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Theatre Review: a familiar Hamlet leaves nothing fresh in the state of Denmark

A modern production of the Shakespeare classic fails to provide a new angle

Joseph Marcell and Jonathan Ajayi in Hamlet at the Young Vic. Photo: Helen Murray

Young Vic, London,
until November 13

I’ve seen two stagings of Hamlet in almost as many months and the average age of the actor playing the title role stands at 52. Admittedly, Ian McKellen, at 82, pushed it up a bit. At 36, Cush Jumbo is young enough to be the old boy’s granddaughter, but, in all honesty, even she’s getting on for a role that’s traditionally played by actors starting out. Ben Whishaw gave us his Hamlet at just 23, when he was a year out of drama school, and, for my money, his remains the best I’ve ever seen.

Jumbo’s Hamlet is an above-par one, but she has the misfortune to play it in a below-par production. The director Greg Hersov wants very obviously for it to be distinguished, but doesn’t quite manage it.

It’s all in modern dress, with a lot of sub-machine guns on display in the opening scene, which in, say, the 1980s, would have been regarded as quite cutting edge, but now seems clichéd.

Some big liberties have been taken with the text and there are some funky, possibly weird, touches, such as the gravedigger (Leo Wringer) belting out Don’t Worry Be Happy as he unearths Yorick’s skull. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – Taz Skylar and Joana Borja, respectively – are a couple of hipsters. It’s all played out against what appear to be three large fridges dreamt up by the designer Anna Fleischle.

Loose-limbed, spontaneous, androgynous and undoubtedly charming, Jumbo’s Hamlet makes for good company, but what honestly is this show doing that’s new?

It’s unusual but not unprecedented for the part to be played by a woman. Sarah Bernhardt saw fit to cast herself in the role in 1899, at the age of 55. Since then Frances de la Tour and Maxine Peake have both taken stabs at it. Alas, with this Hamlet, I know it all only too well.

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