Demetrios Matheou

On screen, on stage, out and about

Demetrios Matheou

October 9th, 2021
Hamlet, The Young Vic


Cush Jumbo is an exceptional, must-see Hamlet 

Cush Jumbo has quietly become one of Britain’s most accomplished actresses, whether starring in The Good Fight in the US, or earning an Olivier nomination for her Mark Antony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-woman Julius Caesar at the Donmar.

And now she adds an an astonishing Hamlet to her bow, this time gender blind. As the London stage builds its post-pandemic head of steam, her performance is a reminder of the kind of electricity and excitement we’ve been missing.

If only the same could be said about the production, which is a rather mixed affair, to the extent that a lean edit of the text sometimes feels as long as ever.

That said, the evening is justified by Jumbo, whose performance is so strong and singular that the gender element barely registers. Her Hamlet is a vibrant, spirited youth – independent, passionate, judgemental, with a fidgety energy that will make perfect sense of the character’s painful oscillation between feigned and real madness.

Head shorn, Jumbo’s face shifts between ironic mirth and disdain with the same fleetness that she navigates the verse. It’s both a beautifully spoken and physically vigorous turn, which includes a funky dancing serenade of Norah Lopez Holden’s tomboyish, equally impassioned Ophelia. While so many princes meander down a moribund, fatalistic path, Jumbo canters towards doom with an energy that almost suggests it might, just, end another way. And that makes the tragedy all the harder to bear.

Joseph Marcell is one of the most fleshed out and entertaining Polonius’s I’ve seen, Leo Wringer an hilarious gravedigger, Jonathan Livingstone a likeable Horatio; and Holden adds a strain of anger to Ophelia that makes the character far less pathetic and malleable than usual.

Unfortunately, the momentum in their and Jumbo’s work is pegged back every time Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius takes the stage. Dunbar has become a national treasure for his work as dirty cop-chasing Ted Hastings in Line of Duty, and you’d think that the correspondence between the TV show’s world of perpetual subterfuge and Claudius’s dark secrets would put the actor in good stead; but he’s all at sea here, so leaden that his hands and feet seem to be  weighed down by invisible shackles, without an ounce of the character’s menace or self-preservation. Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude doesn’t fare much better and, given both these actors’ experience, their inertia feels like a failure of Greg Hersov’s direction.

Hersov has to be commended for creating the space for Jumbo and Holden, in particular, to give a new dimension to their characters. But he’s also guilty of some odd decisions. Working from his own adaptation, Hersov cuts the play’s political dimension altogether (so no Fortinbras or threat of invasion), focussing on the domestic drama and so diminishing the stakes and the drama. At the same time, his attempts to add a contemporary cultural spin, including moments of rap and reggae, mostly feel like self-conscious window-dressing.

Images: Helen Murray