It was by lucky chance that I saw that two sumptuously located seats in Row G of the Stalls had become free at the Young Vic for their much awaited Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov and starring Cush Jumbo as the forlorn Dane. I always associate the Young Vic with Shakespeare, even though they’ve always offered a wide range of productions. I was a mere 16 year old when I saw the National Theatre’s Troilus and Cressida there, and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen’s RSC Macbeth when I was 18 just sealed it for me as a theatre where you can see great plays in great productions at – let’s face it – great prices. Over the course of fifty years or so, that philosophy hasn’t changed – and hurrah for that.
For many decades I’ve always considered Hamlet to be my “favourite” play, if you can have so facile a thing. It contains everything; suspense, vengeance, madness, humour, blistering scenes and complex characters. It even has an early version of The Mousetrap. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Cush Jumbo; my loss indeed, but more of that later. I was, however, familiar with Adrian Dunbar, being a firm fan of Line of Duty, and if I’m honest, gentle reader, casting him as Claudius/Ghost was what swung the decision to book. More of that later too.
There are hardly ever “straight” productions of Shakespeare nowadays. They are always either set in a different time or location, or with some other major aspect of the play somehow turned on its head. Watching a modern Shakespeare is a good way of finding out to what extent you’re a Shakespeare purist. On the whole, I think I’m pretty adaptable where it comes to the Noble Bard. Shakespeare is big and strong enough to look after himself, and if you see a production where they’ve taken more liberties than you can shake a stick at, well, there’ll be another production before long which will take the original from yet another unexpected angle. And Shakespeare always survives. With a play as solid and remarkable as Hamlet, no cheeky modern slant could ever ruin it, and indeed it may well shed light on how an old play can still have enormous relevance today.
Greg Hersov’s production takes a reasonable number of liberties, most of which I found refreshingly enjoyable. I only had one quibble with his vision for this production – no Fortinbras. Even though he’s listed in the cast list, the play ends with a mass of dead bodies and no Norwegian saviour to come and make sense of the rotten state of Denmark and start to put it back together again. As such, the play ends in gloom and destruction, with no hope for the future provided. I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would be (as the cliché goes) turning in his grave at that one – and that’s the purist in me.
Apart from that, I liked the freshness and the modernity of this production. Hamlet is a big play (Shakespeare’s longest) so it needs to be pretty pacey to make it comfortable for modern attention spans. Sparky highlights amongst the minor characters help make it go with a swing, and this was one aspect in which this production really excelled. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius steals every scene he’s in with a perfect interpretation of that meddlesome, pernickety character. His pomposity is imbued with kindness (as when he’s giving Laertes laboursome advice) or self-protection (as when he’s gently humouring the “mad” Hamlet), and you can instantly recognise elderly relatives and acquaintances in his self-important mumblings. Absolutely brilliant.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are re-imagined as a couple of hippies, and Taz Skylar and Joana Borja capture a little youthful eccentricity (young versions of Polonius in a way), as they pose for selfies and lead Hamlet on something of a merry dance. They’re funny and a bit kookie, and it works really well. Leo Wringer’s Wray and Nephew-swilling gravedigger is one of those rare performances – one of Shakespeare’s grotesquely unfunny comic characters designed to lessen the horror of the tragedy, reborn as genuinely funny. Jonathan Livingstone is a very solid, reliable, traditional Horatio, whereas Norah Lopez Holden is a more modern, outspoken Ophelia, prone to sullenness, not frightened to be assertive, and (appropriately) unnerving in her madness. Jonathan Ajayi plays Laertes with a light throwaway style that works well in his early pre-France scenes but seems less appropriate when desperate for revenge against Hamlet for murdering his father.
Giving an immaculate, perfectly judged performance throughout, Tara Fitzgerald is brilliant as Gertrude, visibly shrinking into herself with the growing awareness of her awful misjudgement. Her vocal delivery is immaculate, her reactions to the events going on around her are spot on, and her death is probably the best I’ve ever seen for the role, pitched without sensationalism but completely realistically.
Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a strangely underplayed performance. He’s beautifully at his ease in conversational scenes, such as when he’s having his man-to-man chat with Laertes over an elegant tumbler of whisky, where his delivery is natural and flowing. However, when it comes to the soliloquies, he becomes all declamatory, as though he’s reciting it from a book in order to make the words sound nice but with little attention to their meaning. He completely looks the part, in his smart blue lounge suit, but when he was praying for forgiveness, I didn’t believe a word of it, I’m afraid.
Also completely looking the part, is Cush Jumbo as Hamlet with her close shaven head, trendy black mourning outfits, and rebellious stance. Her interaction with those characters that she feels are her allies is a pally delight, with a genuine thrill at being reunited with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, her close friendship with Horatio, and the memory of her childhood trust in Yorick. However, if you are Hamlet’s enemy, she is scathing. In answer to the age-old question, Is Hamlet mad? Ms Jumbo’s answer is definitely No – you feel this Hamlet is completely in control of their mental faculties and is calmly and determinedly working towards the desired aim of revenge. The casting works incredibly well, and you completely believe in her compelling delivery of the role. Her soliloquies expressed a clear understanding of their meaning and significance which lent a lot to this production being very easy to follow. A Shakespearean tragedian par excellence!
Hamlet continues at the Young Vic until 13th November – returns only, I’m afraid. However, there are four live streaming broadcasts available from October 28th to 30th, so you can still get to see the show. And it’s worth it just to see Cush Jumbo!
P. S. Our performance got off to an unintentionally hilarious start. Just as Adesuwa Oni entered the stage as Barnardo on the battlements, someone’s phone/watch alarm went off in the audience to signify it was a quarter past the hour. Ignoring it magnificently but in coincidental response to the alarm, she delivered her opening line, “Who’s there?” Cue a considerable ripple of uncontrolled laughter from the audience. Great work from Ms Oni to carry on regardless, but if anything ever revealed why you have to turn off all your devices, that was it!
Production photos by Helen Murray