nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
October 8, 2009
[Editor's Note: A summary of the plot of Hamlet, should you need one, is here.]
Hamlet remarks near the beginning of the play that Denmark feels like a prison to him. Director Michael Grandage, set designer Christopher Oram (who also did the costumes), and lighting designer Adam Cork apparently took this comment to heart and based their production on it. The result is a set of operatic proportions, featuring massive stone walls, a gigantic pair of doors upstage center (immense enough for King Kong), and windows set in the walls high above the playing area. It's an awe-inspiring piece of stage architecture that affords many opportunities for dramatic lighting and beautiful stage pictures (with the omnipresent haze machines misting in the beams of light). It says a great deal about this production that what I came away with for the most part was remembrance of awesome stage pictures: Hamlet beginning "To be or not to be..."trudging through a snowfall; the audience getting Polonius's view of the closet scene through a gauzy white curtain; Hamlet, alone, in a pool of light at the start of the play. I really don't think great stage pictures warrant seeing a Broadway show, however, and therein lies the rub.
Jude Law, as the famous Dane, gives an earnest, honest performance. He is emotionally connected, thoroughly understands the text, and is a pleasure to watch. We are compelled to empathize with his pain, his profound loss, his deep-seated anger. It is nice to see an accomplished screen actor who is equally at home on the stage. This is by no means stunt casting, though the hoards of post-show autograph hounds might make it seem otherwise.
Kevin R. McNally as Claudius and Geraldine James as Gertrude are equally enthralling. McNally makes some interesting and unexpected choices as the usurping fratricidal uncle. Likewise, James delves deeply into her character. The pain and remorse each character feels when forced to face the factual circumstances of their love is palpable. The transformation of their relationship, shown with subtle believability, is a highlight of this production.
For the most part, however, the rest of the performances left me flat bored. The other members of the ensemble rarely mine any emotional depths of character.
I never believed for a moment that Polonius (Ron Cook) felt anything as he sent his son off to France; he seemed to just want to say a famous speech ("To thine own self be true..."). Laertes (Gwilym Lee) is only brotherly cute with sister Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in warning her about Hamlet's dalliance with her. In fact the relationship among these three never appears to be deep-seated enough to warrant the emotional explosions that occur later in the play.
Mbatha-Raw has the most difficult role in Hamlet. Ophelia has very little stage time to set up a character who must go insane at the loss of two great loves: her lover Hamlet, and her father Polonius. The emotional connection and commitment to these relationships early on must be deeply rooted and perhaps seem even a bit unreal. Let's face it—it is not a stable woman who goes over the emotional deep end, given Shakespeare's motivations. Mbatha-Raw gives us an intelligent Ophelia, perhaps a bit girlishly naive, who seems too in control to make the mad scenes believable.
Lee portrays an earnest Laertes with little fire. He is not helped by director Grandage's cutting the offstage commotion that Shakespeare uses to set up Laertes's confrontation with Claudius about his newly killed father. Having Laertes merely stride on stage takes all the stuffing out of the ensuing scene.
I expect these acting anomalies are directorial choices, given the training and pedigrees of all these actors. It is as if Grandage is trying for a subtlety that just isn't there and that belies the over-the-top setting he and his designers have concocted. Without fiery emotional catalysts Hamlet can never soar.
Law's Hamlet can thus rarely take flight and must slog with the fetters of emotional mediocrity.
Most egregious is how Peter Eyre is allowed to play the Ghost of Hamlet's Father and the Player King. Both characters are important engines driving the motivation for Hamlet's character. This ghost just doesn't seem so very upset about having been poisoned by his brother. The whole scene leading up to "remember me..."gives no impetus for Hamlet. The result being that Law seems to be over-compensating, trying too hard to rev up the emotions. Later, the Player King is supposed to provide the ignition to Hamlet's "O what a rogue..."speech but again there is no spark for the fireworks. Specifically, Hamlet talks about the Player's having acted emotionally with "tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, his whole voice suiting with forms to his conceit..."But in this production the Player does not cry, he does not become the emotional embodiment of his character; there is nothing from which Hamlet can springboard.
Oram's costumes are underwhelming. Perhaps it is unfair to expect more on a Broadway stage, but it looked like the costume budget was barely akin to that of one of New York's Indie Theatres. Frankly, I have seen much better costuming done on a shoestring budget. And, when nearly the entire company is in black, there is no starch to Hamlet's early despondency and protestations that "tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, nor customary suits of solemn black..."
The swordplay at the end is exciting enough, for both Law and Lee are competent swordsmen. Yet this duel would have benefited from an accomplished fight choreographer—there is no one credited with staging the fight so one presumes Grandage did it with the aid of the actors.
The frustrating thing is that there is so much unrealized potential in this production. Why this is the case, given that they began in London last spring, remains a mystery. Perhaps it is already a tired production. But more likely the emotional superstructure of the play was never completely mined. So, see it if you are a Jude Law fan, by all means, as he is a creditable Hamlet. But there is not much else to recommend it.