Cush Jumbo in Hamlet
The Young Vic’s audience has waited almost a year and a half to see Cush Jumbo perform the title role, and Jumbo herself lives up to expectations, even if the production she is in does not. She excels in comic moments and brings a freshness to Hamlet’s madness, through a bravura mixture of wry wit and ebullient clowning. Hamlet here is most compelling when interacting with the younger characters, who teem with vivacity. There is such warmth between Hamlet and Horatio especially, and Jonathan Livingstone makes Horatio a memorable presence from the play’s opening scene to its final soliloquy.
One reading of the play could suggest that Hamlet, and his fellow younger characters, are trapped in the world of the play, repressed by courtly strictures and Claudius’ kingly ambitions. Yet here, the younger actors almost seem trapped themselves, their lively energy blending oddly with the other very different acting styles on display. Hersov’s sprawling production has great moments, from the characters’ terror at the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the opening scene to the dumbshow, but there is an utter lack of cohesion. This manifests in the costuming – a modern dress melee of outfits which vary from practical, to chic, to formal, and somewhat inexplicably to spy-like dark suits and sunglasses – as well as the music choices. The singing of Norah Lopez Holden’s Ophelia is moving, yet it feels like it belongs to a very different production.
Yet most of all, what jars is the clash in style between the traditional Shakespearean delivery of Claudius, Polonius and Gertrude’s roles and the looser naturalism of the younger characters. Perhaps this was intentional, but the effect ends up grating. Adrian Dunbar’s approach to Claudius is initially promising, projecting a kingly authority with overtures of friendship and just a hint of menace. Yet as the play goes on, he lacks interiority, behaving in private almost identically to his public performances. Everything is pronounced rather than spoken, his words those of a patrician and patriarch. Such a choice makes sense when he addresses Hamlet, yet it makes his marriage to Gertrude seem entirely functional – perhaps a consolidation of power.
Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude is even more thinly sketched. It makes sense that Claudius would marry the previous queen to maintain a grip on the throne, but Hersov, Dunbar and Fitzgerald’s cold approach makes the text feels flattened – with no sense of (even private) passion between the pair. This seems especially strange given the tenor of Hamlet’s disgust at his mother; he is horrified not so much by the usurpation and abuse of power than the ‘incest’ the remarriage constitutes. Yet Claudius and Gertrude barely touch, sharing one kiss in the play which feels motivated only by a regard for their public perception. In this version, they are not that into each other. It is a valid interpretation, but you cannot help but feel this production often chooses the duller option at each of these narrative crossroads. In this version of the script, the decision does bump up against textual problems too, such as Hamlet’s insistence that his mother begin practising abstinence, and that with time it will grow easier. Here, there does not seem to be the need.
In many ways, the narrative of Claudius and Gertrude plays as an anti-tragedy, particularly a rejoinder to Macbeth (though Shakespeare wrote that later). The pursuit of monarchical supremacy through murder is pure tedium, according to Hamlet, especially Hersov’s version. The murder is an offstage event before the play begins and there is no passion or power-lust. Claudius simply seems to have thought that killing his brother would be a good career move. Again, this seems representative of the production’s frequent decision to leave psychological richness un-mined. Sometimes it feels like the play is only ‘doing Hamlet’, rather than examining the emotional realities of the play’s world.
Anna Fleischle’s set design is strangely monolithic – containing giant rectangular blocks which fill up the back half of the stage. The grimy gold colour scheme conveys the gilded cage Hamlet finds himself in. As he remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ‘Denmark’s a prison’ – though he fails to notice how he himself imprisons Ophelia. Yet the design limits the stage space and hampers the action. Polonius standing behind a curtain is replaced by him standing behind a block, the effect of Jumbo stabbing behind it cumbersome and bathetic, making the scene dramatically inert. At other times, the production cannot decide how it wants to represent action in the design. The ghost of King Hamlet is initially an offstage presence, machine guns trained on the audience with palpable fear. Yet the effect is diluted by having the ghost later appear in strange (often indecipherable) projections behind the characters, as well as given physical form in one scene by Adrian Dunbar. The production tries a bit of everything, but the result seems unfocused and indecisive – less than the sum of its parts.
