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William Shakespeare

Young Vic Theatre, London, November 2021

Review by Oladipo Agboluaje


Shakespeare fans may have seen various versions of Hamlet played by a roll call of British acting talent from Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton to David Tennant, Maxine Peake and Ian McKellen to mention a few. And now we have Cush Jumbo playing the prince of Denmark on the stage of the Young Vic in a modern dress version directed by Greg Hersov on a set designed by Anna Fleischle and lit by Aideen Malone. 

In the programme notes, Hersov states that he edited Shakespeare’s longest play for clarity and for a contemporary audience. This version still clocks in at a toilet-break busting three-plus hours but it is light on its feet and is indeed a ‘Hamlet for the Young Vic Theatre, London, 2021’. The amount of young people in the audience the night I saw it is proof of the production’s intentions, as was their positive reception when the actors took their bow.

The fifteen-strong multiracial cast navigates around a stage that is decorated by three large cubic pillars that suggest the brutalist formality of a corridor of power, and onto which the ghost of Hamlet’s father is wispily projected before materialising in the corporeal form of Adrian Dunbar who also plays Claudius. Indeed, Dunbar’s Claudius and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude are played more like a political power couple in the manner of the Blairs rather than a king and queen, but a few levels down the charisma scale. This might be the reason I found Dunbar’s performance underpowered, his scheming more matter-of-factly than malevolent, as if there were more important things on his mind. 

The focus of this production is on family. Politics takes such a back seat that the Fortinbras episode, among other scenes that highlight the power play of Hamlet’s original era, is left out. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius remains a pompous windbag but his affection for his children, Ophelia (a superb Norah Lopez Holden) and Laertes (a bullish Jonathan Ajayi) is undeniable. What this does is amp up even more the emotional aspects of familial loss and revenge in the play. Although there is a curious choice made to keep Polonius’s body hidden when Hamlet stabs him to death, which reduces the impact of the act, even more so when Hamlet and Gertrude continue the scene as if the murder was an afterthought. 

But the show truly belongs to Jumbo. She plays Hamlet as a surly male teenager, lending her performance an androgynous quality. She lives and breathes every line, imbuing each syllable with meaning. Procrastination never looked so certain, yet clear and ever present is her rage and feeling of loss for her father. Jumbo wears her disgust at Gertrude’s betrayal on her sleeve to the point that we understand Gertrude’s exasperation with her. She rejects Ophelia with an equal measure of spite and enmity reminiscent of an adolescent break-up: their relationship for me was the core of the show, given the strength of both performers. When a raging vengeful Laertes lays hands on her, it has the air of a schoolyard scrap. So inside herself is Jumbo, that she accepts Laertes’ challenge to a duel, done with knives rather than rapiers, in an almost offhand manner. Of course, she is unaware of the treachery that awaits her. If only she stopped to think about it. 

Hamlet is well worth seeing.  


              photo by Helen Murray