Tuesday, May 28

Hamlet – Young Vic

Cush Jumbo is the big draw in this production of Shakespeare’s classic play, whipping up a storm as the tempestuous Prince of Elsinore.  Cross gender, or gender blind, casting of this legendary protagonist is not a new fad, indeed the first ‘female’ Hamlet graced a London stage in 1796 – when Elizabeth Powell took on the role. 

There is also a 12th century Danish legend that states that he was in fact a she, and that Hamlet’s gender had been hidden by their mother to protect their claim to the throne. In Greg Hersov’s production Jumbo’s ‘unmanly grief’ is the undoing of Elsinore as Hersov’s edited text (which still runs at over three hours) aims for a mystery thriller flow to bring the piece alive for a contemporary audience. 

At its most successful the performance is an absolute delight, brimming with wit and fizzing through the well-worn dialogue to give it a fresh feel (credit must here be given to Barbara Houseman).  In these moments Jumbo’s Hamlet bounces off those around him with panache, tying them in knots with his words.  Here, Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is his most obsequious, the oil to Jumbo’s vinegar, calling to mind a cacophony of overly slick politicians. 

The cast do well with a script that has become a litany of proverbial expressions over the centuries, but the ghosts of past Hamlets are hard to shake in Jumbo’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy – the 400th Birthday sketch about the correct inflection coming to mind as she pauses for breath before tackling the epic consideration of life and death. However, shake them she does as she finds her own way through the rhythms of the language.  Tara Fitzgerald gives a restrained performance as Gertrude, her motivations as intangible as the reflections in Anna Fleischie’s set, but her gradual realisation of the reality of the situation and announcement of Ophelia’s death show her calibre and class as a performer. 

Norah Lopez Holden is a uniquely defiant Ophelia – so much so that you hope she’s followed the example of Juliet up the road in & Juliet and cheated death to achieve her full potential. Joseph Marcell relishes the range of Polonius, his audience asides feel natural maintaining the flow in a way that some of the other characters soliloquys don’t always achieve.  His relationship with his son Laertes, played here by the excellent Jonathan Ajayi, is especially touching.  Fleischie’s set frames the performance, shifting to create new angles and perspectives and providing stolen reflections throughout.  Contained in Fleischie’s set, Hamlet’s father’s ghost is an eerie and arresting spectre, when he emerges in the following scene there is something of the shark reveal in Jaws. 

Leo Wringer deserves a special mention for his Bob Marley and Grateful Dead singing Gravedigger, often a high point, here Wringer relishes every moment.  Hersov’s Hamlet is an interesting piece finding – and occasionally forcing – contemporary resonances on the material.  New approaches to the Bard should always be encouraged and I would be interested to see how this show matures and evolves throughout its run.  The rest is silence.

The show continues at the Young Vic until the 13th November. Further details and tickets can be found at https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/hamlet-cush-jumbo

Reviewer: Clare Chandler

Reviewed: 4th October 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★