Young Vic Theatre
Long delayed by COVID closures, Cush Jumbo’s androgynous Hamlet doesn’t disappoint. It is with a performance that is not about gender but about Hamlet that makes familiar words sound new minted.
Director Greg Hersov turns the Young Vic’s open stage conformation into an end stage behind which there are an arch and turret-like forms whose movement mark a change of location and whose speckled reflective surfaces are full of wraith-like mists and glimpses of people, a mirror for a ghost we can’t see and a world where there could always be someone listening in the shadows.
This is a court without pomp and ceremony, though Joseph Marcell’s well-meaning Polonius has an old-world formality and there is a clear divide between the besuited elders and their children in tracksuits and leisure wear. Elsinor may be a castle but its staff seem discreetly absent and this becomes a family story: Fortinbras and other political references have been cut.
As Hersov says in the programme, this is a version that aims for clarity and it straightforwardly tells the story. He introduces a wordless scene of Hamlet and Ophelia dancing together to clarify their relationship and omits Hamlet’s reference to taking on an “antic disposition”. His madness may be a genuine derangement but this Hamlet still has a lively intelligence and Cush Jumbo gives us a youth suddenly reacting to the pressure he is under.
Ophelia’s descent into madness is beautifully captured from the carefree girl whom we first see confused by Hamlet’s behaviour, emotionally drained by the killing of her father. She isn’t a waif handing out flowers but a distraught lover rearranging his gifts and letters. This has a poignancy that matches Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude lamenting the girl’s drowning.
Neither Tara Fitzgerald nor Adrian Dunbar as Claudius get the opportunity to develop their characters and, though Jonathan Livingstone establishes Horatio strongly in the first scenes, we see little of his relationship with Hamlet.
Selfie-snapping Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (Taz Skylar and Joana Borja), so excited to be invited to Elsinor, are out of their depth there but they add colour. Leo Wringer is a lively and tuneful gravedigger. You could hardly have Hamlet without Yorick’s skull, but his assistant and their clowning are cut as is Osric’s, though the production has some gentler humour.
There is some word substitution aiming to make meaning clearer, though all that I noticed was “beatified” for “beautified” (which Polonius describes as “a vile phrase” when reading a letter from Hamlet). Why replace an intentionally ugly word with a Malapropism? But the cuts have certainly tightened the story and give great prominence to Hamlet’s soliloquies delivered to the audience with a directness that might seem stark in a more showy production but that Cush Jumbo makes a baring of Hamlet’s inner feeling and of the moment.
She also brings an especial intensity to the play’s final scene engaging in Hamlet’s duel with Jonathan Ajayi’s Laertes with the acceptance he has already talked of with Horatio, but instead of a fencing match Hersov gives us a brief knife fight. Now that would be fine if the intention is to suggest this isn’t theoretically sport but the lethal real thing, but they still talk of buttoned blades. How do you prevent the blades they fight with doing damage? It is a distracting question that flashed through my mind as the antagonists selected their weapons, but that didn’t make the fight (directed by Kev McCurdy) any less exciting even though it isn’t visibly bloody.
This youthful Hamlet feels very contemporary and offers a remarkable central performance.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton