Review – Hamlet, Young Vic, London, 19th October 2021

HamletIt 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.

Norah Lopez HoldenFor 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.

Joana Borja, Adrian Dunbar, Leo WringerThere 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.

Jonathan LivingstoneGreg 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.

Joseph MarcellApart 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.

Joana Borja, Taz Skylar, Cush JumboRosencrantz 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.

Tara FitzgeraldGiving 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 DunbarAdrian 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.

Cush Jumbo and YorickAlso 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!

Leo WringerHamlet 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

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 14th March 2019

EquusThere’s something about a Latin word that gives it more clout. Like when they create some expensive new cosmetic but 50% of it is tap water, the main ingredient majestically becomes Aqua. No one says aqua! Not since 55 BC. No surprise, therefore, that a 17-year-old mentally ill, sexually confused boy with a horse hang-up would scream “Eq… Eq…Equus!” from his hospital bed rather than the more traditional “Giddy up Neddy”.

Equus 7Forgive me for that disrespectful introduction, because I actually have a ton of respect for this most significant 20th century play, first performed in 1973 – and I have no doubt it would have faced the wrath of the censor ten years earlier. It’s now been given a pared-down, imagination-filled production from the English Touring Theatre, starting its national tour appropriately enough at one of the most significant theatres of 20th century drama, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s been a matter of personal shame that I have reached the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and had never been to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. So when my friend the Squire of Sidcup announced that he wanted to see some “great plays”, and I saw that Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at that self-same theatre, it was a no-brainer.

Equus 14I’m sure you know – but in case you don’t, Magistrate Hesther Salomon refers the case of Alan Strang to psychiatrist Martin Dysart as his last chance before being locked up in prison. Strang has been found guilty of blinding six horses at a riding stable; a crime that, even today, stuns the audience into silence when they first hear it. Strang is obstructive, uncommunicative, confrontational, but clearly in need of some meaning to his life; in many ways, a typical teenager. As Dysart pushes and probes into Strang’s emotions and motivations, the truth is slowly revealed of the latter’s destructive obsession with the horse god Equus. But, in comparison, Dysart also considers his own dusty, crusty existence, where he merely observes outside life taking place without having any of his own; and, although comparisons are odious, he becomes jealous of Strang’s passionate and sensual self-expression. At the end of the play, you can draw your own conclusions as to which of them has the brighter future.

Equus 16This is my third exposure to the dark recesses of Alan Strang’s mind and Martin Dysart’s own personal struggles as his psychiatrist. The first time was in a school group (that’s bold) in 1976, with Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang, shortly before it closed – this was the tail end of the original production, I believe. There were bench seats at the back of the stage where we all perched, uncomfortably, but I remember it as a mesmeric experience. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the celebrated 2007 production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, which was probably the hottest ticket in town. However, this new production can easily hold its head up high in such prized company.

Equus 9The simple, stark set adapts itself so well to represent a clinical hospital environment. Sheer white curtains drop down three sides of the stage suggesting those curtains that divide beds in a ward, but also just giving that hint of a white padded room that we associate with mental institutions. A few props, such as Strang’s hospital bed, a basic TV so loathed by his father, and an unexplained hospital trolley carrying six horses’ skulls, are all you need to fill in the gaps. The biggest and most effective prop is Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fantastic lighting design, which incorporates mysterious gloom and blood-red gore, and all moods in between. Giles Thomas’ subtle, disturbing music provides a near-constant undercurrent reflecting Dysart’s state of mind. That alone unsettles us in the audience, because it’s Strang who’s in mental torture, not Dysart, right?

Equus 12Many of the actors double up their roles to represent the horses, which provides the creative team with the nice problem of how best to portray these strong, kindly equine beauties. Shaffer’s original stage directions required the actors, who wore tracksuits, to don see-through horse masks, putting them on in full view of the audience as part of a deliberate ceremonial procedure. Instead, director Ned Bennett has gone for greater realism in this production. The horse actors just wear shorts; you could consider that the equivalent of a horse’s saddle. The exposure of the strength of the actors’ limbs and torsos directly convey a more powerful impression of the unadorned strength of a horse.

Equus 5Furthermore, movement director Shelley Maxwell has done an amazing job in enabling the actors to recreate a horse’s neck movements – angular but flowing, strong but vulnerable – and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance as Strang’s favourite horse, Nugget, physically blows your mind with its accurate suggestion of how a horse moves. He’s absolutely superb in the role. The climax scene where we see Strang’s attack on the horses also calls for incredibly expressive physical movement, with the agonising blinding of the five horses in the stable followed by Strang’s torturous, mocking, assault dance with Nugget before he too is blinded. It’s both the stuff of nightmares but also incredibly vivid and stunning to watch.

Equus 3Ethan Kai gives a deeply expressive, no-holds-barred performance as the damaged Strang; initially insolent, gradually more trusting, extremely vulnerable and uncontrollably violent. It’s a brave and memorable performance. Norah Lopez Holden is also excellent as his girlfriend Jill, cheekily and excitedly suggesting a (literal) romp in the hay, and trying to smooth over the waters when it doesn’t go the way she hoped. She’s also extremely good in the hilarious scene set in the sex cinema (which ages the play somewhat). There’s excellent support from Robert Fitch as Strang’s principled-yet-hypocritical father and Syreeta Kumar as his well-meaning mother, Ruth Lass as the concerned Hesther and Keith Gilmore as the no-nonsense nurse and stable owner.

Equus 13But it is Zubin Varla who stands out, as the professionally high-achieving and personally self-disappointing Dysart. We first see him, huddled in the corner of the stage. You think it’s going to be Strang, because that plays to our preconceptions of a mental health patient, but in fact it is Dysart, revealing from the start his discomfort in his own skin. Wretchedly dependent on his cigarettes, his analytical tactics may well pinpoint precisely Strang’s issues, but they also gapingly reveal his own. Constantly addressing the audience, you can hear the doubt and the essential sadness through both his voice and his body language. I’d be surprised if Dysart has ever been portrayed with greater eloquence or pain. It’s one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off the actor; first rate throughout.

Equus 6Equus plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23rd March, and then goes on to Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, The Lowry in Salford, Northern Stage in Newcastle and Guildford. If you’ve never seen the play, this is a great opportunity to witness for yourself this ground-breaking work. If you have seen it before, I doubt whether you’d ever have peered so closely into Dysart’s soul, as Mr Varla allows us to see. Stonkingly good.

Equus 2P. S. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a little island of Victorian delight in a sea of modern shopping centre. Extremely welcoming and friendly, it has a cool vibe, good toilets, and a trendy bar supporting its beautiful, intricate Victorian interior of red and gold. We sat in the middle of row D of the stalls, and, I must confess, I now know the definition of cramped. There’s not a lot of space there! And the stage is surprisingly high, so even from row D you can only just make out the floor level. But the prices are incredibly reasonable and the atmosphere is superb, even for a Thursday matinee. Very keen to go again!

Equus 8P. P. S. The Squire of Sidcup was gobsmacked with the brilliance of Equus. It’s incredibly rewarding to introduce new minds to the wonders of the theatre!

Production photos by The Other Richard