Jumbo soars in uneven Hamlet

Anne McElvoy gives kudos to Cush Jumbo, who has a star’s ability to rise above the inadequacies and shine bright

On Theatre

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The return of theatre has been a choppy business — venues are still chary of committing to large-scale productions with large casts outside the doughty return of till-rattlers such as Anything Goes at the Barbican.

It was once joked about the masterful TV comedy Seinfeld that it was “a story about nothing”. Hamlet is the opposite case — a play about everything in the playwright’s teeming mid-life brain from trauma, depression and madness to disabling mother and father complexes, conflicts of loyalty and existentialist ennui, all set in the regicidal hellhole of Elsinore. While we look into the play’s heart of darkness, it is also a work ripe in absurd comedy.

I am at peace about changes to trad casting as long as the result coheres

It also exists, as the director, Greg Hersov, points out, in the programme notes, in three separate folio versions, allowing for laxity in the director’s cut. His take at London’s Young Vic is squarely targeted on young audiences, with many of the more baffling longer passages winnowed down.

Hamlet is played by Cush Jumbo, an androgynous, London-reared actress who has carved her niche in the “edgy, cool” bracket, with roles in the juggernaut US television legal series The Good Wife and its spin-off, The Good Fight, and some form at cross-dressing Shakespeare as Mark Antony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar ten years ago at the Donmar.

Jumbo is blessed with a rangy physique and an extraordinarily expressive face framed by cropped hair and an easy physicality which makes the transition less jarring than it might have been. We first meet her character exchanging barbed sarky repartee with Claudius (Adrian Dunbar) and issuing a single desultory handclap when his mother Gertrude (a slinky Tara Fitzgerald) and her new husband court acceptance and get a stroppy teenage dismissal in return.

Could Dunbar, Line of Duty’s fatherly boss-cop, Ted Hastings, deliver as the fratricidal king of Denmark? Most of the reviews reckoned that he provided an underweight rendition of the homicidal arrivist. But for me, there was something compelling in the tall, flat-bodied figure in his bright blue suits — of the kind of CEO who buys a farm in Gloucestershire — bluff, bossy but insecure in his new fief.

Our tormented prince is clad for the most part in posh streetwear. His two old university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are here a frantically partying duo who arrive at the castle taking selfies in a cloud of vape.

The court is heavily (wo)manned by black actors. Overall, I am at peace about changes to trad casting as long as the result coheres. Women have, after all, been cast as Hamlet since the eighteenth century when Sarah Siddons played the part nine times. Neither would we insist on the world’s most famous fictional Dane being played by Mads Mikkelsen or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for verisimilitude.

Norah Lopez Holden is captivating as a tiny waif of an Ophelia, dreamily listening to salsa and smooching sensually in her headphones. Rightly for the youth-focused Young Vic, there is a concatenation of older actors mixing with newcomers to major theatres.

Alas Hersov’s erratic sense of concept verges on the giddy and becomes an insistent flaw. Big moments fall alarmingly flat – the murder of Polonius and Hamlet’s descent into callousness were so “meh” as to seem like a minor hiccup rather than a chilling foreshadowing of the torrent of suicides and murders ahead.

The play within a play, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, starts promisingly as the travelling players set up their DJ mixing decks. Yet we don’t feel the moment of horror and recognition that prompts Claudius to interrupt the action in panic and turn his relationship with his step-son from suspicion to outright enmity.

I hate to say a bad word about Anna Fleischle who provided us some stunning set designs but an odd gilt-mirrored abstract contraption standing in for the palace interiors cramps the stage. Gertrude and Claudius sit uneasily on chairs that look like the sale section of made.com.

Big moments fall alarmingly flat – the murder of Polonius and Hamlet’s descent into callousness were “meh”

It all goes a bit Abigail’s Party, which echoes a broader insecurity and the tempo and energy lag, even in a hard-cut second half. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ill-fated journey to Britain (“He shall recover his wits there or if he does not, it’s no great matter. There the men are as mad as he”) is already compacted in the play and even more rushed here.

Leo Wringer’s pithy gravedigger hums Bob Marley as he exhumes bones and shows off Yorick’s skull. It is held up by Jumbo, mirroring the shape of her statuesque shorn head in the meditation on mortality, a moment of spine-chilling momento mori as the reckoning of the final joust with Oprphelia’s vengeful brother Laertes beckons.

Oh woe: the final scene takes such a brutal cut that it ends in a sprawl of bodies (after a swift choreographed MMA-style knife fight in Lonsdale gloves). The poisonings, which come so thick and fast that they demand nimble direction to skirt bathos, simply feel like one damn intoxication after another. Gertrude even manages to die of poison while sitting bolt upright. It feels rushed in a “Play that Goes Wrong” way.

Kudos however to Jumbo who has a star’s ability to rise above the inadequacies and shine bright in her youthful desperation and moral recklessness in an amoral world. For her, at least, this patchwork Hamlet is a very palpable hit.

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