In the 2021 Young Vic production of Shakespeare’s 16th century play Hamlet, director Greg Hersov has weaved together two versions of the text to create an electric, emotive retelling of this Shakespearean tragedy.
The story takes us on the eponymous prince’s mission to avenge his father’s death. Cush Jumbo as Hamlet so skillfully leads us through this course of ghost sightings, lovers’ quarrels, theatrical traps and fraught family relationships. Hamlet’s snarky comments about his mother’s swift remarriage carry just as much weight as his pensive soliloquies and joyful reunion with his friends: Jumbo’s acting is phenomenally rich in its range, confidence and approachability.
In the Main House of the Young Vic for these three hours, everything in the room is in conversation. For almost every spoken interaction amongst the characters, there is an aside or shared look with the audience to let us know what they’re really thinking. The non-verbal languages that carry the story stick out as a key narrative tool. One of my favourite moments of the play is Guildenstern’s (Joana Borja) reaction to Gertrude’s (Tara Fitzgerald) pleading with him and Rosencrantz (Taz Skylar) to find out what is ailing her son. As Guildenstern reassures Gertrude that he will talk to Hamlet, he takes a tone and gesture that reminds me of Schitt’s Creek’s Alexis in its contrived dramatic emotion. I’m sure other members of the audience had their own reference points for this moment because we were all audibly amused. There are many such moments where a gesture is shared that speaks to us as a present-day audience, but doesn’t detract from the rich lines of the text.
In bringing a 17th century text to the stage for its umpteeth time, the company has room to consider how they want us to understand this iteration of Hamlet’s story. Jumbo brings a vulnerability to Hamlet, inviting us to sympathise with the jarring events of his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. It is in this way that this production of Hamlet stands out amongst the rest: Jumbo introduces us to a sulky, revengeful Hamlet that has the angst, glares and stroppy posture of a teenager.
From the opening scene, it is clear that the harmony- or vocal discord – between the actors will be a star of the show. Barnardo (Adesuwa Oni), Horatio (Jonathan Livingstone), and Marcellus (Taz Skylar) are immediately gripping: not only because they’ve just seen a ghost, but in their natural shared curiosity onstage, carefully directed by Hersov and movement director Lucy Hind.
Hamlet is well-known as a tragedy and a tale of revenge. In this production, Hamlet is also presented as the story of a fraught relationship between mother and son. Gertrude’s opulent outfits throughout the production (costumes supervised by Natasha Prynne) give her the air of an aloof wealthy mother in a story where her actions are later revealed to reflect this impression. Her husband Claudius (Adrian Dunbar), the late king Hamlet’s brother, has a distant villain energy from the start. As the story develops, Claudius has the air of a politician: his authoritative emptiness blows a protective bubble around him until he needs to surface and plot to protect himself. The couple’s unnerving coldness coming to the fore is a subtle antagonist to the more overtly fraught dynamic between them and Hamlet.
This production is a sensorially seamless collaboration to create a unique perspective on Prince Hamlet’s story. Each character is individually invested in the trajectory of Hamlet’s grief, and the company skillfully creates a world for this to take place. The acting is excellent, as is the casting (directed by Sophie Holland CDG): Polonius’ wordy lines and polished outfits were made for Joseph Marcell; Norah Lopez Holden gracefully adds emotive dimension to Ophelia’s turbulent journey. As Hamlet determinedly saunters towards his aim, no one can stand in his way— which works out well for us spectators in the room.
Hamlet is on at the Young Vic until 13th November 2021. More info and tickets here.