Tuesday, September 22, 2009
When Jude Law's Hamlet opened earlier this year at London's Donmar West End, The Sunday Times' reviewer (Christopher Hart) was glad to see it. Though fearing the worst from a movie star in the difficult title role, Hart in the end was pleasantly surprised. And so was I the other night when the Danish prince arrived in New York for previews prior to opening on October 6th (with almost the same cast in the principal parts) at the Broadhurst on West 44th Street.
Hart found Law's London performance "hard-working and successful." I thought his Manhattan one was all that and a good deal more. I'll explain why. But first a caveat. I've long been an FOW (i.e., Fan of William). As for Jude, our prior acquaintance had only been passing, limited to his screen appearance as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I enjoyed. It was Matt Damon's fascinating Ripley, however, who held my interest.
Then came Law's Hamlet. I've seen perhaps a half-dozen stage/screen Hamlets over the years and Mr. Law's ranks among the more memorable. While he may not have the presence of an Olivier, his performance rivals that of Olivier in its clarity and intelligence. And though I never thought I'd see a more graceful or balletic Hamlet than Jean-Louis Barrault in his 1952 New York appearance in Gide's French translation of the play, I was wrong. What's truly outstanding in Jude Law's Hamlet is his physicality, his athleticism, the fluidity of his movements and, most brilliant of all, his hands. Darting about in space, they direct our attention, articulate his ideas, fly up with amazement, clutch each other in grief. It's hard to take one's eyes off them, or him.
If some English critics saw this Hamlet as a tad too cool not loveable enough, that's plainly not the one who turned up here. No sooner is he introduced lamenting in soliloquy the death of his father, and his mother's almost immediate remarriage to uncle Claudius, then he shows us his breaking heart. Followed in the next scene by his warm open-handed public greeting to his schoolmate Horatio and other friends from the university at Wittenberg. No standoffish Royal he. A cool Hamlet should be made of sterner stuff. The scene in which Ophelia attempts to return his love tokens proves to be especially moving when the antic Hamlet suddenly pauses in his ribald comments on beauty and honesty to say, with touching effect, "I did love you once." Made all the more touching by the young Prince's increasingly shrill and manic chorus of "Get thee to a nunnery."
What seems cold in this claustrophobic Elsinore, directed by Michael Grandage, is castle living. The guards on the ramparts can see their breath in the chill night air where snow always seems to be in the forecast or actually falling. Hamlet wears clothes that mirror his dark mood and so too, for the most past, does the rest of the cast. In fact, there is remarkably little pomp and less ceremony in this often dimly-lit subfusc production, but when color does appear it does so with startlingly dramatic effect. The brilliant red carpet that's unrolled for the Royals when they make their initial appearance in Act I cleaves the air like a sennet. And subsequently the all-white costumes of the players adds a welcome air of mystery to their improvised drama of regicide.
One of the more surreal directorial touches in the play is the yellow diaphanous curtain that hangs across Gertrude's room and which Polonius hides behind as Hamlet approaches. Ingenious though this staging is, placing Polonius to good dramatic effect closest to the audience so that we see first-hand the result of Hamlet's dagger thrust home through the arras, it offers the audience only a veiled view of the principal action between Hamlet and his mother. Equally problematic is that it's hardly a credible hiding place for the elderly nobleman when a heavy tapestry is called for.
Grandage's swift three-hour Hamlet is a fast-paced, enjoyable production in which time flies...and so, too, do the actors, entering stage right hot on the heels of their departing colleagues exiting stage left. Cuts in the text also help but come at a cost. Speeding the pace, we lose the Shakespeare. It's Law's performance that's the gift of this Shakespeare, culminating as it does in one of the most riveting treatments of the play's dueling sequence I've ever seen. Fortinbras in eulogizing the dead Prince says, "For he was most likely, had he been put on,/To have proved most royally." Whatever the shortcomings of the Donmar West End production of the play, Law's Hamlet, as predicted, distinguished himself.