The long-awaited Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov, is finally on stage at the Young Vic and as the young prince Cush Jumbo gives a commanding performance that keeps the whole production together.

Cush Jumbo gives a commanding performance that keeps the whole production together.

It is no mean task, for while she shines through and holds the stage, much of what surrounds her and should support her falls short of the mark. The set, designed by Anna Fleischle, does no one any favours. It leaves a barren forestage in which actors become isolated and the three towering abstract blocks behind it with matching sides fail to give a sense of either time or place. Nina Dunn’s projections in the hazy mirrors are presumably intentionally unclear, or it might just depend on where one is seated, but they give only the vagauest impression that something mysterious is going on. It comes particularly unstuck in detracting from the intimate encounter between Hamlet and his mother in her chamber and makes for clumsiness in trying to hide Polonius behind what should be an arras, leaving his death as a distant event. Costumes are well-suited to the actors and their roles but there is no sense of unity about them other than being relatively modern. Combined with the set, all seems to be floating around in an unfocussed world.

The pervading sense in this production is of an actor’s free-for-all in which some have latched-on to the pervading mood while others are less sure and occupy their own worlds. Jumbo is energetic, direct and clear. She has the bearing of the hip student not long out of university and in her first encounter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Taz Skylar and Joana Borja), who have clearly not moved on, it’s obvious that they enjoyed some crazy times together in Wittenberg, though that mood soon changes.

There is perhaps more humour and laughter in this Hamlet than is the norm. Leo Ringer’s Gravedigger brings out all the levity he can in talking about his work and those who have passed on in some amusingly light banter with Hamlet. Joseph Marcel is particularly entertaining as Polonius, making him a man of home-spun philosophy who could easily have replaced poor old Yorick as the court jester if he were not so pompous. His timing and voice, along with the decision to deliver many lines as direct asides to the audience make him particularly witty and provide a cover for his conniving. His relaxed demeanor is in sharp contrast to the stiffer performances of Adrian Dunbar (Claudius) and Tara Fitzgerald (Gertrude). Dunbar, in particular, often gives the impression of having walked in from another production in a bygone age. Looking uncomfortable in a mid-blue business suit he is given to old-style declamatory speeches that seem out of keeping with this production that strives to open up understanding of the text.

Doing precisely that is Norah Lopez Holden as Ophelia. Her measured decline from the sanity of listening to her brother's words, through the domination of her father and the mockery of Hamlet becomes complete as she sets out flowers and herbs and laments in wispy songs the death of her father. While Hamlet’s mental state remains a matter of debate, Holden leaves no doubt about Ophelia’s condition in a subtle yet distressing way.

In contrast to her success, attempts at innovation rarely succeed. Various musical snippets and raps feel out of place. The dance and movement sequence that pervades The Mousetrap obfuscates a turning point in the play. The decision to use daggers in the challenge between Hamlet and Laertes makes it seem clumsy and far less impressively dramatic than a spectacular duel with swords.

These things conspire to create a production that seems to lack clear vision and highlight just how much it depends on Jumbo for any success. The strength of her performance and the centrality of her being on stage is nowhere more noticeable than immediately after the interval when she is off-stage for some time. Here the weaknesses are laid bare. It is production about her, and without her it would probably soon be forgotten.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

The highly-anticipated production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife, The Good Fight) making her YV debut as a new kind of Hamlet. Jumbo reunites with her long-time collaborator, director  Greg Hersov, to bring us this tale of power, politics and desire.  

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