Hamlet review: Cush Jumbo’s long-awaited Danish prince is a revelation

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Cush Jumbo as Hamlet  (Helen Murray)
Cush Jumbo as Hamlet (Helen Murray)

Cush Jumbo doesn’t play a female Hamlet. Instead, the London actress turned US TV star brilliantly delivers a surly inadequate whose pronouns are definitely he/him.

Her slope-shouldered, shaven-headed youth is a fascinating take on a stealthy kind of toxic masculinity. Many women have played Hamlet, but this version – by a former winner and former presenter of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards - feels particularly timely and richly textured.

I’ve never seen a performer so wholeheartedly embrace Hamlet’s unpleasantness – he’s an indecisive narcissist responsible for four to seven deaths, after all - and it’s a revelation. Greg Hersov’s stripped-back, contemporary production throws new light on other areas of the play too, though it’s slow to start.

We’re in a velour-seat, Oliver Bonas version of royal Elsinore where Adrian Dunbar’s smooth Claudius dresses like an estate agent and Tara Fitzgerald’s cool Gertrude favours turbans and YSL handbags. There’s a sense this pair were brought together by pragmatism rather than passion.

Adrian Dunbar as Claudius (Helen Murray)
Adrian Dunbar as Claudius (Helen Murray)

Moping in a shapeless black suit, and later in sweatpants or jeans, Jumbo’s Hamlet is not only grieving his dead father, and resentful of his mother marrying his uncle: he’s envious. He knows he’ll probably never be king, certainly wouldn’t be a good one, and hates it.

He’s easily distracted when Rosencranz and Guildenstern arrive, taking selfies and proffering vodka shots, or when he can show off to a visiting troupe of actors. And he’s a terrible, gaslighting boyfriend to Norah Lopez Holden’s affecting Ophelia. Jumbo speaks the great existential speeches – especially “to be or not to be” - with terrific clarity and shows that, even outside Hamlet’s monologues, it’s all about him.

The deep affection between Ophelia, her fiery brother Laertes (startlingly good Jonathan Ajayi) and a nuanced Joseph Marcell as their father Polonius is beautifully brought out by Hersov. The contrast with the self-obsessed royal family is stark.

Hersov also edits judiciously. The Fortinbras subplot goes and the scene with Leo Wringer’s Jamaican gravedigger is pruned and shaped so it’s actually funny. The decision to stage the fatal fencing match as a knife fight feels like a tonal misstep but it is hugely exciting.

Anna Fleischle’s set is a nondescript collection of gold oblongs, and the first half consists mostly of characters emoting on a blank forestage in stark lighting. Things get much more dynamic in the second. Holden and Ajayi really wring the heartstrings (she wears Hamlet’s hoodie as Ophelia descends into raw, angry madness).

Jumbo gets to let loose physically, and she is terribly moving in the final scene. Hers is a performance completely lacking in vanity, that ranks amongst the finest Hamlets I’ve seen.

Young Vic, until 13 Nov; youngvic.org

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