An Interview with Paapa Essiedu
Paapa Essiedu plays the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet…
How did you get the role of Hamlet?
I did my first job with the RSC in the winter of 2012, when I appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Mouse and His Child. I did a few more auditions for them after that, but they didn’t come to anything. Then, in 2015, I was doing a production of Romeo and Juliet in Bristol, and someone from the RSC’s Casting department came to see it. She got me in to see the director Simon Godwin to discuss a production of Hamlet. So I met him and we had a chat, but I didn’t hear anything for a few months, so I thought the idea had gone away. I was starting to worry about how I was going to pay for the rent and that kind of thing. But I got another call to come and see him again, and we had a very exciting and constructive talk about working together on Hamlet. And he was then brave enough to offer me the part. And, of course, I was very grateful, excited and terrified.
Before you started rehearsing for the original production in 2016, how did you feel taking on such an iconic role? Did you go and see other productions or deliberately not do that?
‘Excited’ and ‘terrified’ are definitely the two words to describe my emotions. I got offered the part in June or July 2015, and we didn’t start rehearsing until January 2016, so I had even more time to mull things over and get even more anxious. But it did also give me the chance to prepare and read up on things. During that time, I went to see one production – the one with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican in London. I just wanted to see a full production before we went into rehearsals, but I’d seen many productions before I was cast in the role.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? For example I’ve read you originally wanted to be a doctor. How did you get into acting?
I’m from Walthamstow in East London. Theatre wasn’t really part of my family’s cultural tradition, and it wasn’t really a presence in my life until a lot later on. In fact, the first time I went to the theatre was when I was 17 at the Hackney Empire. At school I was lucky to be fairly academic and was pushed a lot by my mum. So, I had a certain level of academic success, which gave me options, but I just really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I applied and got offered a place at UCL to study Medicine, which was a huge honour. But being the precocious thing that I was at that age, I decided not to pursue that!
I had done A level drama, which I’d decided to do on a whim. I hadn’t done any drama before that, but I really enjoyed it, and I thought that it was something I could do. I’d seen some actors on stage and on TV and I thought I could do it better than some of them. I really thought if they can do it, then so can I. At A Level we studied Tartuffe, Miss Julie, Macbeth and we created a strange devised piece. I was also in a school production of Othello, obviously. I loved my drama teacher. So, rather than studying Medicine, I applied for drama school and got in.
You’re the first black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC. You’ve been quoted as saying that you find this both “significant and insignificant at the same time”. What did you mean by that?
It was a comment on what I think about being asked about being the first black actor to play Hamlet at the RSC. What is the significance of someone asking me that? And what is that symptomatic of? You wouldn’t ask a white actor about their colour. It suggests that there is an accepted normalisation that white actors are destined to play certain roles, and that there’s something particularly interesting in anyone who isn’t white and plays these roles – that’s something that needs to be challenged.
Don’t get me wrong. I know we don’t live in some sort of post racial society – but we do need to call it out when these micro-aggressive questions are being permeated in the mainstream media. I think it’s ridiculous that I’m having to justify myself, having to justify my blackness and my career as an actor in the same question, in a way a white actor wouldn’t have to. So the reason I said it was significant is because I guess it’s true, but that is actually something you need to be asking the RSC and not me. And then as a journalist you need to ask yourself what you’re chasing by asking that question.
Simon Godwin, Hamlet’s director has said the setting for the production has been re-conceived as a modern state influenced and inspired by Ghana. Can you expand on this? Has your own Ghanaian heritage influenced the production?
Hamlet is a play set in Elsinore in Denmark. Our Elsinore has taken on some influences. When Simon and I talked about the world we wanted the story to take place in I talked about my own experiences, my family and the traditions of my country.
We talked a lot about the elements of the play that are more like a ghost story. In the UK ghost stories aren’t taken seriously. We think ghost stories are for kids. But I remember when I went to Ghana a couple of years ago my cousin told me a story about this guy that died, and because someone wanted to get the good juju from it, (juju is the equivalent of black magic), he had to dig up this guy’s body, and carry the body around the centre of town all night and then bury the body again. And there was no cynicism about this story. And I thought that was something that could be useful in Hamlet, because when Horatio and Marcellus talk about seeing Hamlet’s dad as a ghost, they talk about it quite seriously. Again, without cynicism. That absence of cynicism, and that belief in the supernatural is very helpful for a play which is inherently supernatural. And I question if you can make that leap of the imagination in 2017 London, for example.
