IIt’s a season of ghosts. They haunt Conor McPherson Shining city in Stratford East and at Danny Robbins 2:22 in the West End. Now, three games with pretensions to ward off the spirit of the times do so by bringing in ghosts for historical revelation, inner truth, prophecy.

Cush Jumbo is one of the best Hamlets I saw: I think it is the 32nd that I saw for the Observer. There is no space between it and the words; they are what she is. Shaved head, clenched fingers and open face; at first nagging and heavy with suspicion; later dancing the old fashioned way with Ophelia – for once you can imagine the two getting along. There is always a fighter in his chest and a lover in his face, and I have never seen the derangement and the madness assumed more revealingly, intertwined in an ambiguous way: the dialogue on the subject between Hamlet and Laertes is a revelation. Jumbo has surprises in store until the end, uttering his last words with a slow smile of relief. She will finally get out of it: “the rest is silence”.

It’s a shame that Greg Hersov’s production is so hectic. Certainly, sparks fly in unexpected places. Joseph Marcell is a superb Polonius: precise and comical, giving meaning to every movement between him and his children. As Ophelia, Norah Lopez Holden – in headphones and warm pants – refreshingly banishes flabbiness, being serious first, then furious. Leo Wringer is unprecedented in his humor as a gravedigger.

Yet Adrian Dunbar is a rigid Claudius – he speaks of “the commotion in my blood” as if he had a summer cold – and, stripped of its political and dynastic dimension, the play is more purely domestic. It’s hard to get around Anna Fleischle’s design of massive, tarnished towers, which suggest monumentality missing in the cut script. Polonius’ murder is incredibly flat: Hamlet has to work hard behind one of the towers to find him, so the stabbing no longer feels instinctive, and the rest of the scene between Hamlet and his mother unfolds almost without being disturbed, as if the old man had just gone out to pee. It’s especially striking when – for once – here’s a Polonius who makes him want more, not less.

Jumbo is the first woman of color to star in a major production. She is neither a woman imitating masculine arrogance nor someone of a staunch androgynous. It proves once again that any good actor can be – or not be – Hamlet. Everyone has to honor the new talent this brings to the play. Unless of course you think everyone should be labeled. In this case, only a specter should play the ghost.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in The Mirror and the Light. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Observer

The West End scene is heavy with Tudor, with Six and, now, the last volume of the Hilary Mantel trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. No less perhaps because Henry VIII – a fat man with many women, who did not like the continent but was anxious to dismantle the institutions – has a topical resonance: glory. Dinner in disgrace. The mirror and the light, adapted by Mantel and Ben Miles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, traces the fall of the statesman. It’s an accomplished page-to-scene translation, exemplary in his daring decision to lose memorable passages to move the action forward. The opening scene of the book, which makes the seconds after Anne Boleyn’s execution gloriously terrifying, is – well – cut: Jeremy Herrin’s elegant production begins in 1540 with Cromwell’s arrest, then goes back four years to show his unraveling career.

Christopher Oram’s decor evokes the courtyard, the monastery and the cell: overhung by an iron cage of scaffolding, high gray walls are pierced by oblique axes of shadow and light (the lighting designer is Jessica Hung Han Yun); at the end, they are interrupted at the back by a long red cross. Miles, who played RSC’s Cromwell for two years, in Wolves Room and Raise the bodies, continues his inflected and edgy portrayal of the commanding but frayed hero. No tension here; stretched out in body as in spirit, we see in him the father blacksmith.

It’s a slippery night rather than an urgent one, with some obvious spots in the representations of the plebs and the French. However, it has some nice surprises in store. “I haven’t been able to write a songbook yet,” Mantel observed. Stephen Warbeck’s music – passing through backing vocals and sudden solo female vocals – directs attention inward. Just like the ghostly figures reminiscent of Cromwell’s past. A subtle but strong feminist thread is woven into the predominantly male action. There is a silent disturbance to the familiar legend in which Holbein flattered Anne of Cleves so much in her portrayal that Henry backed down, disappointed, when he met his future wife. The deep reds and golds and triangularities of Holbein’s painting are beautifully reproduced, but in the imagined but compelling version of Mantel, it’s Anne who flinches, unprepared for the faded swelling of her future bedmate.

Jo Herbert is notable as the insinuating Lady Rochford, who uses her size with disdain, spreading around her rings of discomfort. It’s one of the incidental pleasures of the evening that the play’s text becomes a small but substantial addition to the trilogy, with pungent encapsulations of “The Characters and Their Fates” provided by Mantel. Her rating on Lady R – looking at you as ‘if she knows a secret about you’, and could tell – made me want her to be the heroine of another volume.

And if if only lasts less than 20 minutes. Yet under the perfectly focused direction of longtime collaborator James Macdonald, Caryl Churchill’s new play is so loaded it goes deeper than most of the four cast.

John Heffernan is sad. His most beloved person – it is not immediately clear what relationship she or he has with him – has passed away. He sits in the white box of a Miriam Buether ensemble, which lifts and lowers above him like the back and forth of grief. He only longs for “a wisp” – the tongue has a teasing echo of the brevity of the play – of the one who is dead. And gets it in the form of a spectral figure. The piece – majestic, albeit brief – gradually develops like a bruise, as individual grief turns into loss of hope for the future. The shadow of a human being appears on the back wall. He takes on the flesh of the least probable ghost: Linda Bassett, interrogative and down-to-earth, takes the stage with the power of her apparent banality.

Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in Caryl Churchill's What If Only.
Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in Caryl Churchill’s What If Only. Photography: Johan Persson

This is not the first time that Bassett has served as Churchill’s oracle. In 2016, in Escaped alone, it was a woman who spoke of unforgettable dystopia; here – almost worse – she talks about better futures that may elude us, perspectives of “movies and trees and people who love each other”, animated by “tigers and coral”, with resources that we can have. – to be “swallowed up”. Churchill is generally considered oblique, free, elliptical. This is true of the action of his plays, but it’s hard to find a playwright whose individual phrases are so rich and vivid. There is a ray of hope here, facing a child: radiant and confident, Jasmine Nyenya embodies another possibility for the future. “There is no need for a ghost from the grave to tell us,” Horatio told Hamlet. But we, the public, need this ghost.

Number of stars (out of five)
Hamlet
??
The mirror and the light ??
And if if only ??

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