It is hard to believe that 10 years ago Paapa had never acted, yet here he is at 25 playing Hamlet at the RSC. Born in 1990, he grew up in East London with his mum as a single parent family. He won a scholarship to The Forest School, Walthamstow and his ambition as he grew older was to become a doctor.

Changing Direction

His involvement in drama came as a result of fancying a girl who was in the school production of Me and My Girl, and having secured a token role with a couple of lines he could justify hanging around with her. However he managed a real comedy moment from his role as a postman and recognition led him to keep his options open choosing Theatre Studies as an A-Level alongside Biology, Chemistry and French. As part of the course he saw productions of classical theatre at the Barbican and the Donmar. He was amazed by the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofer as Othello in 2007.

As he became more absorbed by theatre, his ambitions changed. Knowing that he could not afford to do a degree and then drama training he applied to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was accepted and there came under the influence of Patsy Rodenberg. He says Shakespeare is the backbone to everything you do at Guildhall. In first year you start with the sonnets then progress to scenes and by the end of second year you perform in a complete play. So aged just 20 he played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra.

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet leaning forward wearing a jacket and trousers covered in paint
Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC – Image Licensing

First Job

His first job was at the RSC in the Christmas show The Mouse and his Child, and in Philip Breen’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in which he played Fenton.

After this he went to the National Theatre, playing Burgundy and understudying Edmund in Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear.

When Sam Troughton lost his voice during a performance, his understudy Paapa stepped in and played the role to great acclaim. But it was one night only. Paapa says the seven and a half months spent watching mature actors who were so at ease on stage (Simon Russell Beale, Stephen Boxer and Sam Troughton) were much more important to his development as an actor.

It was a different learning experience when he played Romeo last year at the Tobacco Factory. The whole company was very young, with a young Russian director, Polina Kalinina. Paapa loved the way they sparked off each other, developing a company feel. He really enjoyed the play which he had previously associated with double English sitting behind desks on rainy Tuesday afternoons. Definitely not the way to enjoy Shakespeare, he says.

Playing Hamlet

And now Hamlet. How is Paapa finding it? It has been demanding and still is. During the preview period ideas changed and continue to do so in the light of what works. The director, Simon Godwin, is passionate about the language. Paapa says that above all you must respect the language and not hide the play with a concept. And Shakespeare must be relevant to 2016. Let’s be relevant rather than reverential. To him, the African concept achieves that and helps to universalise a play that can belong anywhere, not just Denmark.

For Paapa, the role is about assuming family responsibility. It involves strong feelings of resentment, hatred and revenge that young people experience in relation to family. You have to get the timing right in the soliloquies, he says. As you share your thought process with the audience, you have to take your time to give it truth but if you ponder too long you risk boring them.

Every performance is different because the audience is different and each audience deserves as much as the next one. You go in with nothing, no expectations, you go to tell a story and the performance unfolds with the audience. Scary? That’s the job he says and why he loves it.

Viv Graver

Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.

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