Review: Hamlet – Young Vic

As we approach the end of the year we are awaiting imminent announcements about two major casting decisions, with the press full of rumours about those being considered. Which two performers, from the country’s vast pool of acting talent, are going to take over the roles of Doctor Who and James Bond?

Review: Hamlet – Young Vic
James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

This is a fairly unusual situation in TV and film. Aside from the Marvel and DC Comic film adaptations and a couple of historic detectives, there are few characters in popular culture that outlast the actors who play them, but in theatre it is a different story. There are many plays that are produced over and over, so we are constantly asking who will play the next Hedda Gabler, Dr Faustus or Lady Bracknell.

With Shakespeare at the top of the list of repeatedly produced plays, there is always excitement when a high-profile performer decides to take on one of the iconic Shakespearean leads. Helen Mirren made a brief appearance as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude in our online production of The Secret Love Life Of Ophelia, securing press attention here and in the US, and after Hamlet himself was played by Ian McKellen in Windsor earlier this year in an ‘age-blind’ production, the role has now been passed on to Cush Jumbo at the Young Vic.

Likely most famous for her role in US TV shows The Good Wife and The Good Fight, the big talking point about Jumbo’s casting is clearly her gender. Jumbo is far from the first female actor to take on the role, but it is still enough of a rarity to generate debate – can Hamlet be played by a female actor without it distracting too much from the story or changing the sense of the text?

In this case there is no suggestion that Hamlet himself has switched gender – the male pronouns in the script are still very much present – but it’s true that there are moments where lines take on a new resonance. “What a piece of work is man” is different when delivered by an actor who the audience know to be female, whether playing the part as a man, as male identifying or as a woman. These moments are, however, relatively few and far between. This is a production that strives to simply present us with Hamlet, the character, gender of no importance – and it absolutely works.

Jumbo’s is a firebrand of a Hamlet, moving from sulky to angry to manic, with a genuine love for Ophelia and an equally genuine determination to see justice done at any cost. A wordless dance between Hamlet and Ophelia early on is playful, intimate and beautiful, and makes her tragic loss all the more affecting and the passion behind the final duel all the more convincing.

Jumbo is surrounded by a strong company, the most impressive being the younger cast members – notably Norah Lopez Holden as Ophelia and Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes. At its heart though, this is Hamlet’s story and Jumbo’s show.

I don’t know who will take the baton from Jumbo and step up to play Hamlet next, but they’ve got a tough act to follow. And when she’s done at the Young Vic, if Jumbo’s not busy, maybe the Tardis should beckon…

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