Hamlet
Young Vic, London

'Hamlet' review - Cush Jumbo's biting Dane shines in a production that lacks vision

Photo credit: Cush Jumbo (Photo by Helen Murray)
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Tuesday, 05 October, 2021, 14:26
Review by: 

Like many shows, this Hamlet was long delayed by the pandemic. But Cush Jumbo, now a US TV star thanks to The Good Wife and The Good Fight, gives such a commanding lead performance – crystal clear in intention and riveting delivery – that it absolutely feels worth the wait. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the production surrounding her is so vague and meandering, occasionally enlivened by some good supporting turns, but lacking an overall vision. It plods along while Jumbo itches to fly.

Not that every new Shakespeare production needs an ostentatious “concept”. But director Greg Hersov makes some choices here, such as the modern-dress setting, that need follow-through; what, exactly, is his Hamlet trying to convey? Individual moments place the action in an accessible contemporary context, like Hamlet sarcastically quoting Closer magazine to Polonius, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern taking giggling selfies in the palace, but it doesn’t otherwise feel like a particular indictment of our society – nor of the family, even though there’s more intention paid to that with the international military action excised.

And Hersov’s three-hour, 15-minute version drags terribly in places. It often feels like we’re going from A to B because that’s what’s in the script rather than real narrative momentum, an emotional arc or dramatic stakes fuelling the show. Big moments are oddly fumbled (Polonius’s death feels anticlimactic, as does the play-within-a-play), and there are irritating blocking issues that make it hard to actually see and hear everything.

Yet whenever Jumbo is on stage, those problems recede. Hers is a biting, street-smart Hamlet, savage in mimicry and mockery of others, sullen and bitter in isolation, and teetering on the edge of violence. It’s in the shaven-headed Jumbo’s physicality: the predatory stance, made bigger by baggy men’s clothes, the grip on a knife, the straining against imprisonment. But the flashes she provides of Hamlet’s brilliant mind, silky charm and playful wit give us a heartbreaking sense of what has been lost.

I particularly loved Jumbo’s punchy phrasing, the way that she prowls through the text and pounces on unexpected words that give it new life – all without sacrificing the essential musicality of the verse. And while hers is essentially a non-binary Hamlet, the very cross-casting puts focus on how the play toys with gender, whether it’s the description of “unmanly grief” or Hamlet’s furious “Frailty, thy name is woman”.

Ophelia is introduced via a dreamy memory of dancing a sensual salsa with Hamlet, which places us in her headspace as he then rejects her: it’s toxic, manipulative and bewildering, and of course that affects her mental state. Norah Lopez Holden’s superb reading of the role gives her an unusual clarity of purpose; even in her mad, broken singing, she stomps her foot to grab attention. This is a woman labelled hysterical but demanding justice.

Joseph Marcell is excellent as a self-important, pontificating Polonius; as Laertes, Jonathan Ajayi provides both brutal avenger and tender big brother; and Leo Wringer’s Jamaican gravedigger assuredly straddles comedy and existential pathos.

But mother of God: Line of Duty star Adrian Dunbar is a wildly unconvincing Claudius. He’s too softly spoken and benign, a mildly frazzled CEO in a sober suit rather than a plotter, murderer and royal usurper. We need AC-12 to investigate that blunder of a miscasting. Tara Fitzgerald has her moments as Gertrude – she delivers Ophelia’s death with bleak horror, and reels from Hamlet’s judgement of her – but is also underpowered.

Anna Fleischle’s striking design of mirrored pillars literalises the idea of drama holding a mirror up to nature, and also adds to Elsinore’s claustrophobia, where everyone is watching and everyone is afraid of being revealed. But it limits the playing space, and this static production could use more flourishes like the smoke that heralds the coming of the ghost.

Perhaps the strangest absence here is the tangible impact of grief – something that should meet this moment in time. Hersov’s uneven Hamlet is often involving, particularly when the magnetic Jumbo holds the stage, but never truly moves us.

Hamlet is at the Young Vic to 13 November.

Photo credit: Cush Jumbo (Photo by Helen Murray)

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