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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Greg Hersov, with Set and Costume Design by Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design by Aideen Malone, Sound Design by Emma Laxton, Video Design by Nina Dunn, Movement Direction by Lucy Hind, Casting by Sophie Holland CDG, with Casting Assistants Faye Timby and Finnian Tweed, Voice and Text by Barbara Houseman and Fight Direction by Kev McCurdy, with Jerwood Assistant Director Zoe Templeman-Young, Boris Karloff Trainee Assistant Director Kirk-Ann Roberts and Jerwood Assistant Designer Jida Akil. Till November 13th.


There’s several reasons to see this Hamlet, but the prince is the thing. Cush Jumbo’s super-alert Hamlet finds wit and a pulse behind each thought as easily as snatched breath, and as often spins on a physical joke. There’s a darting power and restless intelligence finding itself in sudden spurts across the stage when recognizing Horatio. And a like stillness seething when constrained in court responses and sotto voce disquiet. Perhaps an inner agon’s lacking in the ‘To be’ soliloquy, but nowhere else.

Lucy Hind’s movement direction is almost another character. A belated gleam of adolescence still lights on this frolicking Hamlet, but not for long: events grow this heir up hard from an unexpected source.

This shifts when a palpable jolt energises Jumbo after the players’ first arrival in ‘what’s Hecuba to him?’ where Jumbo not only catches the instrument of judgement (as Hamlet thinks, the Mousetrap) but the players’ energy, as if action’s suddenly unleashed in knowing what part to play, which involves shedding play itself. To underscore this, after the flute scene dismissing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Jumbo surrenders the flute gently to Leo Wringer ‘s Player who claims it. It’s a transformative moment.

Before we had physical games, Jumbo rolling around the floor in sexually suggestive and flailing crab actions for Ophelia and Polonius. Play gives way to vectored fury. When Jumbo’s away, the action especially in the fourth act, can hang a little heavy. Wringer’s Gravedigger enjoys a beautifully-orchestrated meditation that also might seem far too long did not Jumbo and he indulge in a last jouissance when she almost dashes Yorick’s skull to pieces. Wringer again (like his Player with the flute) firmly takes the relic back. It’s as if Wringer in various guises is Hamlet’s true father.

Till just before then we’ve not seen Hamlet furious, not even dismissing Ophelia. The sharper dismissal of false friends preludes confrontation between Jumbo and Tara Fitzgerald’s  Gertrude,  Fitzgerald able to prove more vital in this scene than anywhere else, where her pink cowl almost speaks a mutedness, reduced to paddling palms with Claudius.

The two spark off each other, Jumbo circling as critical parent, critical child, finally melting in a filial embrace – not a hint of incestuous feeling as Fitzgerald shudders remorse. Her Gertrude’s compliance with Claudius’ pronouncing Hamlet’s madness is visibly north-north-west of what she feels, not what she knows.

Jumbo’s fury is spent though over Ophelia’s grave. It’s still partly an intellectual fury, agile, pointed, knowingly performative to a hostile audience, long spent by the dreamt fall of a sparrow. Jonathan Livingstone’s Horatio nods nonchalantly when Jumbo tells him of the two courtiers’ fate. It’s too complacent a reading for a Hamlet ‘growing up but growing up dead’ as Richard Eyre once put it.

Notwithstanding, there’s a patient lucidity about this production where away from Hamlet, clarity and deliberation make it easy for newcomers. When Hamlet’s here you have to shift for yourselves, and it’s thrilling.

Anna Fleischle sculpts a lean and hungry set on palace stone flags and revolving pillars with mirror sides, with little else save a grave-hole. It’s ideal and extends to her sober costume design – Claudius’ blue, Hamlet’s mourning black, Gertrude’s pinks and a wider orange variety for Ophelia and Guildenstern. Lighting by Aideen Malone flutes and shimmers down pillars, edges mirrors and takes us out of tenebrous court-life to occasional day. Emma Laxton’s sound plays with recorded single-source emanations and overall atmospherics. Nina Dunn’s sparingly-deployed video design bursts into life to show offstage characters off.

