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Jude Law in 'Hamlet': What did the critics think?

June 8, 2009 | 12:14 pm

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One of the most talked-about productions of the current West End season, "Hamlet," starring Jude Law, has generated more advance buzz and online speculation than all of the blockbuster musicals playing in London put together.

Of course, much of the talk has centered around the play's pulchritudinous star, who is no stranger to audiences on either side of the pond. The Oscar-nominated Law, who has returned regularly to the stage between his Hollywood acting assignments, takes the role of Shakespeare's melancholy Dane for the first time in his career in a production from the Donmar Warehouse and directed by Michael Grandage. (The staging duties originally belonged to Kenneth Branagh, but he withdrew due to scheduling conflicts.)

The production, which also stars Penelope Wilton as Gertrude, takes a visually minimalist approach to Shakespeare's tragic drama. The prison-like sets are mostly bare and snowbound, and Law is clad in pajama-like costumes for much of the play.

As can be expected when a major celebrity takes on a famous role, early naysayers have rushed into the breach, prompting a draconian PR clampdown. Law himself acknowledged the challenge ahead of him when he was quoted in a newspaper saying that Hamlet is "a bit like a great song that's been covered by a load of different singers".

But it appears that Law can relax a bit now. Since the play opened, critics in the U.K. (who are notoriously vicious to big stars) and the U.S. (marginally less so) have delivered mostly positive notices on the actor.

Variety's David Benedict called Law's Hamlet "riveting" and "thrillingly vital." He particularly praised the actor's physical presence: "The revelation of Law's performance is the dynamic connection between mind and expressive body. A tall man, he looks surprisingly compact because he's so physically at ease. Like a great tennis player, he can, from a position of repose, seemingly leap to anywhere, which makes him commanding and dangerous."

Also focusing on Law's physicality, Kate Bassett of the Indepedent wrote: "Law sports tousled, out-of-bed hair and a deltoid-hugging T-shirt. Yet in another way, this muscularity makes a refreshing change. Here is no wavering wraith, but rather a distinctly physical, frustrated young man – a trained fighter as well as an intellectual – who could easily turn violent."

In her review, Caroline Briggs of the BBC wrote that "judging by the cheers at the end of his Hamlet debut last night, Law has a hit on his hands, despite a few off-key notes." She added that Law lacks the wit and humor displayed by David Tennant's Hamlet earlier this season, but that he "delivered the play's big lines with ease."

Michael Billington of the Guardian had mostly praise for the actor: "I missed the quicksilver humour that is part of Hamlet's character. But Law's Hamlet has the right inwardness and self-awareness. People who come to patronise him as a movie star essaying the great Dane will be in for a shock. He is a far from inexperienced classical actor and conveys the idea of Hamlet as a man who, as the critic John Wain once said, 'cannot gear his meditation to action' and who is half in love with easeful death."

The Financial Times' Ian Shuttleworth had some reservations about the actor: "Law makes one of the better Hamlets I have seen, though not one of the best." He added that the actor "is least comfortable in the scenes where Hamlet is acting, putting on his antic disposition to disguise his true motives."

Likewise, Christopher Hart of the London Times tempered his admiration of Law with some reservations: "Jude Law’s Hamlet is not deeply lovable enough for this to be a truly moving version of the play.... This is a hard-working and successful performance, though. Law’s delivery is excellently crisp and clear, full of sibilant articulacy."

-- David Ng

Photo: Jude Law and Penelope Wilton in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Credit: Johan Persson

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