Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet at the Young Vic is a dazzling interpretation of the part that tests Shakespearean performers more than any other
Max Beerbohm called the role “a hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump.” In his deeply personal book I Am Hamlet (1989), Steven Berkoff goes even further: “In every actor is a Hamlet struggling to get out. In fact, in most directors too….Since Hamlet touches the complete alphabet of human experience every actor feels he is born to play it.”
And not just “he”. Cush Jumbo’s interpretation of the part (Young Vic until 13 November) is one of the most eagerly anticipated that I can recall, and not only because Greg Hersov’s production, due to be staged last year, was postponed by the pandemic.
More than any contemporary performer, Jumbo is known both for her consistently excellent work in prestige television – as attorney Lucca Quinn in CBS’s legal drama series The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight, and, more recently Britbox’s The Beast Must Die (see Creative Sensemaker 3 June 2021) – and her undimmed dedication to the stage and to the demands of classical acting.
For those lucky enough to have seen her play Mark Antony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012, it is no surprise to find her scaling the highest mountain in the Shakespearean repertoire – and doing so with such panache.
In a sense, it is a matter of arithmetic: there are 826 male characters in the collected works and only 155 female. Many of the latter, as Jumbo has remarked, are “little bits of asparagus” compared to the steak of the former. And why, in any case, should directors limit their options by literalist casting? If the 82-year-old Ian McKellen can play the prince whom Horatio calls “young Hamlet” (as he did earlier this year at the Theatre Royal Windsor), then why shouldn’t a 36-year-old master of her craft do the same? Just as it made perfect sense for Glenda Jackson to play Lear (magnificently) at the Old Vic in 2016, so Jumbo’s Hamlet is the opposite of a theatrical stunt: indeed, it feels like the logical next step for a performer of apparently limitless potential.
There is, of course, a rich tradition of women playing the role, stretching back to Fanny Furnival in 1741 and Sarah Siddons in 1775, via Sarah Bernhardt in 1899, to more recent performances by Frances de la Tour at the Half Moon Theatre in the East End in 1979 and Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2014.
Peake was explicitly interested in playing Hamlet as a transgender role: “I kept saying, this speaks to me like a trans, a woman who feels inherently male…In the end it felt right to play him like that: a man trapped in a female body.”
Jumbo’s shaved head nurtured the assumption that she, too, intended somehow to stage an intervention in the heated debate on trans rights and gender-critical feminism: a “non-binary” Hamlet for our time. In fact, as she revealed to the Financial Times last month, her decision to cut off her hair was personal rather than political: turning 15-hour days filming The Good Fight in New York, she badly missed her new-born son and looked for ways of reclaiming precious hours to spend time with him. Having her hair styled ate up an hour and a half of every day – so she unilaterally shaved it off, and forced the show’s production team to rustle up a wig.
It would be idle to deny that watching Jumbo’s mesmerising performance is a breath of fresh air, after so many floppy-haired public school actors taking their turn at the role, as if stoically passing the time while awaiting their next movie deal. And it is most certainly a performance rather than a political statement.
This is a world-class actor relishing the challenge of being a woman playing a man; and a person of colour playing a Danish prince – following in the footsteps of Adrian Lester in Peter Brook’s 2001 production (also at the Young Vic) and Paapa Essiedu in 2016 (the first time the Royal Shakespeare Company cast a Black actor in the role).
Jumbo’s Hamlet is a prankster full of youthful masculine swagger, revelling in the shtick and wordplay of the (well-edited) text. Utterly vulnerable in her delivery of the soliloquies, she is no less at home with sight gags, visual flourishes and flashes of menace conveyed with a smile.
She saunters on stage singing Kendrick Lamar’s ‘It was always me vs the world’ and joins in gleefully with the Gravedigger’s reconfiguration of the Yorick scene around Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’. And this is emphatically Hamlet as a vengeful young man – privately cerebral, publicly one of the lads – rather than a remote philosopher-king-in-waiting, ruefully staring into the middle distance.
Jumbo’s prince is still, as Jonathan Bate puts it in The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), “an icon of conscience”: a personification of the duality between seething life and self-destruction, revenge and inaction, erotic love and isolated cruelty, duty and emancipation. But she explores all these tensions with the pain of the grounded human being, rather than the ethereal detachment cultivated by so many of her predecessors.
