And the cougher next to me. And the reality TV star in front of me. And the 101 idiots walking in late DESPITE all the emails.
Hamlet. Described by Geoffrey Tennant as The World’s Longest Knock-knock joke. One of those plays where every line seems to echo because you’ve heard it before – in lit class, in pop music, delivered like a proverb. Though I’ve seen high school productions and movie adaptations and Canadian TV homages and studied it twice in Wendy Hyman’s amazing Shakespe it’s been years since I’ve seen a live Hamlet – and then it was Wallace Acton’s Hamlet, with David Sabin as the most perfect Polonius you could ask for.
So despite already having about 100 cool points for just being Jude Law, this Hamlet (which the Aged P arranged for me to see in previews, pre-birthday, thanks Aged P!!) had a lot of game to bring.
And I’m pleased to say, he rocked it.
Kate and I got into a discussion about the sentimentality frequently ascribed to Shakespeare – she felt it was often done inappropriately, I’m a sucker for the emotional content matching the lushness of the poetry. For example, I tend to like the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene to be tender, sweeter – theirs isn’t a great Romeo and Juliet love, but rather an evolving regard that Hamlet genuinely regrets turning his back on. When Wallace Acton did it, it made me cry.
But this Hamlet was not that Hamlet – this production, brought over from the West End’s staging in May, was unsentimental and deft. Law’s Hamlet is older, not a brash boy but a delayed adolescent dragging his feet to maturity even though he’s already reached adulthood. His grief is believable, his embrace of a purpose for his life equally so. This is not a wishy-washy philosopher Hamlet, this is a Hamlet looking around to realize real life is happening – real life meaning love and death and war and aging – and immediately striking out in search of what makes it worthwhile.
Law’s line delivery was great – he made absolute sense of the verse, finding humor where possible, candor, fury, contemplation when appropriate. He also seemed to understand the space he was playing – some of the company were performing a little close to the vest for a larger theater, their speech was less distinct. He also happened to be hoarse last night, which actually helped tug me away from constant "ZOMG Jude Law" realizations because he sounded so different. The director, Michael Grandage, also brilliantly avoided the Celebrity Recognition Clap by raising the curtain on Law crouching on a bare, darkened stage, standing up to walk through several beams of light and then exit so the guards could come on to begin with "Who’s There?"
Christopher Oram’s set is large and stony and austere – shafts of light from lighting designer Neil Austin coming in from high barred windows provide the structure as there are only a few physical set pieces – a bench for Hamlet’s showdown with his mother, throne chairs (which Hamlet petulantly pushes apart so his mother won’t sit so near his uncle – a little boy’s attempt to restore order and decorum). For most of the play the light is bright, blue-white, snowy and cutting down from above. For Ophelia’s mad scene it is low, and tinged golden. Everyone in this play is collateral damage, but Ophelia’s pain is singled out because it knows nothing of revenge or affairs of state, just a young woman’s fear that if only she’d been able to carry out her family’s wishes of matrimony none of this would have happened…
Mr. Gibbs Kevin R. McNally as Claudius was good – not a caricature of an evil mastermind, but an ambitious royal who senses immediately that Hamlet is a threat – and might have been a threat even if King Hamlet had not been murdered. Gertrude (Geraldine James) was fine – I very much liked Michael Grandage’s choice to have her reject Claudius’ advances after Hamlet chastises her. I hate seeing a weak Gertrude who goes right back to hand-holding and kissing – it invalidates the power of the scene where Polonius is killed. Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was very good – they set her mad songs to subtle undercurrents of music, which had the effect of drawing you into her madness and forcing you to listen. In some productions it’s easy to tune out the matter of what she’s saying, but when it’s actively put to music the scene feels much more ominous and significant – well done Adam Cork.
Polonius (Ron Cook) didn’t milk the humor of the fond father”s foolishness – and was double-cast as the Gravedigger, a choice I couldn’t recall seeing before (maybe it’s common, or how Shakespeare did it) but which makes total sense. The noble – here a sort of 30s attache – uses flowery phrases and talks around the point; the undertaker evades the point of conversation like it’s a rapier and chooses never to give a straight answer. The Ghost of King Hamlet and the Player who acts as King Gonzago were also played by the same actor – the effect was to create a sort of visual echo, a vague uneasiness of "something’s amiss."
I also noticed a lot of thematic emphasis on what’s rotten in the state of Denmark, the corruption, the sickness – these are factors the court was talking of before the ghost returns and Hamlet is given his mission. When he runs across the troop of soldiers on his way to England, it’s a big slap of a reminder to Hamlet that there are Real Issues facing his country, it’s not all about his mother and father.
That was the weight of the production, it seemed to me. Being young and Romantic myself, I tend to focus on Hamlet and Ophelia and the Great Love That Was Interrupted, whereas here it was all about Hamlet and his parents – at least for Hamlet. There’s a great moment when Hamlet is confronting his mother, and King Hamlet’s Ghost appears to point out he’s gotten rather off track with the killing of Polonius and all. Gertrude walks to where Hamlet is staring, aghast, and steps right up next to the ghost. Hamlet reacts to the family portrait they create, standing together, like any grieving son. It was just a beat, a wordless touch reminding us that underneath his madness and his posing and his questioning, Hamlet is bereft and hurt and for much of the play, just a sullen kid. But with the "Now all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy, he finally confronts the wider world of death and war and just causes. I’d never understood that speech so clearly as I did with Law’s performance last night.
It runs through December 6th. My suggestion is to hie thee hence with all haste.