Hamlet – The Young Vic, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Greg Hersov

Delayed a year by the pandemic, Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet is one of the most anticipated productions of the season. Director Greg Hersov has consulted all the versions of the text in preparation for this three-hour interpretation, unpicking the differences between them and selecting the specific structure for what is a very cerebral approach, investigating the play and its characters. Sadly, this Young Vic production has forgotten to feel it.

When his mother Gertrude marries Hamlet’s uncle Claudius less than two months after his father’s death, the young man is bereft. When the ghost of old Hamlet returns to claims he was murdered, the hero must avenge his father but is soon distracted by the people of the court and starts to contemplate the value of his own life.

As Hamlet finds his purpose blunted so too seems Hersov’s production which has no particular take or comment on the play that shapes or directs the action. Dispensing with the ‘antic disposition’ line means Hamlet’s madness is not depicted as craft – regardless of what he tells his mother later – implying only that he is truly mad. It is a valid approach but, in relieving the play of this ambiguity, the character too is divested of some depth, replacing it with an anger and sullenness that makes the hero almost unsympathetic.

There are some good ideas in here, the connection between Claudius and Gertrude feels genuine, bolstered by unscripted looks between the actors that offers a romantic confederacy if not a more murderous one. Likewise, the depiction of The Mousetrap is a vision of light, colour and imagination, gloriously lit by Aideen Malone, that even suggests a swimming pool in the glamorous garden. However, these moments of liveliness incorporating modern music only serve to expose the tonal flatness elsewhere, although, following a brief interval, the final hour develops more drive as it takes in the play’s many fatalities.

Jumbo is far better at the off-hand comedy and fury in Hamlet than in finding the gravity of soul. Playing the role as a man, she adopts an androgynous wardrobe and transforms her physicality to capture the youth of her character. Yet, these meaty speeches, while spoken with clarity, are too rapid, fired off without the emotional underpinning of a devastated, lost boy contemplating the purpose of life. In losing them, the play seems to miss its very essence, not quite achieving that deep communion with soul and spirit that the very greatest Hamlets can be.

Some of the best work in the production comes from Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude, a firm maternal approach, delivering the verse so beautifully you wish she had more stage time. And from Norah Lopez Holden’s ill-served Ophelia who takes on the hardest roles in Shakespeare’s canon and fills it with pain, her madness the most affecting moment of the night.

Hersov’s production is alas not a memorable one. It is fine and often funny in performance but other than its famous female lead, its choices about the play and the interpretation of this multi-layered character are, like Hamlet himself, fatally indecisive

Runs until 13 November 2021

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