So when she and Laertes square off in the final duel they do so with knives rather than épées – which makes the fight much more scrappy and also much more real. This is the least mannered Hamlet I can remember seeing in a long while – perhaps since Michael Sheen’s seething, visceral performance in 2011 (also at the Young Vic, whose corridors were transformed in Ian Rickson’s production into the grim warren of a psychiatric hospital).
Most of all, one is struck by Jumbo’s courage in absolutely doing it her way. Rivalled only by the King James Bible, Hamlet is the primary text of the English language – “a Mona Lisa of literature”, as T.S. Eliot put it – and one that has spawned more variant reimaginings than any other play. One only has to think, in recent decades, of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966); Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1987) declaring “I shall never play the Dane”; Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (2000); Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, which transports the story to 2015 and retells it from the point of view of an unborn child; and Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning novel Hamnet (2020), the story of Shakespeare’s son retold as prelude to the writing of the greatest dramatic tragedy in human history (towards the end of the book, the child’s mother, Agnes, watches the play: “An arm’s length away, perhaps two, is Hamlet, her Hamlet, as he might have been, had he lived, and the ghost, who has her husband’s hands, her husband’s beard, who speaks in her husband’s voice.”)
The sheer weight of this cultural inheritance has overwhelmed the mightiest performers: in 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis famously walked off stage during a performance of Richard Eyre’s production, in what he himself called a “nervous collapse” that effectively ended his theatrical career and suspended his film work for five years (for an indispensable account of this episode, and a history of the role in modern times, try Jonathan Croall’s Performing Hamlet in the Arden series).
Of course, it helps Jumbo that the supporting cast is so uniformly excellent: impossible, one has to admit, to watch Adrian Dunbar’s understated Claudius, and not think of him trying to bring order to Denmark as he does to AC-12 as Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty. Norah Lopez Holden is terrific as Ophelia, as is Jonathan Ajayi as Laertes. Tara Fitzgerald – who played Ophelia with such distinction opposite Ralph Fiennes in 1995 – is a fine Gertrude, all pragmatism and barely concealed regret at her complicity in the terrible schemes of high politics.
There are no heights beyond Cush Jumbo: you leave the theatre wondering what she would make of Macbeth, Lear, Stanley Kowalski, Willy Loman, Rooster Byron. If you possibly can, do see this spectacular production. There’s a new prince in town, and you don’t want to miss her.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Ridley Road (iPlayer, all episodes): Based on Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name, Sarah Solemani’s tremendous four-part adaptation dramatises a story with a firm basis in history and the extraordinary but largely forgotten work of the 62 Group of Jewish activists who – with great courage – infiltrated and undermined the poisonous neo-Nazi campaigns of the early Sixties. Leaving Manchester for London in pursuit of her boyfriend Jack Morris (Tom Varey), Vivien Epstein (Agnes O’Casey) is horrified to see him at the side of the leader of the National Socialist Movement, Colin Jordan (a chilling performance by Rory Kinnear). In the streets, NSM thugs taunt her and her mixed-race friend, Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike): “We’re Getting Britain Back, Just You Watch. Tick tock, tick tock”. From her Uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan, superb as always), she learns that Jack has gone undercover to help the 62 Group undermine the NSM’s brutal campaign. When Jack is injured and disappears, Vivien – encouraged by her Aunt Nancy (the sublime Tracy-Ann Oberman) – dyes her hair blonde and pretends to be an eager young fascist in order to get close to Jordan, find out what has happened to her boyfriend and do what she can to undermine the neo-Nazis who are training for combat in a country house. As a thriller, Ridley Road works very well. But – only a year after the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into Labour antisemitism found that there had been “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which…[the party] is responsible”, as far-right populism continues to flourish around the world, and as antisemitic attacks increase in real life and online – the drama feels all too contemporary. As Soly tells his niece “You see Vivien, everything seems absolutely fine until the moment that it ain’t. And then it’s just too late.”
Dave Chappelle – The Closer (Netflix): In his sixth and (for the moment) final special for Netflix, Dave Chappelle goes for broke in a performance that has already generated quite a controversy. He has often spoken of the comedian’s “obligation to speak recklessly” and to test the limits of the sayable – especially at a time when speech codes and purity tests are closing in on free expression. And this is an unapologetically abrasive finale to his triumphant run with the streaming giant. As ever, he covers the waterfront, from his opinions on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (“give me the third best option – I’ll have what the homeless people are having”) and his impression of Martin Luther King organising a float at a Pride parade; via his discovery that he is, in his own view, a feminist, and his reverence for Sojourner Truth (the 19th-century Black women’s rights activist, famous for her “Ain’t I a woman?” speech in 1851); buying a round of drinks for a bar-room of poor white people; his support for TERFs (so-called “trans exclusionary radical feminists”); his contempt for social media (“Twitter’s not a real place”); and his objections to the charge that he is “punching down”. However delicate your sensibilities, I urge you to watch to the end and listen to Chappelle’s closing bit – a very personal and tragic story – that turns the whole performance on its head and undercuts, in a matter of minutes, the lazy notion that he is a reactionary or a bigot. The fact of the matter is that, like it or not, he remains, as he suggests himself, “the GOAT”.
