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‘Hamlet’ review

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Hamlet, Cush Jumbo, Young Vic, 2021
Photo by Helen MurrayCush Jumbo (Hamlet)

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Cush Jumbo sulks her way charismatically through this pacy take on Shakespeare’s greatest play

Say what you like about twenty-first century Britain, but it’s definitely a positive when a Black woman can play the lead in ‘Hamlet’ and it barely elicits a shrug. Maybe it’s a bit crass to even mention it here. But I think it’s worth acknowledging as a milestone: as far as I’m aware, Cush Jumbo is the first Black female Hamlet in a major London production, and the fact that it almost seems vulgar pointing it out reflects a world changed for the better from probably even ten years ago.

So! Now that’s out of the way with, the play’s the thing. 

It took me a while to attune to Greg Hersov’s modern-dress production, and I’m not 100 percent sure I quite got what he was aiming for. But to me its central tenet seemed to be the idea that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a massive douchebag.

From the very off, Jumbo’s slouching, black-clad Dane is haughty and embittered. Admittedly he’s got reason to be: following the death of his father, the king, his mum Gertrude (Tara Fitzgerald) has only gone and quickly remarried, to his uncle Claudius (Adrian Dunbar). The young man’s dark thoughts are turbocharged by his encounter with a spirit purporting to be the ghost of his father, which tells Hamlet that Claudius was his killer. This information effectively radicalises Hamlet, who abandons what limited jollity he may have had as he wholeheartedly resolves to destroy Claudius. It’s an ugly, vicious kind of behaviour, fanatical and cruel, with the most obvious collateral being his girlfriend, Norah Lopez Holden’s initially delightfully carefree Ophelia, who he gaslights relentlessly and nastily (before, uh, killing her dad).

Sure, there’s no reason to doubt Dunbar’s charismatic, diplomatic Claudius did in fact bump off his own brother. That one small point aside, however, and he genuinely seems like a decent guy: a slick politician, yes (a far cry from Dunbar’s most famous character, brash DCI Hastings from ‘Line of Duty’). But he’s infinitely more pleasant than the mean, sulky Hamlet, and shows a real human concern for Ophelia that his stepson absolutely lacks – quite the opposite, in fact.

This probably all sounds unspeakably grim, but it’s actually a pretty funny ‘Hamlet’, frequently milked for levity, perhaps somewhat unshackled by its conviction that its hero is a douche. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius still rambles on, but he has a puppyish enthusiasm for his old stories that’s rather endearing. You can see the love the other characters hold for him. And Taz Skylar and Joana Borja make a memorable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a pair of vacuous, Insta-happy wreckheads who are mountingly alarmed by their old university pal’s increasingly erratic behaviour.

There’s little doubt that it’s a proper psycho move of Jumbo’s Hamlet to have them offed. He is not wholly unpleasant, but he seems locked on his murderous path from the beginning: this Hamlet seems less actively hesitant than other interpretations; it’s more a case of working up the courage to become a killer than having any real doubt he needs to kill.

The shaven-headed Jumbo speaks the verse beautifully, chomping down on the elemental wildness of Shakespeare’s language. There is even something a little old-fashioned about her booming performance, which feels like it centres the words over the sort of delicately worked psychological acuity we’ve come to expect from recent London Danes, more in the lineage of Olivier or Gielgud than Rory Kinnear or Andrew Scott. But she combines it with a modern sense of livewire menace: I don’t think Hersov’s production really comes with ‘a concept’, but it certainly explores the idea that Hamlet is not a nice guy: something, it has to be said, that is extremely borne out by the text. And for what it’s worth, I very much read the character as male. Inevitably there is a sense of androgyny at play. But Hamlet’s pronouns remain he/him, and Jumbo’s loud, performatively brooding anger is in a tradition of tortured, Byronic masculinity. 

The huge downside of this is that having Hamlet as a dick all the way through doesn’t make for an especially moving end. In fact it’s something of a relief when it’s all over. His poetic meditations on death feel legitimate still, an unhappy man rationalising his decision to commit to a path of no going back. But although his old friends seem shocked by the change in him, there is little sense of what he was like before.

Hersov’s production is slick, watchable and amusing, with big, charismatic turns from Jumbo, Dunbar, Lopez Holden, Marcell and Fitzgerald. Anna Fleischle’s set of three tarnished glass monoliths is very cool. It’s a fine production in many, many ways, and certainly unusually zippy and accessible. But ultimately it’s not very tragic and that’s a problem with a tragedy: this is a thrilling three-hour ride, but ultimately a shallow one. At the very end, Hamlet’s improbably loyal BFF Horatio is in bits. But we’re not. And that’s selling ‘Hamlet’ very short.

Read our interview with Jumbo from June 2019 (!) about ‘Hamlet’

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£10-£42. Runs 3hr 15min
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