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Shakespeare: reinvented for young people in the 21st century

A deep groan escaped the sulky lips of my classmates when my GCSE English teacher announced that we were about to study Shakespeare. It seemed preposterous that we were still being forced to analyse minutely each word written by a man who died over 400 years ago. We thought that the only people who could feasibly enjoy his work must be pompous old English teachers who had been blabbering on about the glory of the great Bard for decades. How could Shakespeare be relevant to young people in the 21st century?

The audience for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) most recent production of Hamlet, made up of diverse people of all ages and races, erodes this assumption. Behind me, two strangers, a young black student and an elderly white woman, chatted away to one another about their enjoyment of the show. They probably had little in common, except for their love of a play written by a man named Shakespeare. This particular production was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

We thought that the only people who could feasibly enjoy Shakespeare must be pompous old English teachers 

The almost entirely black cast was led by the gifted and passionate 25-year-old, Paapa Essiedu, the RSC’s first ever black Hamlet. The fact that I even have to write the words, ‘first ever black Hamlet’ is astounding. The lack of diversity within theatre, especially for such traditional works as Shakespeare’s, is repulsive. Even Othello, whom Shakespeare explicitly tells us is black, has been played by white actors throughout history, including by a blacked-up Laurence Olivier in 1965.

The casting for this version of Hamlet is exhilarating. While there are a few weak actors, the expressiveness of both Essiedu and Mimi Ndiweni, who plays Ophelia, in their portrayal of the disintegration of the human psyche was phenomenal. Essiedu wept at moments of Hamlet’s despair, and visibly spat in anger. At the climax of Ophelia’s madness, Ndiweni sang softly and hauntingly, before erupting in anguish, drool covering her face. You could not possibly imagine this when trapped within the grey walls of a classroom. Young people commonly dismiss Shakespeare because of the unfamiliarity of the language, viewing him as inaccessible, dull and dated. But, with vivid acting, Shakespeare’s language comes to life. We see his deep exploration of humanity.

With vivid acting, Shakespeare’s language comes to life. We see his deep exploration of humanity

Hamlet is particularly pertinent to young people. Its central character is a tormented student, aggrieved by his father’s death.  Hamlet deals with issues of indecision, trust, sexuality, familial obligations and mortality, and is forced to confront his identity, like many young adults.

The director, Simon Godwin, was strongly influenced by Ghanaian culture, and its richness fills the stage with vibrant costumes and music. Accompanied by rhythmic drums and dances, Hamlet becomes energetic and exciting.

As Hamlet’s madness intensifies, so does the colour scheme. His costume becomes a suit covered in graffiti, and the set features sheets scrawled over with bright and scattered thoughts. The Bard may have detested this, but for us, it is a vivid portrayal of a turbulent psyche.

Hamlet is set in Denmark, but the African influence suggests cultural displacement and a torn national identity. This concept has a particular resonance for international students, who often struggle with the sharp change of culture and the strangeness of their new surroundings.

The director, Simon Godwin, was strongly influenced by Ghanaian culture, and its richness fills the stage with vibrant costumes and music

Aside from a greater sense of racial awareness, Shakespeare has been criticised for misogyny; most of his major female characters end up mad or married. Yet, his portrayal of the female experience can still be made relevant to modern times, as this production proves. When attempting to console him, Ophelia is physically held down by Hamlet whilst he smears green paint over her neck and breast. Strikingly, it acts to show the marks left on women by assault – physically and psychologically. With the rise of the Me Too Movement, it has become important for art to emphasise the damage caused by sexual harassment, and the use of green paint is a powerful way of doing so.

Other productions have also conveyed a feminist message through Shakespeare. Last year, I saw The Tempest in a pop-up theatre in Kings Cross, which was cast solely with women. Set in a modern jail, it emphasised the entrapment of Shakespeare’s island. While the production was less successful than Hamlet, primarily because it made less sense in terms of plot, it highlighted that Shakespeare can be changed dramatically for our generation.

Watching Hamlet, I was swept away by the beauty of live theatre. However, Shakespeare is also adapted for film and television. Margot Robbie, for example, is currently leading an ambitious project for ABC, modernising Shakespeare with a focus on the female voice. In this way, Shakespeare is brought into the modern world and made accessible to young people. Compelling productions are also increasingly being streamed into cinemas, widening his audience. New ways are, constantly and thrillingly, being found to bring alive the excitement, tension and vitality of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old words.

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