“Jumbo proves that any great actor can be Hamlet. She is not a woman mimicking male bluster, nor is she someone being vigorously androgynous.”
Although theatres across the UK still face an increasingly uneven recovery despite an end to Covid-19 restrictions, there is a ray of hope, as Cush Jumbo’s long anticipated gender-blind Hamlet opens at The Young Vic. Originally planned for last year, the pandemic and lockdown ensured that we had to wait. But was the wait worth it? Does Jumbo bring something different to the Danish Prince?
Jumbo has played many Shakespearean women’s parts, including the feisty Kate in Taming of the Shrew and Rosalind, very much the tomboy in As You Like It. She has also played Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, so why not Hamlet. Jumbo’s Hamlet is not the first gender-swapping adaptation of the Danish prince, one of the first was Sarah Bernhard in 1899 but Jumbo is the first woman of colour to play him in a major English theatre and it is sad that we still have to see this as a ground-breaking Production.
Many of our most esteemed actors, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan (twice, fifty years apart) have played Hamlet at the peak of their careers. This new production at the Young Vic introduces us to another actor at the top of their career. Cush Jumbo occupies the part superbly and shows that in this summer when an 80-year-old man can play the part, a woman too can tackle Hamlet, and brilliantly.
Jumbo proves that any great actor can be Hamlet. She is not a woman mimicking male bluster, nor is she someone being vigorously androgynous. This is a new and different Hamlet, a disaffected teenage boy, in mourning blacks. This Hamlet is shaven headed, shoulders hunched, heavy with suppressed anger, twitching hands and a face that moves from frown to a stillness hiding dark thoughts. This Hamlet is a youth who shows his emotions, who cries when speaking of his dead father and who runs to his mother for a comfort she cannot give him.
There is the other Hamlet too, the one of before-times, when he dances a joyful salsa with the impish Ophelia, beautifully portrayed by Norah Lopez Holden. There is a strong chemistry between them, and we get a glimpse of what their relationship could have been if only things had been different. Later however, instead of the previous tenderness, Hamlet is cruel and dismissive. Occupied with revenge on his wicked uncle Hamlet’s mental torture descends into assumed madness, fuelled by his rage at the murder of his father. Holden has emotional depth, beautifully portraying Ophelia’s confusion at Hamlet’s treatment, her love changing into anger and finally to despair.
Jonathan Ajayi too gives a great performance as Laertes, the rapport between him and Ophelia has great rhythm and energy that brings a freshness to the lines. They are youths of today, Laertes in track suit and Ophelia in shorts, their delivery carrying the tones of modern-day street talk. There is a strong family bond between Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes; the sudden loss of both his sister and his father is hard for Laertes to bear and he wants revenge.
Anna Fleischle’s design is a single set of three massive, discoloured towers, that rotate to hide or reveal, the surfaces changing sometimes seeming to be stone, sometimes marble. It dominates the stage but does not give much sense of the place. It is a set that confines and makes it difficult to manoeuvre around. Most of the scenes are static and somehow confined, separate from the last, taking away the feeling of dynasty, making the whole play more domestic. Still there are some dramatic moments which are enhanced by Aideen Malone’s lighting, such as when the silhouetted Hamlet, knife in hand, is framed by the corner of the stage.
Greg Hershov’s colour and gender-blind production of Shakespeare’s unrelenting tale of madness, revenge and death however lacks some consistency. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is stiff and slow, a morose killer King, while Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude is remote, although Hamlet eventually manages with guarded intimacy to get her attention in her bedchamber. There are some spirited moments. Hamlet’s fickle friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Taz Skylar and Joana Borja, are less brainless lackeys and more like crazy modern party animals who are into reggae and rap. Joe Marcell is splendid as a Polonius with a great sense of comedy, transformed from a bumbling irritating man, into a loving father. Marcell’s energy and comic timing are missed after his killing. This lacked drama as Hamlet chases around the towering pillars to find him, thus taking away the unconsciousness of the stabbing.
For all its weaknesses, this is still a fresh and worthwhile production and worth the wait. Jumbo is magnificent as Hamlet, giving an emotional performance that will be long remembered.
Runs until 13 Nov
Anni Domingo is a writer, actress, lecturer, director, and MA graduate of Anglia Ruskin Creative Writing. Her poems and short stories have been published in various anthologies.
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