There’s been a trend for surveillance cameras and political amplitude in recent Hamlets, notably the NT’s 2010 and 2017 Almeida productions – the latter pushed family further than any in recent memory. With this Young Vic offering directed by Greg Hersov we get cursory surveillance and a family emphasis, though the politics evaporates. Fortinbras never arrives and Horatio speaks some of his lines. It robs the closing-in of both Laertes’ rebellion (scantly noted) or the longer looming of Fortinbras’ revenge.

It’s a Hamlet’s full of songs and snatches, sometimes on portable players, sometimes actors including Jumbo. Indeed song circles Hamlet. Sometimes a classic strain – Schubert – wafts out, but it’s mainly pop and rap, with a stunning spiritual sung by Wringer’s  Gravedigger after the burial scene.

It’s good seeing Adrian Dunbar breaking out of screen. His Claudius is dressed in political blue partly because uniform might conjure AC12. There’s serpentine charm here, memorably used on Laertes in a leisurely whisky-clink. Overall Dunbar lacks the steel menace for Claudius underneath an admirable nuance and musing. His ‘present death of Hamlet’ seems departmental point-scoring, not a bodkin’s – or axe’s edge. Musing works in the abortive prayer-scene, but you need a whiff of brimstone. Dunbar’s also his brother’s Ghost to underwhelming effect. Neither seem Hyperion or satyr, and if there’s a moral equivalence to be drawn – one’s not better than the other – it undermines the tragedy’s point.

Livingstone’s warm Horatio, first reacting slowly to Taz Skylar’s increasingly active first-act Marcellus, weighs his scepticism with submission at every action of Hamlet: he hesitates wonderfully over the blood-pact Hamlet demands as silence, whereas Marcellus never flinches. Such telling actions punctuate this production.

Norah Lopez Holden’s Ophelia is built up not just in a salsa with Hamlet but in her spirited response to Jonathan Ajayi’s honourable, less-brattishly-splenetic-than-usual Laertes and mocking him behind their father’s back after he’d preached at her too long so runs bang into his father’s far longer homily.

Lopez Holden makes the most of her soliloquy, raises Ophelia from ornamental distress and plays it straight. None of the complicity between her and Hamlet for instance in her signalling those overhearing that we saw in the Almeida production. The throughline of her singing with Hamlet climaxes with her long farewell – first contradicted with vigorous clarity in her first Act Four speech. But her final appearance rends to an explosive chant of devastation, not even recognising her brother.

Joseph Marcell’s a more vigorous, far less doddery Polonius, full of energy and rhythmic point, but even he can’t disguise the unwise saws and florid instances that earn Gertrude’s just rebuke.

Skylar’s charmingly shifty young Rosencrantz and Joana Borja’s playful, more forthcoming Guildenstern – later court flunkey Osric – are both appealingly student-like, first seen frolicking with a tablet. Their youth makes them vulnerable, pliable, horribly manipulated, so you feel their deaths are monstrous. This isn’t explored. Skylar’s later a nominal Fortinbras. Adele Onis realises a nervous Bernardo and smaller parts, and Wringer’s other roles nominally include a Fortinbras Captain.

Jumbo’s latter scenes are best-served with the Gravedigger, the funeral outburst and duel in Kev McCurdy’s fleetly directed knife-fight, though valedictions save to Laertes go. There’s a stripping out of this Hamlet too in the last speech. Prophesies, the fell sergeant death, and necessarily in this production, elections lighting on Fortinbras, and those last musings. We do get Hamlet’s last line but Horatio’s taking up Fortinbras’ lines gets sawn off awkwardly.

There’s too many good things in the fourth and fifth acts to declare what a falling-off was there in the latter part. Jumbo though doesn’t get room to explore Hamlet’s hollowing-out, the sheer amplitude of running on empty and hardening to acts almost as pitiless in their way as his uncle’s, or perhaps father’s. The full weight of this can redeem Hamlet. Horatio’s angels have their work cut out in this cursory summary.

If Hersov’s Hamlet isn’t the greatest of recent years though, Jumbo’s is. All the damaged prince’s intellect and fire, self-overhearing, much of the emotional detonation and moral quandaries are here, short-changed only in some clunky editing. If not as overwhelming as some, Jumbo’s Hamlet strips out accretions and ghosts you into asking who or what Hamlet is. See it if you possibly can.