When you have the privilege of playing Hamlet, you have to infuse it with your sense of being, your own sense of identity and your experience. When Hamlet talks about his relationship with his mother, his father, his brother, his girlfriend – they are all relationships that I’ve had, and they inform how I imaginatively create those relationships with the character.
How physically demanding is the role of Hamlet?
It’s mad demanding! You can’t just walk off the street and do it. It’s three hours of intense emotional, psychological, mental and physical labour. It’s an assault course, essentially, that you put yourself through. You have to be physically and mentally prepared for that. The show is really physical. In our production, there are four or five fight sequences, and it’s also physically demanding to get round the muscularity of the text. But it’s a challenge that I love. And when I see someone on stage giving it their all, sweating from what they’re doing, that really gets my juices flowing.
Apart from acting, what else do you enjoy doing?
I like working with young people and with the community. As I said, I’m from Walthamstow, from a working-class background, and I know how hard it can be for people from certain backgrounds to do certain things in life, such as becoming an actor. I am passionate about removing barriers and obstacles so young people can reach their potential. I like catching up with mates, watching films. I’m a 27 year old man who lives in London. There’s lots to do!
“Investigating the character”
What was your first encounter with Shakespeare, and how did you react?
I think it was at school doing Romeo and Juliet for GCSE English. And I remember thinking it was just stupid. I don’t think the teacher really knew what he was doing. There was no passion for it. I don’t think anyone wanted to do it, not even the teacher. I did A level drama and I got to play Macbeth. And there was a difference in doing it, actually investigating the character– but even then, I didn’t really know what I was saying. I didn’t know what the words meant. I think you need to watch the plays and do some work before you can sit down and understand what’s going on. I totally get that Shakespeare isn’t immediately easy. Doing Shakespeare’s play properly – on my feet – for the first time unlocked him for me.
An actor has to understand what they are saying, and so does the actor they are talking to. If that happens, then the audience will understand too. So, when we’re rehearsing we spend a huge amount of time paraphrasing what Shakespeare is saying so we’re all clear on the meaning.
In 2016 you were involved in the BBC2 broadcast commemorating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. As part of this you appeared in a Hamlet sketch including previous ‘Hamlets’ including Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear as well as Tim Minchin, Harriet Walter, Judi Dench and HRH The Prince of Wales. What was that like?
It was good! It was weird, bizarre seeing all those people in the same space. Tim and I worked together to write that sketch. It starts off with me coming on doing “To Be or Not To Be”, but then Tim Minchin comes on suggesting putting a different emphasis on the words from those famous lines. And that idea carried on with more and more actors coming on stage, giving different interpretations of the lines. It was clearly a hilarious joke!
It was cool because you’ve got legends of the game: Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Rory Kinnear – I’ve grown up watching these people. And I love Tim Minchin. And Prince Charles was probably the best one! He has a very authoritative voice and a lot of stage presence.
How do you feel to be taking Hamlet out on the road in 2018?
It’s nearly two years since we started rehearsals for the first time we did the show, in 2016. I feel different. I’m in a different place in my personal life, my professional life in terms of my maturity as an actor and a man, so hopefully all of that will add something to the production. It’s definitely not going to be the same interpretation as when I did the show the first time round. Hopefully it won’t be a terrible interpretation, but it won’t be the same one! I am looking forward to grappling with those ideas and themes, characters and storylines afresh.
What can you tell us about the TV and film work you’ve got coming up over the few months?
It’s pretty varied. I’ve got a couple of lines in the new Murder on the Orient Express film. It was only two lines but to work with Kenneth Branagh and to be on a huge film set was cool. I’ve got three TV dramas coming up. I’m in a BBC TV drama called, The Miniaturist, a period drama based on the book by Jessie Burton for the BBC. That was out at Christmas time. I’m also in a Channel 4 drama called Kiri, written by Jack Thorne and starring Sarah Lancashire, out in January 2018, and I’m currently shooting a BBC drama called Press, which is about journalism, which will be out in the autumn.
Which other Shakespeare characters would you like to play?
Either of the Richards – Richard II or Richard III. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and Hotspur are great parts. There are so many.
Are you looking forward to visiting Hull?
I haven’t had the privilege of spending time in Hull yet, but of course I’m aware it was the City of Culture, and a good friend of mine runs Middle Child Theatre Company, which is a resident company there. And I’ve seen a couple of their plays which revolve around working class lives in Hull.
Photos by Sophie Giddens (c) RSC