A Jumbo Hamlet

Patricia Keeney*

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Live-streamed from The Young Vic in London, directed by Greg Hersov. Cast: Cush Jumbo (Hamlet), Jonathan Ajayi (Laertes), Joana Borja (Gildenstern/Osric), Adrian Dunbar (Claudius/The Ghost), Tara Fitzgerald (Gertrude), Norah Lopez Holden (Ophelia), Johnathan Livingstone (Horatio), Joseph Marcell (Polonius), Adele Oni (Bernardo), Taz Skyler (Rosencrantz/Fortinbras/Marcellus), Leo Wringer (Fortinbras Captain/Player/Gravedigger. October 25 to November 13, 2021.

Most of us have seen many Hamlets. We have watched this play crack the world open and writhe in its death throes. If, as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark says, “nothing is but thinking makes it so,” then nothing is that does not exist in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play continues to enthrall and torment us.

Postponed by the pandemic and finally broadcast to live audiences, the Young Vic’s Hamlet starring Cush Jumbo (of television’s The Good Fight fame) tackles our tortured, confusing times head-on. Jumbo’s Hamlet feels energized from an ancient powerful place. A woman of colour, her sculptural bearing and luminous face as Hamlet, rivet our attention. Physically alert, always wary, her presence even in stillness, radiates fierce vitality. Her deep voice, accented with subtle authority, registers menace and fear, anger and irony, punky defiance and humour.

Hamlet (Cush Jumbo) reading. Photo: Helen Murray

In her delivery and forceful presence, Hamlet’s first soliloquy with its “Frailty thy name is woman” jibe, begins to create a being who contains many possibilities: new, old and not yet discovered. If Hamlet is at war with himself over whether, how and when to kill Uncle Claudius who murdered his father and married his mother, he is also at war with the many unrealized selves that wrestle inside him.

Norah Lopez Holden as a puzzled and frustrated Ophelia. Photo: Helen Murray

In their opening scene together, Hamlet and Ophelia (intelligently realized by Norah Lopez Holden) groove to Salsa music. She in earphones, ruffed sleeves and jeans. He in scruffy work clothes. This production courts the contemporary almost as an afterthought, allowing a range of relevance without locking onto specifics.

Generally, the rest of the cast revolve around Jumbo’s smouldering Prince like lesser planets in the solar system, adding what they can. The Polonius/Laertes show raises preachifying to comic heights. Laertes warns his sister off Hamlet. Polonius warns his son against a spendthrift life waving a credit card under his nose. Ophelia, in shorts and tennis socks, reports airily on Hamlet’s weird behaviour. Hamlet’s university buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bounce in taking palace selfies, their antics redolent of hijinks at Wittenberg rather than the gravitas of philosophy students. A “female” Guildenstern, Joana Borja, sparkling in tangerine trousers, renders this bit of diverse casting somewhat problematic. Her Guildenstern, being more obviously “female” than Jumbo as Hamlet, asks us to ignore the anachronism that no woman would have attended university in early modern times.

Joana Borja’s delighted Guildenstern. Photo: Helen Murray

As Hamlet’s dilemma thickens, spying is seriously undertaken by everyone. When Polonius checks on the wayward prince, he finds Hamlet in the familiar reading scene that has typically cast him as a brooding philosopher. This Hamlet, in sweats and a knapsack, dumps a bunch of newspapers on the floor, then sprawls over them, a disconsolate juvenile delinquent facing down a concerned parent. Lobbing infuriating puns at Polonius, Jumbo flails gymnastically to illustrate that famous image of age and inefficacy—a crab going backwards.

Jumbo’s Hamlet, Fitzgerald’s Gertrude and Ajayi’s Laertes: a moment of solidarity in uncertain times. Photo: Helen Murray

The production is not short on humour. Nor does it need to apologize for its track through the text. One is aware of much merging and shortening, of tightening and re-structuring, all in the service of dramatic impact and a consistent vision.

Jumbo delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy along lines of logic and despair. The big soliloquys all exemplify intelligence wrestling with anguish. “What a piece of work is man, the paragon of animals,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But the world is dead to him. “Man delights not me—no, nor woman neither.”