Infinite (Prime Video): It is possibly unfair of me, but I have always found it impossible to take Mark Wahlberg seriously: but then, when you start your performing career as “Marky Mark”, what do you expect? Andy Samberg’s pitch-perfect impression of the actor on Saturday Night Live certainly didn’t help. Nor did Wahlberg’s own claims that he gets up at 2:30am every day to make the most of his time. So when he appears in serious movies like Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) or Patriots Day (2016) I experience a measure of cognitive dissonance. Far more comfortable to watch him in amiable hokum like Infinite, in which he plays the unemployed and diagnosed schizophrenic Evan McCauley who discovers – as you do – that his troubled mental health reflects his millennia-old history as a reincarnated soul: one of only 500 people in the world who are capable of remembering their past lives. His mission (for, naturally, there is one) turns out to be a battle to the end with his fellow Infinite: the villainous Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who wants to destroy the human race so he may finally be released from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Actors of the quality of Toby Jones and Rupert Friend also wander on and off screen, looking as baffled as you might expect. But with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) in the director’s chair, the movie is predictably slick and pacey. Completely absurd, and very enjoyable.
George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane): It is 30 years since Andrew Roberts published his masterly life of Lord Halifax, The Holy Fox, and more than twenty books have followed, including a definitive biography of Lord Salisbury (1999) and a magnificent single-volume book on Churchill (2018). In this magisterial life of George III, Roberts burnishes his stellar reputation as biographer and historian, dismantling many of the myths that have beset the memory of the man who ruled Britain and Ireland for almost sixty years from 1760. In his 758-page opus, Roberts marshals the evidence meticulously and persuasively to show that George was nothing like the capricious, overbearing, intolerable figure of legend – better characterised, indeed, as “well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind”. For a start, he was not the cruel tyrant of collective American memory, seeking, Roberts shows, a constitutional solution to the crisis of independence in a fashion quite at odds with the caricature that has dogged him ever since. As for the king’s madness: the once-fashionable diagnosis of porphyria is dismissed: it is hard to disagree with Roberts’ conclusion that George suffered from bipolar disorder and that the condition condemned him for much of his life to a state of wretched confusion, especially in his later years. It is bracing, too, to see that Roberts has lost none of his disdain for the “Whig interpretation of history” – the comfort blanket of those who believe that Britain’s story is one of the steady institutional defeat of autocracy by liberal incrementalism. Now at the top of his game, he has not surrendered the irreverent, revisionist tone that has made him one of the most important public intellectuals of our times.
Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton): This funny, intelligent, supremely nuanced memoir is also – as its subtitle suggests – a study in the virtues and personal cost of stamina. Bernardine Evaristo is best known as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 for Girl, Woman, Other (an honour that she shared with Margaret Atwood). It is less appreciated that this accolade was a reward for 40 years in the cultural trenches, as Evaristo refined her art, refused to compromise and stuck, with formidable tenacity, to her creative beliefs. Born in 1959 in Eltham, south London, to a Nigerian father and a white English mother, she was one of eight children, devoted from an early age to drama and the stage. Failing two of her A-levels, she nonetheless went on to found Theatre of Black Women, the first UK drama company of its kind, Spread the Word, London’s writer development agency and, more recently, the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. She received no advance for her first two books; Girl, Woman, Other was her eighth. How many people are capable of such persistence? Evaristo is proud of her achievements but unsparing in her self-criticism: everything is a work in progress. The descriptions of her relationships with men and women – from an abusive boyfriend, via “The Mental Dominatrix”, to her beloved husband, David Shannon – are unsparingly candid. “There is no point of arrival whereby one stops growing as a creative person,” she writes, and “to think otherwise will lead to creative repetition and stagnation.” Manifesto is a remarkable testimony to that inspiring creed.
