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A CurtainUp Review

Jude Law Brings his Energetic Hamlet to Broadway

Jude Law as Hamlet
(Photo: Johann Persson)
Okay, so I didn't see two Hamlets within a two-week time period as my colleague Simon Saltzman did (Simon's essay). However, I've now seen three attractive young actors play the not so sweet Danish prince three seasons running: Last year Christian Carmago in the Theater for a New Audience production (review), this summer Jason Asprey (review and now Jude Law, known to American audiences mostly as a movie actor.

Typical of the many actors whose footsteps they followed, each actor and his director gave it the fresh spin that audiences, especially those who've seen it before, have come to expect.

Fortunately, none of these directors tried to push the Bard aside and make the play almost more theirs than his (shades of Peter Sellars' recently overly long and overly re-jiggered Othello).

Jason Asprey was intriguingly cast with his real life mother and stepfather as Queen Gertrude and Claudius and introduced via a high concept fragmentary opening monologue that included some of the play's most famous utterances, like "to be or not to be," to evoke a dying man's jagged recap of the father's death and consequent madness and conundrums he has experienced. Christian Carmago, by interrupting himself for a re-take during the to be or not to be soliloquy, turned it more into an amusing filip than a suicidal contemplation.

Besides being young and attractive, all these Hamlets delivered the lines clearly, paying just due to Shakespeare's poetry. But as the Hamlet now at the Broadhurst confirms Lizzie Loveridge's opinion that this is Jude Law's play so, if I had to pick the best of these three most recently seen performances, it's Law! Law! Law!

Besides being strikingly handsome, Law brings remarkable and bracing physicality to this demanding role (one can only marvel at his doing this twice a day on matinee days) and makes it very much his own. And Lizzie, a Shakespearian of the first order who's seen more Hamlets than this reviewer, knows what she's talking about when she says that Law's delivery of the verse is as clear as any you're likely to have heard and the emotional resonance of his soliloquies.

Uncut, Hamlet would probably run an hour longer than this or other recent productions, but while Polonius' advice that "brevity is the soul of wit" isn't exactly applicable to this 3 hours and 15 minute production, those three hours fly by and keep you enthralled even though the story is familiar and some of the lines have become known to the point of cliche.

While Law is the magnet (deservedly so) to make Hamlet one of several celebrity cast plays attracting crowds of autograph hounds with digital cameras in hand to the theater district, much of its success is owed to Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse from which this production has transferred with most of its original cast intact. Grandage and set and costume designer Christopher Oram have created a stark, uncluttered Elsinore that is nevertheless indisputably dramatic, with some breathtaking flourishes such as the red curtain's unfolding under its own weight to take us to the court newly ascended by Claudius (Kevin McNally); also having Polonius (Ron Cook) murdered as he's front and center, while Queen Gertrude (Geraldine James) is seen upstage through a sheer curtain. There are plenty of other vivid images created as Oram's towering black wall opens and closes, most notably as a barefooted Hamlet delivers his " to be or not to be" soliloquy in a shower of snow (courtesy of lighting designer Neil Austin).

Though the clarity of the text delivery is not limited to Law, I found the rest of the cast fine but not extraordinary. McNally's Claudius didn't make a particularly strong impression and Ron Cook pushed too hard for laughs as the adage spouting Polonius. He impressed me more as the Grave Digger.

It was great to see Geraldine James, who has replaced the original Gertrude, live after years of admiring her in such Masterpiece Theater classics as The Jewel and the Crown. She's elegantly understated as the quickly remarried Queen. Her ultimate collapse and realization of the evil to which she's been party, powerfully contrasting with her chilly demeanor throughout. I've always had difficulty relating to Ophelia's mad scene so it was nice to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw's less than usual over-the-top Ophelia, and Gwilym Lee is fine as her brother Laertes and the play's other son of a murdered father.

For all the intrigue and tragedy, there are plenty of chuckle-inducing moments, quite a few via Law's physical actions — as when he prepares for the players' scene and seeing the two throne chairs (in this case two plain wooden chairs) close together, mischievously pushes them apart.

To sum up, I'll echo our London critic once again: I'm impressed.

For links to other Hamlets and Shakespeare plays we've reviewed, see our Shakespeare Page. To read Simon Saltzman's comparison of the two Hamlets seen just two-week apart go here. Lizzie Loveridge's review at the Donmar, follows the production notes below

Broadway Production Notes:
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Cast: Ross Armstrong (Cornelius), Harry Attwell (Guildenstern), Ron Cook (Polonius/First Gravedigger), Ian Drysdale (Osric), Peter Eyre (Ghost/Player King), Sean Jackson (Reynaldo), Michael Hadley (Bernardo, Priest, Captain), Geraldine James (Gertrude), Jude Law (Hamlet), Gwilym Lee (Laertes), John MacMillan (Rosencrantz), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ophelia), Kevin R. McNally (Claudius), Henry Pettigrew (Marcellos, 3rd player, 2nd Gravedigger, Ambassador), Matt Ryan (Horatio), Alan Turkington (Francisco Fortinbras, 4th Player); Faye Winter, Colin Haugh, James Feuvre (Members of the Court).
Sets and costumes: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Composer and sounde engineer: Adam Cork
Technical supervisors, Aurora Productions and Patrick Molony
Stage Manager: Frank Lombardi
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes with including one 15-minute intermission
Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. From 9/12//09; opened 10/06/09; closing 12/06/09
Tickets $25-$116.50. A limited number of $35 tickets, subject to availability, will be made available for purchase by students at the box office on the day of the performance only. One ticket per valid student ID. The $25 rear mezzanine seats are sold out for the entire run of the show.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer October 8th

The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
— Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5
Jude Law is the latest actor of fame and reputation to grace the Donmar West End at Wyndham's Theatre Season and in probably the greatest of Shakespearean roles, Hamlet the Prince of Denmark. Michael Grandage's production is gimmick free and allows Hamlet to occupy the centre stage. This is not a production where we will discuss Claudius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at length (even though Guildenstern is played by the talented John MacMillan) because the other characters pale into insignificance next to the troubled prince.

