New production of Hamlet now playing at the Young Vic

Thanks to the pandemic we’ve had to wait the best part of two years to finally see a black, female Hamlet, but I can report it was well worth the wait.

Cush Jumbo is simply outstanding. Greg Hersov’s new production of Hamlet at the Young Vic is a “palpable hit”. You must go, writes Christopher Walker.

The play Hamlet has obscure origins. A chronicle called ‘Amleth’ existed three hundred years before Shakespeare, and contains all the essential plot elements of the later play. It in turn probably was rehashing a Viking chronicle far older.

For Shakespeare, writing this piece may have had a deeply personal meaning. He had recently lost his only son, Hamnet, and may have been seduced by the idea of exploring the teenage adolescent crises denied the 11-year-old boy.

The plot concerns the Prince of Denmark Hamlet’s realisation that his recently deceased father was in fact murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who has, all too quickly, married Hamlet’s own mother Gertrude.

The teenager finds himself surrounded by conspiring courtiers who manipulate his fragile mental state.

His girlfriend Ophelia is turned against him, and his oldest friends drawn into the conspiracy.

Hamlet feigns madness, but we soon discover he is in reality suffering a real mental collapse. Or is he?

There are obviously  a lot of psychological undertones in all this, and Freud wrote extensively on Hamlet.

It is Shakespeare’s longest play (Kenneth Branagh’s version was four hours – mercifully, Greg Hersov’s is only three), which gives the author plenty of scope to explore major themes in the human condition.

“To be or not to be” ushered in existentialist philosophy and individualism.

HAMLET by William Shakespeare . Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Cush Jumbo triumphs as Hamlet. Even boisterous school parties are held spellbound by her tour de force performance, and you can hear a pin drop. Race and gender become unimportant.

Cush is in firm command of the lyrical language Shakespeare wrote to convey the courtly setting, and the complex nuances required to document Hamlet’s mental stress.

It is highly intelligent acting. She spits out the line “get thee to a nunnery” in a leering way that conveys its double meaning (nunnery was Elizabethan slang for a brothel).

The Court intrigues are central to the plot, so having a strong actor playing Claudius’s chief counsellor, Polonius is vital. Thank God for Joseph Marcell. Plausibly his character is based on Elizabeth I’s ‘prime minister’ Lord Burghley, an argument that is totally believable in Marcell’s capable hands.

Polonius’s famous speech advising his son Laertes (a wonderfully thrusting Jonathan Ajayi), mimics Burghley’s Ten Precepts addressed to his own son. The father son dynamic is important in this play.

Greg Hersov’s forceful direction adds a lot of interesting new interpretations. Hamlet’s corrupted friends, Rosencratz and Gildenstern are wonderfully re-invented by Taz Skylar and Joana Borja as rapping youths full of street cred (a nod to Anna Fleischle’s cool designs here).

They are miles away from Shakespeare’s original scholarly characters who had attended Martin Luther’s university and represented the religious tensions current at the time. Frankly to a contemporary audience they are all the more relevant for being so.

Also refreshingly new is Hersov’s Ophelia. Feminists need something to hang on to in this boy-centric play. There’s precious little strength in Hamlet’s vacuous mother Gertrude, captured perfectly by Tara Fitzgerald in silk harem pants and a turban.

At least, Norah Lopez Holden’s nerdy Ophelia comes across as the other teenager in this play being manipulated by conniving men – her father Polonius and the unscrupulous King Claudius (Adrian Dunbar).

Only Horatio (Jonathan Livingstone) comes out well amongst the men.

“Get thee to Hamlet.” It’s intelligent, spellbinding entertainment.

https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/

Pictured: Cush Jumbo in Hamlet (Credit and copyright: Helen Murray)

 


 

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