Last night I saw a movie star play Hamlet. He wasn’t the first movie star I’ve seen attempt it, and I honor all who try. It’s not just a great role; it’s a killer -- generally over three hours of leading a story along, carrying that burden with very little offstage time, of total exhaustion after each performance. If you’re doing your job.
Last night Jude Law did an exemplary job. His Hamlet is surly, angry, hopeful, juvenile, responsible, dramatic, powerful, virile, funny. He cowers like a child, he glides like a panther, he’s hot, he’s cold, he’s cool.
Law’s Hamlet connects, he engages, and for any actor who wants to join in the fun, he’s right there. For instance, conversations between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the best I’ve seen. The three sit cross-legged on the floor as if in a college dorm room, comfortable, relaxed. He pauses after his first “Were you sent for?” honestly awaiting an answer. Simply, conversationally. The agonizing silence extends as his old friends know not how to respond without hurting or angering him. Understanding comes, and disappointment. This is the way Law’s Hamlet plays a scene. He is just a guy, unsuited to his fate, taking action only when he must: a man without a plan. As he says – “Time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right.”
The play opens on the cold dark ramparts of Elsinore, with a pleasingly good Barnardo (Michael Hadley, who also plays the Priest, both men warm living beings), Marcellus (Henry Pettigrew playing multiple roles very well), and Matt Ryan’s pure Horatio. Their interaction is realistic, clean, and the beginning of the story they offer us is clearer than usual, without sounding like exposition. This augurs well.
The opening court scene is nicely staged, and we all search out the main characters. Geraldine James as Gertrude is center with Kevin R. McNally’s stately Claudius. Polonius, delightfully played by Ron Cook, is deferentially upstage of them, awaiting his summons. The Laertes is serviceable, the courtiers more so – Osric is introduced, so we know we’ll see him again. The predicted 3.5 hour length leads us to believe we’ll have close to full text tonight, and so far so good. There are a few women onstage, but it’s easy to find the youngest, sweetest-looking as Ophelia, and we look for her eyes to seek out Hamlet as ours do. He stands with his back to the audience, facing his mother, who directs all her looks and words to him. The Ophelia, oddly, is disengaged.
Law’s Hamlet converses softly, fiercely, tragically, comically, pastorally. He connects with all – except the Ophelia, but more on that anon. He takes the stage for his soliloquies, and into each he breathes fresh air, clean lines, vivid images. This man does not merely know how to woo a camera. This man’s voice and mind and body gather a live audience into his heart, and we will go with him anywhere. I find myself smiling at his gorgeous deliveries, happy to experience them. I’ve seen him onstage before, but hell, this is Hamlet he’s assaying. Hot damn.
Ophelia, as played by the RADA-trained (read Juilliard in an English accent) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is a disconnect. She has no relationship with her brother Laertes. She has no relationship with her father Polonius, and she has no feelings for anyone around her, including Hamlet. She is a puzzlement. I go to every Hamlet with the desire to like the Ophelia. Alas, I missed Lauren Ambrose’s turn in the Park last summer, but I did see Pernilla Ostergren’s Ophelia in Bergman’s Hamlet at BAM in the late 1980s. She was marvelous, gutsy, thoroughly believable. Of course the play was also in Swedish, so I couldn’t hear any mangling of verse that so oft offends. Ms. Mbatha-Raw did not mangle the verse. She is merely … not there. There is no there there. She has clearly had proper schooling in scansion; she knows how to speak the verse. From the moment we see that she doesn’t even look toward Hamlet in the opening scene, we could feel the emptiness there. Is this young love? No, Claudius seems right on that point. Not with Mbatha-Raw as Ophelia, there is no love or feeling of any kind. Her mad scene was a schoolgirl’s attempt to not overact, so she merely showed off a well trained voice and sang. Perfectly, clearly, to underscoring!!! Who underscores Ophelia’s mad song? Clearly this is director Michael Grandage's choice, but it is an inauspicious one and stands out in this otherwise strong production. Appalling scene. A great disservice has been done to all future audiences, for Ms. Mbatha-Raw can always state that she played Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse and on Broadway. Why why why.
All right, enough of her.
My attention wandered on occasion, and I snapped back to the stage feeling great guilt. But why. It’s their job to hold it, not mine to force it. The Claudius was quite disappointing. It’s a marvelous role, so full, so many choices that could be made. McNally began well in the opening, a politico, classy with a touch of smarmy. The audience needs to see why the election went to him instead of the son of the late king, and he gives us that. And for a moment (note, a silent moment) in the play-within-a-play, I thought he was finally taking a stand. But the moment we saw him alone in the magnificent chapel scene, my mind wandered. All the way back 30, or was it 40 years to Richard Johnson playing the role so well in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of 1970 or so with Richard Chamberlain fresh from his Dr. Kildare scrubs. Richard Johnson was riveting.
Mr. McNally was not, at any time, riveting.
Mr. Law was. And not just because he’s gorgeous. Of course he is, and from the first mezzanine his perfectly lit face’s bone structure is even better than it is close up on screen – honestly. His voice fills the Broadhurst, his body slinks and struts and slumps and collapses and rears up – it’s a fine body.
OK, enough of that, too.
I’m a fan of Geraldine James, but after that well-rehearsed opening court scene, I knew her choices for Gertrude because she telegraphed them. She even blew her lines when announcing (not in a frighteningly chilly way, just plain cold) Ophelia’s death. The woman was thinking on stage instead of being on stage, and I was quite surprised. She was not the original Gertrude of the Donmar production (that was Penelope Wilton), but surely she should know her lines. Throughout, she felt decidedly under-rehearsed.
The main problem of this production was that when Hamlet left the scene, so did the light and the life. The scenes lacking Law’s presence were merely educational, filler, ‘this is what happens what Hamlet’s not here.’ The verse was always clear, the language beautiful, the story continued, but as if with narration, not action. Even if Law's Hamlet was not the focus of a scene, as long as he was there, the other actors woke up and smelled strong coffee brewing. Except Ophelia. I don’t even want to talk about the nunnery scene.
Ah, the Gravedigger scene – so often this “clown” scene falls flat. Not this production. The First Gravedigger is played by Ron Cook after his Polonius' guts were dragged to the nether room. Here he comes, shoveling up skulls from an ingeniously created grave center stage. His last appearance was also among clever scenic executions – the arras behind which Polonius listened to Hamlet and Gertrude’s ‘closet scene’ was translucently downstage of the prince and queen so that we and Polonius looked through the curtain to eavesdrop. On his death, Polonius pulled the curtain down, and after I had a quick flash of Janet Leigh in Psycho, the white curtain tumbled around Polonius like a soft fall of snow. Beautiful.
Throughout, the scenic design was striking – simple, clean lines, texture, light, and dark, and smoke, no mirrors. And snow. Six or so months back, I saw it rain on the Broadhurst stage. Last night it snowed on Hamlet. Lighting was sometimes mysterious, always the right angle, shadowed what and who belonged in shadow. Doors would slide open and closed, tall and short, confining and releasing the characters, dividing them, closing them in. Denmark is, after all, a prison.
I’ve mentioned some negatives here, but may I assure you, I was exhilarated leaving the theatre. This production had the effect of making us stay together to talk about it for something like an hour afterward, as good theatre should. This Hamlet was joyous, it was marvelous. A flawed production – when are they not – but with so many excellent moments and scenes, I’d happily see it again to see how this cast settles in.
Especially if Ophelia’s understudy goes on.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. I have reading to do....a play called "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."