Review: Hamlet, Young Vic ★★★☆☆

The phrase ‘Hamlet at the Young Vic’ has a special place in my heart – it was Michael Sheen’s performance in ‘Hamlet at the Young Vic’ that kick-started my love of theatre a decade ago. And Michael Sheen as Hamlet is a lot for Cush Jumbo to follow.

The production comes shortly after Ian McKellen’s age-defying turn as the Danish Prince received its final performance at the Theatre Royal Windsor. Again, a lot to follow. It’s also the first production of Hamlet with a woman of colour in the lead role. Here, Jumbo is leading not, following. My neighbour in the stalls notes during the interval how no one has blinked an eyelid at this. Progress.
And what of her interpretation? This is an androgynous Hamlet, with a close buzz cut and baggy clothing hiding any indication of gender. And yet, the references and allusions to masculinity come to the fore and feel all the more prescient. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ seems to hang in the air, as womanhood is used as the negative foil to positive masculinity.
Cush Jumbo as Hamlet. Photo: Helen Murray
It is a confident, well-rounded performance from Jumbo that sometimes hints at greatness, even if it doesn’t quite reach the regal heights it aspires to. She is fluid and expressive, sometimes overly so, and the big soliloquies tick all the boxes, despite lacking the revelatory quality of a ‘great’ Hamlet.
But it is the quieter moments in which Jumbo shines. In the lines and speeches that garner less attention, she shows a sensitive and contemplative Hamlet who has been hurt and is in mourning. These ‘unmanly’ moments are what make her Hamlet worth seeing.
The rest of the cast provide hits and a few misses. Joseph Marcell’s turn as Polonius can only be described as perfect – he is a joy to watch. Marcell perfectly balances the comic seriousness and heightened theatricality of the role. He is the interfering father with advice that comes with an Amex and a Dad joke, and an overly-loyal servant to the Crown. It is not a stretch to say he is the best Polonius I have seen on stage.
Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes and Joseph Marcell as Polonius. Photo: Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald and Norah Lopez Holden deliver fine performances as Gertrude and Ophelia respectively. Holden is particularly good as Ophelia – her sensual fantasy dance with Hamlet providing an insight into her desire, whilst her descent into madness is truly heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Leo Wringer is tremendous as both the Player King and the Bob Marley singing, Wray and Nephew swigging, gravedigger.
Adrian Dunbar as Claudius speaks the verse expertly, though his voice sometimes lacks the weight he intends for it, whilst other members of the cast, including Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes, Joana Borja as Guildenstern/Osric and Tax Skylar as Rosencrantz struggle with the language and seem to swallow their lines at times.
Greg Hersov’s direction of the Players’ performance for the King and Queen also provides an incredibly ‘real’ reaction to Claudius’ response to the play-within-a-play. The Players appears upset, concerned and panicked by the King storming out – as you would be if you had just upset the most important man in the country – and they very hastily ‘exeunt’. It is a small detail but one that heightens the drama.
Adrian Dunbar as Claudius. Photo: Helen Murray
However, there are some directorial issues, including the manner in which the King is poisoned. This happens to the rear of stage left and is partially blocked by the positioning of Horatio, which means a key scene is unseen by around half the audience. The other is the pacing; a first ‘half’ of two hours and a second ‘half’ of one hour provides an obvious imbalance in the production.
What the production lacks too is a coherent vision. Ideas are floated; an instagramming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a BoHo Ophelia, a non-binary Hamlet; but these disappear without too much investigation.
Despite these issues, what was brilliant about this Hamlet was overhearing the audience discussions in the interval and at the end of the show, as well as some of the reactions during the show. It is easy to assume that everyone who goes to see Hamlet, or any Shakespeare production, already knows what happens. But tonight there are gasps when characters die, or when someone is betrayed, and, as I left the theatre, audience members are heard to say ‘I haven’t seen Hamlet before but she’s excellent’ or ‘I didn’t think that would happen, did you?’.
Over the next six weeks Cush Jumbo’s ‘Hamlet at the Young Vic’ will turn more people onto theatre, just the way Michael Sheen did a decade ago, and that is something to celebrate.
Hamlet is at the Young Vic until 13 November