse of the hero's graduation ceremony at Wittenberg University. It's a part that prime actors sometimes only get round to tackling well into their thirties. But Paapa Essiedu, at the comparatively precocious age of 25, is in thrillingly unforced command of the role, radiating the impudent charisma, energy and wounded idealism of youth.
In his pretend madness, this Hamlet swaps funereal garb for a weirdly paint-sprayed, skull-emblazoned white suit. Jean-Michel Basquiat's subversive graffiti-art has heavily influenced Paul Wills's design and Essiedu calmly vandalises the court with his aerosol can. The moments when this brilliant mask of wrong-footing levity drops are startling in their moral intensity and submerged pain, though – as in the deadly depth of his rebuke here to the female Guildenstern for presuming to think he can be played like a recorder.
With its spine-tingling ceremonial drumming, graveside calypos and climactic bout of stick-fighting, the post-colonical African setting isn't as penetrating a thematic fit as it was in Gregory Doran's 2012 Julius Caesar. But the performances are terrific, though, with Natalie Simpson handing out strands of her ripped -out hair instead of herbs as a piercingly distraught Ophelia and Essiedu the most compelling youthful Hamlet since Ben Whishaw.
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