Roar writer Keir Holmes on the new production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Young Vic.
While it was intended for the summer of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic delayed Greg Hersov’s “Hamlet” just as it did so many shows. In a Guardian interview with the production’s lead actress, Cush Jumbo, she stated that “the pandemic will change this Hamlet and will change every show that comes back on stage”. Indeed, when considering the mental and political instability that the pandemic has heightened, this tale of a nation in turmoil and a grieving Prince begins to hold more weight.
In some ways, Anna Fleischle’s set stands in stark contrast to this instability. In her essay within the show’s programme, she describes Elsinore as a place “that holds the history of Hamlet’s family line”. The resemblance of her design to the architecture of Ancient Rome reflects this statement. Along with the three plinths standing firmly centre stage, this appearance creates a sense of permanence.
We see this appearance break as the plinths rotate and move across the stage between each scene. Moreover, the reflective material that the stage is made of emphasises the effects of the play’s events on its environment by forcing the action onstage to appear within the ground on which it unfolds. These decisions suggest the instability of that which appears to be permanent, an appropriate approach for a play that details the destruction of a royal family.
It goes without saying that any production of “Hamlet” is reliant on the actor, or in this case, the actress, who plays the titular Prince. Fortunately, Cush Jumbo does not disappoint. The constant physical tension that Jumbo displays shows us that her Hamlet is constantly amidst an internal struggle. We get the sense that, at all times, something dangerous is brewing within them.
Hersov’s decision to focus on the emotional aspects of “Hamlet” rather than the political elements reflects the internal struggle of Jumbo’s performance. While Fortinbras is still present in the play, Hersov has downplayed his role and removed him from the finale. This decision leaves us with an ending that centres on the tragic demise of the protagonists rather than the larger consequences this tragedy has on the nation. Considering the tremendous loss of lives caused by the pandemic, this focus on the tragedy of death may feel more appropriate to the audience. However, in a time of political uncertainty, the choice to ignore the wider consequences of such a crisis may not ring true to some.
Jumbo is not the only stand-out performer. Tara Fitzgerald portrays Gertrude as a mother terrified by, but unable to understand, the madness that she perceives in her son. Moreover, Joseph Marcell’s portrayal of Polonius is surprisingly tender and sympathetic, yet he balances this with a comedic self-importance reminiscent of his performance as Geoffrey in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. However, Adrian Dunbar’s performance as Claudius, while by no means bad, felt overly restrained. This was a shame, considering the wealth of talent on display in the rest of the cast.
With the threat that the pandemic has posed for the arts, it is a pleasure to see such a triumphant return of Shakespeare’s work to the stage. As this timely production of the bard’s classic reminds us, it is impossible to ignore the impact this crisis has had on us all.
“Hamlet” is playing at the Young Vic until 13 November. You can book tickets here.