"I am more an antique Roman than a Dane...here's yet some liquor left."
Although I really like much of Shakespeare's work, I often find myself thinking of Horatio's line when presented with the notion of actually dragging my carcass out to see stage productions. This is especially true for the longer plays, of which Hamlet is certainly one. Every once in a while, though, despite my reticent and crabby nature I am rewarded handsomely; and every now and then I find that at the very least my time was not wasted.
Jude Law is no stranger to stage or screen. This production of Hamlet was originally staged in London's West End at The Donmar Warehouse, a small not-for-profit theater. It had a short run at Elsinore, the actual castle depicted in the play, and is currently in the midst of an approximately two-month run on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theater on 44th st in New York City.
To be honest, I had very few expectations going in. I had never seen Mr. Law perform live, and I had read very little about the production - the style, the decisions made, the quality. As a result, the play came as a pleasant surprise.
Getting it out of the way, let's talk about Jude Law
Mr. Law is a physical actor in this show. He throws himself about the stage frantically, whether debating himself as the private Hamlet or debasing himself as the antic one. He manages to pull off two or three genuinely funny physical gags - imitating a crab, in one; swooping down on Polonius for some highly energetic pelvic thrusts in another. Rather than lower the tone, these antics (ha) are slotted quite smoothly into his portrayal of Hamlet as a young, physical, and very frustrated, angry and confused man.
He is young and in top form as an athlete and scholar. He is frustrated at the world's lack of justified response to his uncle's transgressions, and with the failings of the other characters - his mother's infidelity, his uncle's treachery, his friends' duplicity. Most of all, however, he is frustrated with himself and his inability to act - a standard Hamlet trope.
The anger is obvious. The confusion less so, but certainly there - he knows that he is not acting, but he has trouble understanding why. It's almost - but not quite - made clear that this Hamlet is a well-socialized man (reference to his studies abroad) and that as such, he is not able to easily break from his code of programmed behavior. "Thou shalt not kill," while easily dismissed from within the throes of angry and passionate revenge, is not as simply evaded when the business requires action rather than words. Whereas most people would likely rail against their restrictions, but eventually subside and consider that their 'better parts' had won, Mr. Law's Hamlet rages against his inability to carry out his appointed task, and is confused by it.
Ladies: yes, he looks good up there. A not-so-subtle indicator of his state of mind, Hamlet's hair spends the entire show in an artfully maintained state of blowsy chaos. There's got to be enough product holding that 'do up to probably maintain the Hoover Dam. But it fits - along with sprawling clothes, modeled halfway between pajamas and hipster leisure wear, Mr. Law gives us a portrait of a young man careless of his own condition and at war with his situation.
The cast is of mixed quality. They are hampered by the fact that this production is, make no mistake, a diorama with Jude Law at the center of the stage. Their task is to support Mr. Law's Hamlet, and to serve as both lens and reflector to his light. As such, judging their performances isn't easy. There are some notable strong and weak points, however.
Claudius, O Treacherous Uncle, is played with fine style by Kevin McNally. This was a bit distracting for my traitor pop-culture brain, because his trademark lopsided frown immediately drew into my head his role as Joshamee Gibbs, better known as First Mate of the pirate ship The Black Pearl. I kept waiting for him to say "Aye, cap'n, something...*shiny*!" and was thus continually disappointed. However, not by his work - he seems to be setting himself here to the task of playing a smooth and solid Claudius, and hits that spot right on. There is nothing brilliant about his portrayal, but there is nothing false about it either. It is probably one of the most solid jobs done in the cast.
Gertrude is one of the weak points. Played almost in the background, she never shows enough emotion to determine why she might be tempted into infidelity. Was it fear? Lust? Love? Worry for her position? Worry for her son? We are not offered a single clue.
Ophelia starts off a bit wooden, especially playing opposite Polonius, but manages to pull off her final scene of madness with some flair before dashing desperately off backstage to drown herself in the creek.
All I'll say is that one shouldn't go to this show expecting an ensemble performance. It's really a one-man exposition.
The show is done very...safely. There are no interesting settings or interpretations; we are placed squarely in the medieval demesnes of Denmark and there we stay. The set design is minimal, with castle walls and doors providing an unexceptionable backdrop to the action. There are some nice touches; the scene in Gertrude's bedroom is staged 'in reverse' - a translucent drop (the arras) is placed between Hamlet and Gertrude on the far side and us the audience on the near; Polonius 'conceals' himself from the players across the curtain, placing us 'behind the arras' with him. In several scenes, there is an extremely well-done snowfall which manages neither to look fake nor to allow itself to get stuck on costumes or tracked across the set - a skilful job.
The real star of the production, though, is the lighting. The lighting is almost another character; strong, direct, and only resorting to subtlety when absolutely required, the light palette is hot, white and glaring. It is used for mood management as well as emphasis, and as such, it does the job admirably.
In sum, this is a fine production of an excellent play. It takes very few risks, however - and given the familiarity of Shakespeare's work even for the general public by this time, sometimes risks and unexpected directions are what will really make a Shakespeare production. As a result, Mr. Law's Hamlet comes across as a solid, but safe, production.