When one Hamlet ends, another begins. The ubiquitous role, most recently taken on (for a second time) by Ian McKellen over the summer, now falls to Cush Jumbo. Her long-awaited take on the Danish prince finally arrives at the Young Vic after multiple pandemic-related delays, in a production directed by The Good Fight star’s longtime collaborator, Greg Hersov.
Her Hamlet is a man out of time: smart, lean and cool, occasionally whipped into feverish excitement, haunted by his task to kill his uncle, and with flashes of blackly comic timing. It is unfortunate, then, that these glimmers of excellence are let down by a production that can feel so curiously muddled, so lacking in rigorous directorial vision, that it almost completely undoes itself.
There are moments of beauty threaded throughout: Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes combines bravura with pathos, and is nowhere better than in an early scene with Norah Lopez Holden’s tender Ophelia, where the teasing relationship between the two siblings fizzes with genuine affection. It is deftly directed, brimming with character, and is matched by the second half’s gravedigger scene, wherein Jumbo’s Hamlet converses with Leo Wringer’s Gravedigger about the absurdity of death, drawing out poignancy and comedy in equal measure. There is real clarity in these moments, but they frustrate, ultimately, because they suggest that there is, in fact, an excellent show mired somewhere in this inconsistent production.
Because for the most part, Hersov’s direction simply does not have the requisite drive needed to make this play feel genuinely urgent. The majority of scenes are poorly blocked, with characters just standing around the stage, airlessly speaking their lines at one another.
When Joseph Marcell’s blustering Polonius is accidentally murdered by Hamlet, it’s a moment that should be agonisingly suspenseful, but it droops instead; the moment of violence is relegated almost entirely to offstage, and there is such a lack of dramatic tension to this firecracker of a scene that it feels almost unforgivable. Anna Fleischle’s gilded design, with its three rotating mirrored pillars, does not help matters either, cutting off half the stage and rendering it essentially unusable, although Nina Dunn’s ghostly projections are layered and exquisitely atmospheric, even if they are underused.
As a whole, Hersov’s vision is oddly bloodless and lacking in coherent vision. Fleischle’s design, with its ancient, austerely imposing golden walls, is juxtaposed against contemporary costuming (I am calling for a moratorium on characters vaping in Shakespeare plays, something which has never not felt naff). That contrast should feel dynamic, a potent clash between antiquity and modernity, and yet it ends up imprecise and convoluted: a timeless Hamlet, though perhaps not in the way one might want.
The star performances end up a little lacking, too: Adrian Dunbar’s treacherous Claudius does not have any real personality outside of a general, inexact sense of duplicitousness, and Jumbo’s Hamlet, while good, and occasionally great, simply isn’t enough to pull Hersov’s production together by sheer force of will. She is best when playing up her Hamlet’s drollness and sarcasm, sparking off the idiocy of the sycophants in the Danish court, but her soliloquies are less strong: she is able to convey the leaps from aching grief to blazing fury in broad strokes, but tends to speak verse with a lilting, tripping musicality that can feel a little like she’s just riding out the lines, rather than fully grappling with them.
It’s a real shame: a Hamlet with the potential for greatness, but which ultimately fails to draw blood.
‘Hamlet’ runs at the Young Vic until 13 November
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