Does reading reviews first colour your opinion of something when you actually see it?
One of the pleasures — but also the risks — of being a theatre critic is that you come first to a new production, ready to form your own opinions on what you’ve seen, before you’ve already encountered or digested the opinions of others. The risk, of course, is being out-of-step with the critical majority; a key instance for me was the Jamie Lloyd production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, which many of my colleagues adored, but left me cold. Ditto Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella and just a couple of weeks ago, Back to the Future, which both received five star raves in some quarters, but not mine.
In the case of Back to the Future, I came late to it after missing the press night as I was in Barbados, then I came home to the rest of that week’s performances being cancelled (owing to star Roger Bart testing positive for Covid and the rest of the company having to isolate). By the time I saw it, the House Full signs were outside the theatre, and it had the smell of a hit.
My expectations were high; but I left feeling a little ‘meh’. (Even the much-heralded flying of the DeLorian over the heads of the audience, though it provided a jolt of theatrical ‘how-did-they-do-that’ thrills, reminded me that 19 years ago I saw a similarly levitating car when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang premiered at the London Palladium, though admittedly it didn’t — spoiler alert — turn upside down with its inhabitants inside it).
Yesterday afternoon, by contrast, I saw the Young Vic’s long-awaited Hamlet, starring Cush Jumbo as the Dane, two days after it opened to the national press on Monday, and the mixed bag of reviews I’d read hadn’t entirely whetted my appetite, not to mention the prospect of spending over three hours on the Young Vic’s punishing benches.
As it happens, I was seated next to a young woman who told me she was a guest on tonight’s edition of Front Row on BBC Radio 4. And when I told her that I’d read the reviews, she was surprised: didn’t I want to see it unfiltered by the opinions of others? Of course, that’s hardly possible nowadays in a world of constant opinion on Twitter, Facebook and bulletin boards; but there’s a difference between ‘overhearing’ a passing comment there, and actively seeking out the considered analysis of professional critics.
That, at least, is what we hope to get from critics, whose experience allows them to put a production in some sort of context. Interestingly, however, the Front Row contributor sitting beside me, who is also an actor and a writer, told me that she was actually seeing the play live for the first time, so could only judge it on its own terms, not in comparison with past memories. I’m looking forward to hearing what may be a completely fresh perspective tonight; though I’d caution that these classics are a stumbling block for directors and critics alike, as they seek to shine fresh, original thoughts on them.
Time Out’s Andzrej Lukowski admits:
“It took me a while to attune to Greg Hersov’s modern-dress production, and I’m not 100 percent sure I quite got what he was aiming for. But to me its central tenet seemed to be the idea that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a massive douchebag.”
Referring to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate, he goes on,
“There’s little doubt that it’s a proper psycho move of Jumbo’s Hamlet to have them offed. He is not wholly unpleasant, but he seems locked on his murderous path from the beginning: this Hamlet seems less actively hesitant than other interpretations; it’s more a case of working up the courage to become a killer than having any real doubt he needs to kill.”
And he re-phrases his ‘douchebag’ thought to now label Hamlet with another anatomical description:
“The huge downside of this is that having Hamlet as a dick all the way through doesn’t make for an especially moving end. In fact it’s something of a relief when it’s all over.”
That ambivalence towards the production and this interpretation pays off with this conclusion, that tries to have it both ways:
“Ultimately it’s not very tragic and that’s a problem with a tragedy: this is a thrilling three-hour ride, but ultimately a shallow one. At the very end, Hamlet’s improbably loyal BFF Horatio is in bits. But we’re not. And that’s selling Hamlet very short.”
In a two-star review for The Independent, Ava Wong Davies is similarly ambivalent: she complains,
“For the most part, [Greg] Hersov’s direction simply does not have the requisite drive needed to make this play feel genuinely urgent. The majority of scenes are poorly blocked, with characters just standing around the stage, airlessly speaking their lines at one another… As a whole, Hersov’s vision is oddly bloodless and lacking in coherent vision… Jumbo’s Hamlet, while good, and occasionally great, simply isn’t enough to pull Hersov’s production together by sheer force of will. She is best when playing up her Hamlet’s drollness and sarcasm, sparking off the idiocy of the sycophants in the Danish court, but her soliloquies are less strong: she is able to convey the leaps from aching grief to blazing fury in broad strokes, but tends to speak verse with a lilting, tripping musicality that can feel a little like she’s just riding out the lines, rather than fully grappling with them. It’s a real shame: a Hamlet with the potential for greatness, but which ultimately fails to draw blood.”
My expectations duly adjusted, I took my seat for Hamlet — and, unlike Back to the Future where the production delivered much less than some of the reviews had promised, this one delivered far more. We may have had to wait a bruising two years for the production to finally return Cush Jumbo to the London stage since it was first announced, but it was definitely worth the wait. She’s a can-do-anything actor and proves it with utter precision and perception.
I’ve previously seen Michael Sheen play Hamlet on this same stage; Adrian Lester has also played it here in a production for director Peter Brook that I didn’t see. Jumbo is absolutely in their league. Cutting a slim, androgynous figure with tightly cropped hair, her gender is irrelevant.
And Hersov’s modern-dress production is crisp and detailed, with terrific support from Tara Fitzgerald (Gertrude) and Jonathan Ajayi (Laertes), both pictured with Jumbo above, plus a remarkable Ophelia from Nora Lopez Holden and Leo Wringer as a wonderful West Indian gravedigger.
Henry VIII back on Shaftesbury Avenue
No sooner has Henry VIII and his six wives departed Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric Theatre to take up permanent residence on the Strand at the Vaudeville in the 80-minute concert/musical revue Six than the serially-married monarch is back, two doors down, at the Gielgud, for the latest installment of the RSC stage version of Hilary Mantel’s novel treatment of his story.
This time Mantel has co-adapted her own book with Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell (or Crum, as other characters often refer to him) again with Nathaniel Parker as Henry (or Harry as he’s sometimes called here).
Confession time: stage versions of popular books are not really my “thing” — they can feel stilted even as they strive for a naturalistic familiarity. There’s the tendency to crowbar in information that the characters would already know (at one point, Cromwell speaks to a man of “your other sister, recently widowed”)
But this epic historical pageant has such a good story I was gripped. And Jeremy Herrin’s production gives it a propulsive momentum on Christopher Oram’s expansive set.
While many producers are playing it safe with productions featuring very small casts, this one has a cast of 24: not only is that more actors to pay, of course, but it increases the risk of a COVID outbreak in the company causing disruption, like we’ve repeatedly seen with big musicals recently, including the aforementioned Back to the Future.
And of course the audience is also bigger, too. SOLT and UK Theatre have left it to each and every theatre to make up their own rules around COVID safety precautions, and some think it is a matter of “personal choice” whether people mask up (as I found at Liverpool’s Everyman last week, when even the staff weren’t masked — so why would the public?). But I’m nonetheless shocked at every first night by the widespread disregard for masking. (I now double-mask — a surgical one, over which I ‘dress’ a cloth one).
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS (October 7)
SEE YOU TOMORROW…See you in your inbox or here tomorrow. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter (though not as often on weekends as on weekdays): Twitter.com/ShentonStage
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