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Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Hamlet’ doesn’t sizzle, but its star does

Paapa Essiedu in Royal Shakespeare Company's “Hamlet,” at the Kennedy Center this weekend. (Manuel Harlan)

The gloomy prince in black is back, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet” at the Kennedy Center is most vibrant when the title character goes rogue and styles himself as an outsider artist, even tagging the royal portrait with graffiti.

You want a star turn in this most regal and action-packed of tragedies, and for the second time this year, after Michael Urie’s performance at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, we are getting a magnetic Hamlet on a big stage — charming, combustible, lightning with language. Paapa Essiedu drives this modern-dress version as a Western-educated student returning to his West African nation, where his royal father has died and his uncle occupies the throne. The soul of Essiedu’s sharp-eyed characterization is Hamlet’s escalating disappointment: His hip, young Hamlet bounces through graduation only to go home to his government family and discover that everything is a scam.

Painting is a form of rebellion, and frankly it relieves some of the dullness of Simon Godwin’s bland-looking production. The imposing wooden walls of Hamlet’s university become the walls of Elsinore’s palace, with not much else denoting place or atmosphere. The country is a kind of no-place: you are meant to listen closely to the turgid political circumstances of past battles with more looming for the kingdom and surrounding lands. Hamlet certainly hears it, and it bums him out.

Godwin’s staging does not suffer from the hyperaggressive modern African militarism of Liesl Tommy’s confused “Macbeth” at the STC last year, and these palace machinations are more conventional than the surveillance state ambiance that saturated Michael Kahn’s production with Urie. What’s front and center most of the night is probably what most U.S. audiences expect from the RSC: formidable acting.

Elsinore’s powerful men are especially commanding. Clarence Smith’s Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle, wears a Western-style military uniform with a sharp crease in the trousers, and Smith acts the part with the cool assurance of an unassailable ruler. Joseph Mydell delivers a classic Polonius — a kind but stuffy diplomat that nobody can quite avoid — and Ewart James Walters is forceful as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, booming the truth to his son and looking imposing in his traditional African robes.

The show’s culture clash advances and recedes. Hamlet’s pals Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dressed like privileged, Western-influenced youth, yet Hamlet is never more motivated than when the ghost delivers his message to the beat of African drums. As Essiedu plays him, Hamlet’s loyalty can’t really be claimed in a cultural or political way; this is a story of ­near-total disillusion.

Paul Wills’s set shows Hamlet’s studio at one point, hanging large, scratchy canvases filled with frenzied lines, scrawled skulls and words (the ghost’s “Remember me” among them). Essiedu is superb at delineating what this Hamlet is up against as everyone lets him down, including Ophelia (pitiably played by Mimi Ndiweni), whose face gets smeared with paint as Hamlet detects yet another scheme and unleashes a rant. But he never really figures out what in this life he can be for.

As the character spirals down, Essiedu acutely delivers Hamlet’s hits. The soliloquies flow with reason and doubt, and his dissection of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is just one in a number of acidic takedowns.

There are cheap laughs that don’t make sense; Essiedu is martini-dry after killing Polonius, for instance, and the comedy isn’t laced with bone-chilling dread. Essiedu has the wit, charisma and passion to carry the night, though, and the cast stacks up solidly. It’s good to have the RSC back at the Kennedy Center — the troupe was a regular guest not so long ago — and to see the appealing Essiedu dissect this two-faced Elsinore, even if the show doesn’t crest and smolder to the finish as a really great “Hamlet” can.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Simon Godwin. About 3 hours 15 minutes. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. $49-$139. Call 202-467-4600 or visit