Hamlet at the Young Vic
One good thing about the lockdown was that it postponed director Greg Hersov and actress Cush Jumbo’s highly anticipated retelling of Hamlet from 2020 until spooky season 2021. Being part ghost story, part murder plot, part about madness, part a coming-of-age tale, it fits right in with the plummeting temperatures, slasher flicks, and the chilling costumes worn by many young adults this time of year. Though characters in the play die left and right and centre, the excitement for the delayed opening of this production certainly didn’t.
Although there have been countless different takes on the work, few have featured a gender-swapped Hamlet portrayed by a female person of colour. Just like Hamlet breaks his curse, Jumbo throws off the convention of the white male actor as the protagonist. She gives the well-loved character nuance and energy, rising to the humour and rawness required for the role. It can be easy for Hamlet to fall into a one-note rebellious teenager, but here, a new interpretation is born, as life is breathed into familiar soliloquies, and, despite the differences in Jumbo’s portrayal, she brings what playing the character needs: youth. After all, the main story is about youth unravelling, and Jumbo portrays every single facet of emotion precisely. The wit and relentless attitude are effortless, especially when the character is conversing with no one.
Even if one has never experienced the tragedy of Hamlet before, there is plenty to latch onto here, including set design by Anna Fleischle. The striking statement of the set, the pillars, seem to go through character development themselves, morphing into stone, the gold of the palace, fire – whatever they need to be. A layer of smoke hangs in the air, reminding viewers of the ominous, unreal setting. Eyes deceive as much as Hamlet’s when the modern infiltrates the old. Ophelia (Norah Lopez Holden) struts around in questionable fashion with some type of walkman, which conjures images of the 90s, despite smartphones also appearing as props. Character quirks are also modernised: there is an almost interpretative dance between Ophelia and Hamlet, Hamlet reads tabloid papers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Taz Skylar and Joana Borja) take photos in front of the palace, and there’s even royalty rapping at some point.
However, despite a few references that only the keenest of listeners would catch, and some modern furnishings, the contemporary setting is not exploited as much as it could be: the play feels no different than if it had been set in its intended time period. There is also a disappointing lack of blood during the pinnacle murders.
Familial resemblance isn’t immediately evident between Ophelia and Polonius (Joseph Marcell), but they have great chemistry and banter, offering a light-hearted break for the audience. Other highlights include Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) in not one but two roles: Claudius and Ghost. Corruption isn’t far from either. Tara Fitzgerald is believable as the torn Gertrude, and Jonathan Livingstone, as Horatio, is another comedic outlet.
Knowing the inevitable end doesn’t make the play any less impactful. This is a great, albeit tragic, introduction to Shakespeare. Although this interpretation of Hamlet is not as modern as it first appears, it’s still Shakespeare, and with that strong foundation, the only way to go is up.
Hamlet is at the Young Vic from 5th October until 13th October 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.