How to Be a Rock Star by Shaun Ryder (Allen & Unwin): At what point, exactly, did Shaun Ryder, the surly, drug-addled lead singer of Happy Mondays and Black Grape, become a national treasure? How long is the journey from selling weed and pills in Manchester to being the runner-up in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and a star of Celebrity Gogglebox? It is a very British phenomenon and one which clearly delights and puzzles Ryder himself in equal measure. A decade has passed since he published his first autobiography, Twisting My Melon, and this follow-up volume is more of a thematic pot pourri, divided by chapter headings such as “Lyrics”, “Riders”, “Drugs”, “Rehab”, “Fame”, “Hotels”, and so on. Seventeen years clean, he is now in a position to remember at least a sizable chunk of his career – and what a career it has been. The point, of course, is that the life of a rock star is “such a weird fucking existence that nothing can really prepare you for it” – it can only be looked back upon by those who survive its excesses with varying degrees of amazement. In truth, there is little chance of rock stars of this sort emerging in the reconfigured digital space of contemporary pop. And – in any case, as this very readable memoir reminds us – there is only one Shaun Ryder.
Access Denied – RAY BLK: Already one of my favourite albums of the year, and not only because Lagos-born Ray BLK (AKA Rita Ekwere) was raised in the same part of SE London as me. Four years have passed since her EP, Havisham, won the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll, and the 27-year-old R&B singer has used the time well. Her debut album is polished, soulful and benefits from a rich array of collaborations with – amongst others – Suburban Plaza, Kojey Radical, and Stefflon Don, and production talents including Fred Ball, Tay Dexkma and Wes Singerman. Opening with a statement of clear intent – Ray wants to be the ‘BLK Madonna’ – these 14 tracks range from explorations of toxic relationships (‘Access Denied’) and party swagger on ‘Go-go girl’ (‘I got no time to be friendly / Savage moves and Savage Fenty; I’m the subject of their envy’) to race on ‘Dark Skinned’. As she told Rated R&B this week: “We live in a world that is predominantly racist, but I also feel like there’s so much to be celebrated: our culture, our skin, our hair, our fashion, our music, our talents, our inventions, and even just how far we’ve come. I wanted to put that into a song to just be like, “I love being Black.” This is not a disadvantage to me. It’s a superpower.” So is her remarkable voice – from which we’ll be hearing much more in the years to come.
Americascapes – Basque National Orchestra & Robert Trevino: It is remarkable that one of the finest pieces featured on this album, ‘Before the Dawn’ by Howard Hanson (1896-1981), has had to wait more than a century since its composition in 1919 to be recorded. If there is a binding theme to this excellent recording by the Basque National Orchestra, conducted by Robert Trevino – a star since he led a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Bolshoi Theatre in 2013 – it is a determination to rediscover 20th-century American composers overshadowed by, say, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. Along with Hanson, Trevino explores the work of Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935), Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), and Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Loeffler’s ‘La Mort de Tintagiles’ (1897), for instance, is inspired by an 1894 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, full of Arthurian imagery and language; but, in musical form, it also has the brio, yearning and sweep of a nation at the turn of the century bursting with potential. Add to that the sense of wonder etched into Cowell’s ‘Variations for Orchestra’ (1956) and the more eccentric wanderings of Ruggles’s ‘Evocations’ (1937-43) and you have a sense of this album’s compelling horizons. If America is an idea, this is an important part of its soundtrack.
Savage – The 1st Mini Album – aespa: A quarter century after the Spice Girls’ debut album, K-pop sensations aespa are taking the project of multimedia girl power to the next level. Their third release this year, following the singles ‘Forever’ and ‘Next Level’, is a six-track collection of immaculately infectious drum-and-bass influenced pop – but it is also the musical gateway to the virtual universe of KWANGYA, in which the band members (Karina, Giselle, Winter and Ningning) have their own digital avatars and fight the villainous Black Mamba. A movie franchise is already in the works, all part of the masterplan by the South Korean corporation SM Entertainment to conquer the world with its cross-platform “culture technology” and deeply integrated SM Culture Universe (SMCU). Metaverses are a well-established feature of the K-pop phenomenon, but the aespa strategy – in which every real-life person can have their “ae” digital counterpart – is unprecedented in its ambition. And if you think all that sounds a bit silly, just enjoy the songs.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Helen Murray courtesy Young Vic, Alastair Muir/Shutterstock, Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images, Donald Cooper/Alamy, Jean Pierre Muller/AFP