AN EVER-MORPHING PROTEAN TEXT…RENEWS AGAIN BEFORE OUR EYES
Every Hamlet should give us something new. The play is a philosophical and psychological labyrinth, its jewels and seams of gold hidden in unexpected crevices: there has never been a definitive performance or setting. Last time it was at the Young Vic it was framed in a mental hospital, with Hamlet genuinely disturbed, Ophelia pushing the meds trolley offering rosemary for remembrance , like Prozac. (you actually had to walk in through forbidding corridors with frightening doors and keypads. On press night someone pushed a keypad at random and blew the entire lighting plot for half an hour or more so we had to be sent back to the bar).
That starred Michael Sheen, who was wonderful, a magnetic-hysteric: and because we were assuming him to be as demented as the worried doctor Claudius thought, he found lines and expressions about mental disorders which immensely moved me, at a time I was hypersensitive to such. I wrote this:
“Sheen’s pallid elfin hypersensitivity and wide animated eyes bring us a Prince unhinged, lost in inner space. The opening court scene is a circle of plastic chairs, therapy-group style; Claudius (James Clyde) is a smooth, suited doctor, addressing them with patronizing patience. Hamlet has his poor suitcase packed for the escape he will not be allowed, and Polonius’ lecture to Laertes has the ring of advice to a discharged patient. It could all be a tiresome directorial conceit, but the brilliant and horrible thing, which suggests that Shakespeare himself patrolled the edges of sanity long before Lear, is that it fits. The text, even away from Hamlet’s tortured soliloquies and “feigned” madness and Ophelia’s dissolution, speaks the language of real mental disturbance: times out of joint, weariness of life, unbeing, delusion, paranoia, remorse”.
This time there is no such extreme interpretation: Greg Hersov ‘s production is sober, modern-dress, set amid great semitransparent blocks which, with clever lighting, suggest depths of disturbance even outside the ghost scenes. But it has its own revelations to offer. At their core is the subtle, androgynous troubling performance by Cush Jumbo: shaven-headed, lean and rangy and expressively physical, neither girl nor boy but the essence of youth itself.
Hamlet, after all, has always spoken as powerfully to young women as to boys: grieving, indecisive, hesitant, deploying feline feminine tactics in setting up the play to catch the King’s conscience. He/She is fixed on a heroic but flawed father, resenting a mother, feeling helpless, self-hating and despising; bored by lecturing Polonius, pleased to see schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but rapidly outraged if they line up with the grownups. And on top of all this, awakened to the awfulness of the elder world, and struggling – to be or not to be ?- with a very topical dilemma in the age of XR and the rest, asking whether it is best to endure or to be an activist, take arms against it all and end it.
See? Doesn’t need to be a young man: just a teenager of either sex. And this is what Jumbo’s performance gives us, most beautifully: dancing with Ophelia (it is rare to be offered such a glimpse of how easy and happy the relationship was before the Ghost moved in on him) then breaking up with her in despair at the state of the world. From Jumbo’s first peerlessly sarky, shrugging line at the family gathering (“A little more than kin and less than kind”) to the growl which demands the too too solid flesh to melt, her Hamlet is us, when young, when angry. The bravura swagger into Gertrude’s room to confront her, and the crushed guilty grief at having stabbed the wrong man through the arras rings true; her immaculate rendering of the too-familiar lines is both respectful and defiant. This is a very, very fresh and classy Hamlet.