Image by Helen Murray

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Young Vic Theatre, London

Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet has been a long time in the making. In fact, what with the pandemic and the Young Vic’s long lead times for shows (which allow for some serious forward planning) I booked my tickets around three years ago. Sitting in the front row, it feels as though her performance has been seething and macerating inside her for all that time. She is, from her first appearance on the stage, a wired, angry, upset Hamlet, with more energy than anyone else at Elsinore. Her reaction seems a reasonable response to a court that carries on as though everything is normal when from the outside it appears a grotesque parody of civilised order. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude are disturbingly urbane, a pair of high achievers who wear tasteful, expensive outfits and power as their natural state. The gilt columns of Anna Fleische’s set resemble a corporate lobby, with more than a hint of Trump’s lift. This Denmark has been slowly and insidiously corrupted until the very fabric of its court is a by-word for greed and hubris.

Hersov, however, chooses not develop the political implications, and his production strips the text down to a family affair. There are as many ways to cut Hamlet as they are productions, but it can be argued that entirely removing Fortinbras and the wider existential threat makes it harder to understand what drives Claudius. Dunbar is respectable and easy until things stop going his way, when he has no problem ordering murder, but the cuts do constrain his part. Fitzgerald is also a little short of opportunities, although that is more Shakespeare’s fault than Hersov’s. However, these are minor issues in the context of Jumbo’s performance, which is electric. She is clearly experiencing a creeping breakdown, driven by grief and anger, and is in a dangerous state. By the time she stabs Polonius she has already come close to knifing several people, and violence is only a matter of time. The big speeches seem forced out of her by the turmoil in her head, and her disintegration during the second half is truly upsetting. This production brings out the insanity of the climactic fight with Laertes, where everyone seems to have lost their reason and descended into the maelstrom together.

It’s hard to take your eyes off Jumbo, but the cast features a number of notable and enjoyable performances. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius is both funny and exceptionally annoying. Norah Lopez Holden delivers a fine Ophelia, whose sibling teasing of Jonathan Ajayi’s Laertes is very convincing, making her destruction by the men around her all the more grim when it comes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are well played by Taz Borlar and Joana Borja as vodka-toting student millennials, chillingly cynical presences looking for opportunities to grab. Jonathan Livingstone’s Horatio is an everyman, watching as the world falls apart around him. Hersov’s production is a particular but compelling account of the play, but Cush Jumbo claims this role both for female actors and for herself with a Hamlet that sets the tone for the 2020s, struggling to cope in a world gone badly wrong.

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