It becomes apparent that this Hamlet is outgrowing his reality, is spilling over the categories—male, female—into which we are poured. Undone by family tragedy, he anticipates a creature who would discard all the old ways of being, would risk the continuing process of becoming. What Jumbo accomplishes in her embodiment of Hamlet is the increasingly urgent need to recognize our contradictory natures, to explore the range of human possibility each of us represents. Today, we recognize gender fluidity, racial and cultural diversity.

Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Mother and son envisioning a future that is not there. Photo: Helen Murray

All this seethes beneath the dramatic imperatives of political ambition, sexual aberration and bloody family feud that Hamlet rides. An enigmatic, compelling figure wracked by guilt and an innate sense that there is something more that he is, must be, can do, Hamlet careers wildly through his own story.

His self-laceration turns on Ophelia. In their youth and doomed love, they represent a future lost. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he snaps, “or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown,” Ophelia laments, sensing imminent disaster and deepening momentarily into the woman she must become for the brief time she has left.

The visiting players warm up with vocal exercises and exaggerated sexual poses. “Speak the speech, I pray you,” demands a distraught Hamlet. Then, echoing through a microphone the players’ murderous dumbshow, he blares out the “poisoning” accusation. Claudius exits in distress. The scene climaxes in riot and rap.

Now begins a precipitous plunge to denouement, intensified by fraught moments of heartbreaking pain. Hamlet contemplating Claudius in contrite prayer. Raging at his mother. Killing Polonius in that famous plot twist of deadly irony. The Prince is visited once more by the paternal apparition and cringes with tears of gut-wrenching frustration at the blunt reminder that he still has not avenged his father.

Joseph Marcell as Polonius and Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes, father and son vying for authority in a tense situation. Photo: Helen Murray

Jumbo continues to deepen Hamlet’s anger as the play plummets to its bloody end. Her interpretation juggles headlong impetuous fury with a constant quivering control, capable of improvising the way out of mental traps at every turn. Familiar lines ring ever more fatefully in her delivery.

Ophelia enters, singing distractedly through tears. Laying out herbs for her dead father she invokes multiple sorrows—a beloved parent, a lost Hamlet, even the child they will never have. Her song is rough and disjointed, her grief fully affected in the arms of her brother, Laertes, as she rocks and screams in hysterical staccato. Fleetingly, Ophelia actualizes a life unlived in this thoughtful interpretation of the role.

Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet up close and personal with Yorick’s skull. Photo: Helen Murray

Death takes centre stage now gently introducing the Yorick scene with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and the gravedigger chuckling along in Rasta. Holding the jester’s skull beneath her own glistening head, Jumbo’s Hamlet highlights an unforgettable image of the life-death balance, destiny impossibly suspended.

What one remembers from the final slaughter is Hamlet in Horatio’s arms, crying, “I am dead Horatio. Tell my story.” The anguished prince smiles and shakes his head, saying, “The rest is silence.” That immortal line resonates back through Jumbo’s rendering of the role, emphasizing its significance in our current cultural climate. Each age finds its own Hamlet. It is why the play endures. This one reminds us how theatre that honours diversity in re-imagining the classics can transcend our divisions.

Even theatre viewed on screens. Watching this Hamlet (live-streamed during one of the earliest of 54 sold-out performances), one experiences the tantalizing effect of something significant but slightly out of reach. Despite various camera angles, there is still a sense of distance, of not quite catching each moment. Is this better than not seeing the production at all? Absolutely. For 15 as opposed to 43 pounds, you’re almost there.

Note: all shows in the Young Vic’s current season are being live-streamed via their Best Seat in Your House platform. Clearly, a new theatre reality. 

*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian literary and theatre critic. She is also a widely published and translated poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing (Inanna) based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and contemporary dialogues called Orpheus in Our World (NeoPoiesis) based on the earliest Greek hymns. Keeney is a longtime professor of Literature, Humanities and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University. Website: wapitiwords.ca

Copyright © 2021 Patricia Keeney
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