The week in theatre: Hamlet; Anna X; Lava – review

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

I wouldn’t have guessed this would be the production to survive theatre’s recent outrageous fortune. In the past few weeks, when Covid and pinging shunted Bach & Sons and Hairspray off the stage and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella repeatedly failed to open, Sean Mathias’s Hamlet took arms against a sea of troubles and survived. The production abruptly lost its Polonius (Steven Berkoff) and Laertes (Emmanuella Cole), with reports of scrapping. Some might have thought its magnet – the 82-year-old Ian McKellen – would be vulnerable. Far from it.

There was no moment on press night when I thought I was watching a man too old to take on the part. No creaky movements or rusty vocals. No embarrassing gymnastics, either. McKellen is too accomplished an actor to mimic being young: instead, like a magician, he deflects the attention, so that what becomes important is not watching a character but listening to a speech. At its best, this has the effect of complete naturalism, an X-ray clarity that actually gains from the reflectiveness of age: I have never heard “Alas, poor Yorick” delivered with so strong a feeling of loss and foreboding; the speech suddenly seemed truly central, not simply an extra, sad tweak.

Yet the assurance that provides such steady intelligibility is also a peculiar limitation. I never believed that McKellen’s was a prince on the brink of cracking, who might have got it all wrong – or who would persuade others he had lost his wits. Spurts of wild despair – throwing back of hair, beating of head – reminded me more of this critic losing her keys than a noble mind threatened with disintegration.

What is the point of Hamlet uttering ‘To be or not to be’ while waiting to be shaved?

There is throughout a lack of reverberating danger, of grave consequence. Lee Newby’s design, in which a dark wooden walkway runs high above the stage, is hard to navigate – Hamlet has a hard job not bumping into the Ghost – and is more country house than castle. The grey bulk of Windsor Castle bang opposite the theatre rams home the difference. This might be the setting for a murder mystery – Adam Cork’s echoing soundscape adds shivers – which is of course what Hamlet partly is. Still, the play needs convulsion as well as conundrum.

There are some rotten things in this state of Denmark. Strongly individual performances – (taking over from Berkoff) Frances Barber’s very funny busybody Polonius, Alison Halstead’s graceful Player Queen, Alis Wyn Davies’s fiery, guitar-strumming Ophelia – are often stranded amid underchoreographed groups of characters apparently hanging around to listen to a speech.

Insistent larkiness only sometimes works. Delivering “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” while pedalling on an exercise bike is not a bad joke, but what is the point of Hamlet uttering “To be or not to be” while waiting to be shaved? Why does Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude have such a weird accent: is she a Norwegian spy? And why does she have such a terrible wig – a giant plait that looks like a discard from the pilot of Cadfael?

Anyone who thought that Emma Corrin’s performance as Diana Spencer in The Crown was just an impersonation – tilted head, lopsided smile, sidelong glances – can now think again. As the central figure in Joseph Charlton’s play Anna X, she convinces as a different kind of elusive; a calculated dissembler.

Cannily directed by Daniel Raggett, Anna X, first seen at Vault festival, is the final production in Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season. Inspired by the real-life story of con artist Anna Sorokin, it requires Corrin to put in some lively turns as minor characters – wisecracking, manspreading – but chiefly to move through the scenes with provocative stoniness. She has the loose-limbed, haughty assurance of a latter-day Katharine Hepburn.

The amount of lying she needs to do to get people to cough up their money is actually quite small – though a fib about vodka-soaked tampons is inspired. Charlton neatly shows how much can be built on mere suggestion, and how the fascination of great wealth is so extreme that characteristics normally deemed crippling assume a strange luminosity. Nabhaan Rizwan, of BBC One’s Informer, is persuasive as the young man who thought himself something of an operator – he has created a dating app for snobs – is also a fall guy.

Videos by Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden and lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun summon up blurred identities, harsh transactions, glossiness, confusions. An elevator rips to the top of a skyscraper; New York traffic beetles between glassy towers; in a club, neon surtitles flash up the dialogue drowned out by blare. This sometimes looks simply like scenery, sometimes as if the couple’s brains are leaking on to the screen. Or is it the other way round? What a neat capsule of a con.

Lava: molten, stored for ages, bubbling over, leaving a stain like a scar. Benedict Lombe’s powerful new play is about the anger of a black woman living in white-run countries – and about the difficulty of speaking about her wrath without trimming it up for a white audience, making it lyingly appealing.

On a rocky landscape that occasionally smokes like the ruins of empire, the tremendous Ronke Adékoluejo is fluidly directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike. The spine of the evening is prompted by a puzzle: the narrator – who, like Lombe, is British Congolese – discovers that one of her names is missing from her passport. In trying to unravel why, she uncovers the quiet rebellion of her parents, and traces the long history of colonisation and dictatorship that has led to the Democratic Republic of the Congo having “more names than P Diddy”.

History is fractured and made graphic by painful personal memories, of being othered in Wigan, in County Clare, in South Africa and London: “What’s it like to be with a black girl?” her boyfriend is asked. Small moments resonate with metaphor: as she and her mother segregate kidney beans by colour, the theatre rings with the bell-like sound of them bouncing into a basin.

The evening, which is threaded with music – including Mbogeni Ngema’s Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow – begins with a triumphant, defiant dance. Adékoluejo breaks off to suggest that the audience go on clapping while she catches her breath. Eighty minutes later, with Lombe’s film in reaction to George Floyd’s murder projected behind Adékoluejo, loss of breath has taken on a further significance. She may be cajoling, but she is also accusing.

Star ratings (out of five)
Hamlet ★★★
Anna X ★★★★
Lava ★★★★

  • Hamlet is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor until 25 September

  • Anna X is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 4 August

  • Lava is at the Bush theatre, London, until 7 August