It’s not unreasonable to raise an eyebrow upon hearing that Hollywood actor Jude Law, granted with a small bit of stage experience in his repertoire, is daring to play his first ever professional Shakespearean role on the London stage turn Broadway. It’s not unreasonable to raise both eyebrows upon hearing this first ever Shakespearience is the title role in the Donmar Warehouse production of Hamlet, directed by Michael Grandage. Three months in London’s West End and a stop at Denmark's Elsinore Castle led to full theatres and mixed reviews. This left much time for honing before opening night on October 6th at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre for a three-month run, one of those months in previews. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Law addressed the London reviews of his brash, furious and aggressive Hamlet, and introduced us to the idea of a more “leveled out”, witty and confident prince for his New York run. This newfound balance proves just the ticket on the Broadhurst stage. Law offers weighty insight in soliloquy, physicality in character, and the sharp and quick-witted prose we’ve come to know and love in Denmark’s tragic prince. Law’s Hamlet is balanced, daring and exciting, and pretty darn great.
Speaking an estimated forty-percent of the lines in the play, Law is not only an interesting Hamlet to hear, he’s an interesting Hamlet to watch. It’s as though every moment is a perfect movie still, and every movement a well-choreographed dance step. Law incorporates physicality throughout, and infuses so much energy into the part that I nearly had to catch my breath. He also knows what he’s talking about. There is no recitation or learning by rote here. It’s plain that after the year he was given to prepare for this role, and after the three months of performance in London, Law intimately understands his character, the language and the play as a whole. And dare I say it, he considers his critics.
The New York cast, direct from the London run with the exception of Geraldine James who plays Gertrude at the Broadhurst, is good, great, uneven and even miscast. Law discounts the scholastic side of Hamlet, but oddly so does Horatio, played by Matt Ryan. Albeit dashing, Ryan chooses swashbuckling over scholarly in his black upon black boots and leather jacket, hair pulled back but for wisps falling forward in a tousle, sword shackled to his side. Ryan offers more Depp than depth, although he and Law have good chemistry when engaged in their back and forths. This production seems to forget that Horatio’s inevitable role is that of timekeeper and orator; he stays alive to tell Hamlet’s story time and time again. Horatio and his duty as Hamlet’s trusted friend is lost somewhere in the sexy shadows.
Also lost is any sort of fear of and respect for the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, here played by Peter Eyre. Eyre seems to conjure the ghost of Barrymore for both his portrayal of Hamlet’s murdered father and for the role of the Player King. Frankly, he’d be better cast in a production of Paul Rednick’s I Hate Hamlet so he may more appropriately bring the Barrymore spirit to complete unrest. Eyre’s depiction is dated and overly dramatic, rapid and staccato in speech, and utterly disjointed from the rest of the stage. Antic disposition works for Hamlet, not for his ghostly father.
For all the passion, emotion and energy Law brings to Hamlet, the relationship between Polonius, played brilliantly by Ron Cook, and his children is fascinatingly cold and literally distant. When offering his “brief” bit of advice to Laertes (Gwilym Lee) or interrogating Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), there are at least a dozen steps between father and child, and the conversations are, to say the least, proper, terse and reserved. The siblings are tender and playful with one another when Laertes offers some brotherly advice about Hamlet, and his heartbreaking jump into Ophelia’s grave is wrenching and vivid. Ophelia comes across as reserved and unemotional with her father, and in the nunnery scene she hardly seems upset or even frazzled that Hamlet basically calls her a whore. This is disappointing, as it eliminates any sort of tragic love story between the two and then diminishes our sense of Hamlet’s despair at Ophelia’s grave. But Mbatha-Raw brings something quite magical to her mad scene—a moment of dark, raw, truly sad insanity, set forth in song after emotional and distracted song.
Cook, albeit quite small in stature, is great with both drama and comedy. His Polonius, while reserved and a proper man of the court, is wonderfully pompous and has a strange manner of moving ‘round the stage, with trunk planted and arms animated about. Cook also plays the Gravedigger and proves the only one to date who meets and beats Billy’s Crystal’s performance in Kenneth Branagh’s screen version of Hamlet. Cook (as Gravedigger) has impeccable comedic timing and lighting speed wit, in cockney accent and britches pulled up to his chest.
Kevin R. McNally as Claudius comes across as more staunch businessman than stately politician or seeming king of Denmark, but he shines in soliloquy, whether with "stubborn knees" as though to plead with us for pardon, or screaming in a momentary outburst, “Do it England!” As he watches his kingdom and his queen fall in the final scene of the play, McNally offers a sense of isolation experienced by a man whose world has just come crashing down by his own hand. And in death, this murderous king crawls on the stage floor like a zombie, grasping at Law’s ankles before dying a vulgar death.
The creative team is perfectly in tune. Christopher Oram’s set and costume design is stark and dark. The cast wears mostly black with shades of grey and splashes of white, the period contemporary, simple and timeless. A seemingly impervious black stage opens to layers upon layers of cold darkness, with two towering sliding doors creating a backdrop that opens to an immediate black brick wall. This Denmark is a prison, with cathedral ceilings and dusty beams of light shining through the battlement-like windows in a refractory pattern, casting focal points and looming shadows onstage. Neil Austin’s lighting design is filled with mystery, beauty and intrigue, and mingles with sound designer Adam Cork’s expanding and ascending compositions that underscore Hamlet’s intensity, emotion and despair, as well as a sense of anticipation without completion, with notes of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
Large drapes of fabric drop from above to signify scene changes into the court or Gertrude’s bedroom. Grandage offers a fascinatingly different perspective on the bedroom scene, placing Polonius in dark silhouette on the audience side of a sheer arras while Gertrude and Hamlet can be seen on the other lighted side. This approach makes Polonius’ death all the more shocking, as Hamlet’s blade stabs through the arras and toward the audience. From there, all comes tumbling down in a graceful and glorious heap, signifying a turning point in the play. After Polonius’ death, Law straddles James (Gertrude), holding her arms down against the floor, but the sometimes imposed Freudian reading is thankfully not imposed here; rather, the poignant moment for Hamlet in his mother’s boudoir occurs when Gertrude, picture perfect, stands next to the ghost, unaware of the apparition. Law displays a moment of internalized anguish at this bittersweet sight; so honest and raw, his pain permeates the theatre.
That is why this Hamlet is to be remembered. This production pierces the senses with so many vivid moments and images. From curtains dropping from the sky like silk; snow falling on Hamlet’s philosophical and seemingly calculated contemplation on the to be or not to be of being; patterns of light mixing with the darkness, to the attention Law pays to his hands when all else seems to be out of his grasp; these scenes and so much more will remain imprinted in the table of your memory. Law offers wit and comedy and such energy in prose, and in soliloquy, he reaches for the anger and despair and the totally ludicrous nature of his impervious situation, imbuing each word with inspiration and emotion. Jude Law dares to be great and is triumphant. My brows are now both back in their proper position, as Law has earned his rightful place as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Hamlet runs September 12 – December 6 (opening night October 6) at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. More information can be found at donmarwarehouse.com or by visiting http://www.broadhursttheater.net/.