Even the company of players, whose scene is truncated rather than the over embellishment we have seen in recent productions, are there to illuminate the king's guilt rather than to also provide a diversion for the grieving Hamlet. So how does Grandage do this? Christopher Oram's design is the key. Often the players, as untainted by the corruption of the court, enter as a breath of fresh air contrasting the dark mourning colours of Hamlet with bright primaries. Here the players arrive in dark clothes but in costume on stage they dress in white and play their play on a white floorcloth, so brilliantly lit that we see those remainder flashes in front of our eyes for several minutes afterwards.

This is very much Jude Law's play. The clarity of the verse is as clear as any I can remember and spoken with understanding and sincerity. The emotional quality of his soliloquies is striking. The opening scene of the play sees Hamlet a crumpled figure, hearing voices in his head, "Ghost, ghost, ghost" they seem to murmur. Hamlet leaves and we are on the battlements with Peter Eyre's vocally splendid, pale eyed ghost appearing through the smoke and genuinely making the soldiers startle.

To the court and Grandage's signature flourish (or is it Oram's?) of a red velvet descending curtain, not lowered but falling down so that the fabric unfurls through its own weight, telling us that we are in the presence of the court. Claudius (Kevin McNally) is a slimy king and the courtiers are scruffy in modern dress linens. Laertes (Alex Waldmann) is obsequious as, conscious of his status as son of a non-royal, he petitions the king on exaggerated bended knee. Can this be a play about fathers and sons? Hamlet, Laertes, Young Fortinbras (although he's a nephew)?

Straight into the first solilioquy "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt" and here Hamlet speaks directly to the audience. Jude Law's Hamlet is facially animated, full of variety — I'm impressed. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as pretty an Ophelia as you could hope to see and still a sweet child, never mawkish or irritating as this part can be. Laertes also seems very young and when his request to his sister is met with giggles, he says with severity "Fear It Ophelia!" Ron Cook's Polonius speaks his advice without artifice, plain spoken, clear and eminently sensible.

Peter Eyre's grey complexioned ghost returns and intones like one of the now-dead theatrical knights with wonderful resonance. Hamlet's observations on cursed spite that he has to be the one to avenge his father, are said with his hands to his head as if suffering from a migraine. Hamlet's pretence of madness takes the form of attacking Polonius in a mock sexual pelvic thrust and when asked for his leave, the "Except my Life " rejoinder is said noisily and differently from the more usual wistful. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy is delivered with snow falling from the full height of the battlements and Hamlet, a small crouched figure, shivering in the cold in thin clothes and bare feet. Penelope Wilton's Gertrude seems to be feeling her age, she is anxious, weary and almost seems to be regretting her marriage but she tells Claudius she will obey him.

The interval is taken before the play within the play. Hamlet joins in with the players throwing confetti and providing props like the crown and glasses of champagne. The closet scene is played with Polonius to the front of the stage and Hamlet and Gertrude shielded behind a gauze curtain to the rear which Polonius hangs onto and brings down as he is stabbed, in another falling curtain moment. We feel the distress and anger as Hamlet really does "speak daggers" to his mother. Ophelia sings her bawdy songs, offers herbs and drowns. Laertes returns, there's a quick visit to the graveyard and so to the smoky duel scene. Hamlet stops off from the duel to catch the poisoned queen in his arms as a shifty Claudius looks on. At the end of the duel scene, the stage is deserted, no courtiers, just three bodies plus Hamlet and Horatio as young Fortinbras marches in, heralding the new order.

Christopher Oram's majestic and unadorned dark battlements are castle-like with light breaking through the arrow slit apertures high above — Neil Austin is responsible for the impeccable lighting. These walls convey too the prison-like nature of Hamlet's predicament. Grandage's production has plenty of atmosphere but nothing to distract from the central figure and Hamlet's lines. The less frippery the better. The full Hamlet normally runs at approaching four hours, more with a second interval. It is unlikely that the full Hamlet was played in Shakespeare's day and Grandage's version comes in at just under three and a quarter hours.

I personally ask for no more than a young, sincere Hamlet spoken beautifully and with feeling. Jude Law is 36 years old but still looks boyish and is destined to bring the love of Shakespeare's best play to a new audience.

London Production Notes:
Cast: Starring Jude Law, Peter Eyre, Penelope Wilton, Kevin R McNally, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ron Jones; with: David Burke, Alan Turkington, Henry Pettigrew, Matt Ryan, Ian Drysdale, Alex Waldmann, Sean Jackson, John MacMillan, Gwilym Lee, Jenny Funnell, Harry Attwell, Faye Winter, Colin Haigh, James Le Feuvre
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Composer and Sound: Adam Cork
Fight Director: Terry King
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th June 2009 performance at the Wyndham's Theatre
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