- Young Vic
- Until 13th November 2021
- From £10
In an ideal world actors would be — well just actors. Shape shifters and illusionists that embody a character, and not entities to be divvied up into any arbitrary category and classified. And plays would be — well just plays. A vehicle to provide for an audience an abundance of drama and/or catharsis. And so, in such an ideal world, no character is out of reach for a versatile actor, and no play too rigid and uninviting to re-interpretation. But, alas, we do not live in such a world, we live in an imperfect world where a female Bond is still a matter of question, and ill-conceived notions of tradition dictate how certain works must be interpreted and treated.
In such a climate, it is highly refreshing to see the Young Vic’s Hamlet (directed by Greg Hersov) where each of these pre-conceived notions is not just ignored, but summarily cast aside. With a brilliant gender-blind casting (Cush Jumbo playing Hamlet), a non-elaborate but powerful set design, and through the unashamed incorporation of modern apparatus into the play — Hersov has brought Hamlet into the 21st century, with grace!
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s tragic telling of the eponymous Prince of Denmark, a corner stone in playwriting it is a work oft treated with (well-deserved) reverence. As such, the story needs no elaborate retelling here; after all no one watches Hamlet for the suspense.
There are several elements that this production gets right: chief among them is the acting. The star-studded cast deliver a stellar performance, and none shine brighter than Jumbo as Hamlet and Polonius (played by Joseph Marcel). Marcel is able to induce equal amounts of slyness and comic intervention into his portrayal and remains the life and soul of the first Act. Jumbo, a close contender who really takes over in Act 2, is equally magnificent and presents a uniquely tempered Hamlet. She shows great dexterity rendering the convoluted verbiage of Shakespeare while remaining both accessible and relatable. Norah Lopez Holden (playing Ophelia) enchants in her few scenes with a truly youthful exuberance. Her dreamy dance with Hamlet in Act 1, swaying along to a peppy salsa beat, really sets the stage for the remainder of the play.
Equal credit is to be accorded to the set design and lighting, which is arguably the backbone of the play. Minimalist, sublime and translucent, it offers neither a convoluted royal courtroom setting, nor graveyards punctuated with sombre statuettes (as is commonplace in Hamlet). Instead, we are given three large rectangular pillars — some mirrored and some matte. These pillars revolve around their axis and serve to act as gates and entrances; reflecting the characters and the light in intelligent ways. This comes together phenomenally well in key acts, rendering brilliant lock-cages for the ghostly apparitions and the characters themselves — bringing an additional sense of character to the unfolding drama.
The play is not all smooth sailing though. The performance of the remaining cast does pale in comparison to that of Jumbo and Marcel, and this shows in the scenes where they share a stage. Due to the modern interpretation, it does take a while to get used to watching Shakespearean verbiage juxtaposed with modern props. The ‘Tis’ and ‘Thou’ hover over the Cockney accent like a thick cloud, and the modern suits, phones, selfies, Kevlar’s and guns do appear jarring. But a few uneasy minutes in — these convalesce and what remains is no longer Shakespeare’s Hamlet but rather an imperfect yet brilliant Young Vic and Hersov’s Hamlet!
I however don’t want to dwell too long on the novelty of the elements here — for as much as it’s worth appreciating the wind of change they represent — the work is also highly meritorious that it begs criticism and treatment independent of it. And again, this is not strictly a story of firsts; Plays have often been the medium of choice to drive change and, even with this gender fluid portrayal of Hamlet, we have had female actors play the eponymous prince since the 18th century — beginning with Charlotte Charke. Cush Jumbo as Hamlet here, with all the bells and whistles of the 21st century, is just one manifestation upon that enduring legacy — to break moulds and pre-conceptions, and to do it successfully.
Hersov, in the director’s production catalogue, muses about wanting to eventually make an eight-hour long version of Hamlet, before going on to underplay the current version as what is physically possible in the “here and now”. Step up man! This version is nothing short of a home run! And if it is any barometer of his vision and interpretation, I’d gladly pay to watch the eight-hour version. But, until then–in the here and now–I’d recommend everyone to watch 2021’s Hamlet at the Young Vic. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!