There is one textual idea here which borders on brilliant though. The existence of Hamlet in three versions – the much shorter First Quarto, thought by some to be a pirated copy or poor imitation, the Second Quarto and the Folio – forces directors to select the text they want to perform in far more detail than simply where to make cuts. Hersov, like many other directors before him, has found the ‘To be or not to be’ speech to be particularly pliant, and he moves the iconic lines (Act 3 Scene 1 in the Cambridge edition) to the middle of Act 2 Scene 2, after Hamlet has played the fool in conversation with Polonius.
Hamlet implicitly mocks Polonius for being old as he paraphrases the ‘Words, words, words’ he has just been reading. He describes how ‘old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plumtree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams.’ These sentences could be dismissed as incoherent rambles in service of Hamlet’s pretended madness, yet in their juxtaposition with Hamlet’s renowned words, they seem much more important.
Hamlet’s ironic mockery of ageing forces him to acknowledge his own mortality – but even worse, the cruelty of a life which keeps going on. Hersov and Jumbo thus deliver the well-worn soliloquy with a resonance that feels genuinely unusual. Instead of contemplating mortality and suicide, the speech is recast as a meditation on ageing. ‘These tedious old fools!’ Hamlet proclaims, in Act 2 Scene 2, immediately before ‘To be or no to be’. He is a young man tyrannised by the ambitions of the old, yet, when left alone, he reconsiders. Is this a fate that awaits him one day too – the ‘calamity of so long life’?
If Hersov’s tonally inconsistent production has a unifying gesture it is a trend for sudden reversal, specifically from Jumbo’s hilariously energetic physical comedy to haunting, horrified introspection. Another such contrast comes in Act 5’s grave scenes. Though the production’s music choices are generally odd and eclectic, ‘Three Little Birds’ is an inspired choice for the gravedigger’s entry. He is a ‘fellow [with] no feeling of his business’, who ‘sings in grave-making’, and his cheer perfectly contrasts his solemn task. The scene continues as riotous comic routine, shot through with sickening dramatic irony: we know Ophelia is dead, while Hamlet does not. Jumbo reads ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ with impish sarcasm and bubbles with chaotic mirth as she shares the gravedigger’s detachment – a detachment Hamlet will soon struggle to maintain. In isolation, the scene is a triumph of acting and, unlike in most of the play, the tone is perfectly judged.
It makes for a strong contrast with the solemn funeral that follows. Jonathan Ajayi is particularly impressive as Laertes – his resolve after his father’s death (in his attempts to comfort Ophelia) now shattered by the devastating further loss of Ophelia. Yet the restrictiveness of the set – and the resultingly poor blocking – pushes Hamlet off the main stage, crouched in the shadows. Why has this moment, which should be a whiplash realisation for Hamlet, been hidden? Hamlet’s anagnorisis should surely not be invisible.
This moment is emblematic of the problems of the production as a whole – particularly as Hersov and Jumbo interpret Hamlet as fundamentally bored by life, rather than exercised by injustice or plagued by suicidal ideation. Death registers as a shrug for him, but though seeing a man so worn down by life’s ‘slings and arrows’ that he will go quietly to his death can be deeply moving, in this version Hamlet has already been in this state for most of the play. The final deaths play out as a formality – though the swordfight (here using knives) is deftly choreographed by Kev McCurdy in the limited stage space. As a result, I felt little of the tragic weight that should accompany the ending. The play only stops, rather than ends.
HamletWritten by William Shakespeare, Directed by Greg Hersov, Design by Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design by Aideen Malone, Sound Design by Emma Laxton, Video Design by Nina Dunn, Movement Direction by Lucy Hind, Starring Cush Jumbo, Jonathan Ajayi, Joana Borja, Adrian Dunbar, Tara Fitzgerald, Norah Lopez Holden, Jonathan Livingstone, Joseph Marcell, Adesuwa Oni, Taz Skylar, and Leo Wringer
Reviewed 12th November 2021