There are two reasons that, among recent Hamlets, Cush Jumbo (“The Good Fight”) is right up there alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Ian McKellen. Like those two actors, Jumbo has dazzling ease on stage as the magnetic, glowing center of “Hamlet.” But frustratingly, also like Cumberbatch and McKellen, the actor is robbed of her full potential in the role by being caught in a flavorless, flaccid production.
Encouraged to witness the ghost by Jonathan Livingstone’s Horatio, Jumbo’s first appearance instantly adds vibrancy to designer Anna Fleischle’s steely, oddly colorless stage picture of rectangular, tarnished mirror columns that occasionally revolve yet never charge up the smoky, mostly gloomily lit space.
Wearing jeans and close-cropped hair, Jumbo appears young without ever overplaying the “youthful” card. Her vigor ignites every scene she’s in. Hamlet is a character held back by inaction but, fascinatingly and without ever compromising the character’s necessarily stilted progression, Jumbo is never inert.
As she showed as Mark Antony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female “Julius Caesar” and as Kate in her “The Taming of the Shrew” for Shakespeare in the Park, her intellectual grip and embodiment of Shakespeare’s language means that it’s not just the meaning of a line that she makes legible, it’s the dramatic intent behind it. She’s always thoughtful, but only ruminative when strictly necessary. Her Hamlet is unusually strong on self-disgust and acts at a rapid speed of thought, which makes her character’s clearly expressed wants and needs unusually dynamic — so much so that the temperature drops whenever she’s off-stage which, in this play, is mercifully rare.
Would that her affecting dynamism were mirrored by the rest of the company. The last time a major UK company performed the text uncut was in 1992 when Adrian Noble directed Kenneth Branagh at the Royal Shakespeare Company with a near-five-hour running time. Director Greg Hersov speeds up proceedings via his editing of the text that cuts out the wider political perspective embodied by Fortinbras in favor of family (mis)fortunes and the strained dynamics among Hamlet and the court.
That’s particularly successful with Polonius and his children. Joseph Marcell’s wonderfully pleased-with-himself Polonius is amusingly crisp and there’s engaging clarity in his dealings with Jonathan Ajayi’s fierce Laertes. And as his daughter, Norah Lopez Holden pulls off the rare coup of making sense of the character’s underwritten trajectory. Infusing her character unexpectedly with rare anger instead of just anguish makes her not just pitiable but properly moving.
Elsewhere, however, the actors take so much time and are so over-deliberate that momentum is lost. At almost every beat of the text, Hersov seems to encourage them to take two. But although the intention is for clarity, slower is not necessarily more legible. Instead, the production becalms the play, as with Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude who, until her touching reveal of Ophelia’s death, lacks vigor. Similarly, although Adrian Dunbar carefully avoids the trap of playing Claudius as obviously manipulative, his overly patient performance generates little tension.
Hersov’s take occasionally strains for contemporary resonance: There are machine guns for guards, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern dance around taking selfies, and the play-within-a-play uses an onstage mixing deck. But it has pay-offs too, not least with knives replacing swords for the fatal finale. Yet that final sequence, not tense enough, also points up Hersov’s weakness with physical staging. Earlier in the production, for instance, the director gives us no real sense of where Polonius is hiding so that his sudden death doesn’t register as strongly as it should. Similarly, when the shocked Laertes is confronted by his sister who has lost her mind, Ajayi is left stranded so the atmosphere created drains away.
As for the enduring interest in a female actor playing Hamlet — women have been cast in the role since 1741 — the greatest compliment one can pay Jumbo is that she is so utterly convincing as the character, her gender instantly becomes irrelevant. Four performances are being live streamed and in a play in which her character spends so much time in soliloquy, her performance is likely to register easily as strongly on camera. All of which proves that, at the risk of contradicting Shakespeare, in this case, the player’s the thing.