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Theater review: 'Hamlet' on Broadway

October 6, 2009 |  7:00 pm

Hamlet 1 
No one actor can embody all the many contradictory facets of Hamlet’s nature — the mind-boggling array of “mighty opposites,” to borrow a phrase from the character’s stash of linguistic gold. On the page, the protagonist provokes endless fascination, but onstage he can seem like a jigsaw puzzle of impulses with a few missing pieces.

Jude Law may not be the most emotionally piercing or philosophically profound Hamlet, but he brings an admirable balance to this most challenging of Shakespearean roles. His smart and sincerely inhabited performance is the centerpiece of the Donmar Warehouse’s vigorously chic production, which opened today at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre under the brisk direction of Michael Grandage.

The portrayal Law limns is in no way radical. It’s basically a straightforward, fashionably modern-dress approach, which has the added publicity factor of a two-time-Oscar-nominated movie star (“The Talented Mr. Ripley," “Cold Mountain”) taking the ultimate test of his stage mettle. Yet there are enough deft psychological touches to make this a memorable reencounter with the melancholy Dane, particularly when the object of Law’s attention is another character rather than a mountainous soliloquy composed of the planet’s most famous blank verse.

Hamlet 2 Law, as you can imagine, cuts quite a princely figure, but the handsomeness of his interpretation is more than skin deep. He succeeds at catching what the Romantic-era critic William Hazlitt described as the protagonist’s “high enthusiasm and quick sensibility.” Passions not only surge within him but they also suddenly change course, like tides redirected by fierce winds.
 
The facade of madness Hamlet adopts as a stratagem to bide time and suss out his options has a logical soundness here. He’s a young man plunged into a criminal nightmare and, of a deliberative bent, he's determined to puzzle out the right thing to do among a set of wrong possibilities.

Law reveals the craft and cunning of this ruse as well as a tinge of genuine fear that the craziness isn’t completely an act. This latter note is especially evident in his dealings with Ophelia (a lovely if indistinct Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whom he obviously adores, even though he senses she’s become the puppet of her father, Polonius (Ron Cook, lending the role a humorous contemporary pomposity). Betrayal, injured masculine pride, even a hint of sexual frustration — Law’s performance runs the gamut.

The actor’s peers seem to bring out the best in him. When Hamlet embraces Horatio (a fine Matt Ryan), the intensity of their camaraderie, a kinship of minds discovered no doubt through nights of student revelry, is made palpable. Horatio is the one person Hamlet feels he can trust, and Law’s stare conveys Hamlet’s sense of somber gratitude to his friend, whose quasi post-punk style makes it easy to imagine him reading Kierkegaard in the corner of some noisy pub. (Ah, the giddy freedom of anachronism!)

Hamlet’s perceptions are as keen as his judgments are unforgiving. When he tells his mother, Gertrude (Geraldine James), that his grief is not merely a display (“Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’ ”), Law’s contemptuous tone seethes with an overaged adolescent disillusionment.

Not that the disgust is unwarranted with Kevin R. McNally’s loathsomely political Claudius spinning his actions with a kind of slick White House double-talk. McNally’s performance is more acutely developed than James', who hasn’t found the full thread of Gertrude’s journey. Her boldest maneuver is to make clear at the start that this woman would prefer to enjoy her second marriage in peace. Amnesia suits her. 

Grandage’s staging renders the tragedy in human terms. The focus is always on what’s fueling the confrontations — what do the characters want? What aren’t they getting? The action, even when the performers aren’t top tier, is never just words, words, words. It’s about flesh and blood and bad dreams.

Christopher Oram’s austere set renders the Elsinore castle as a stark prison of high walls and stony surfaces. The severity of the dusky court, lighted with furtive menace by Neil Austin, throws into relief the jockeying figures, whose urban designer wear (Oram did the costumes as well) never lets us forget that these characters — and not just the lusty ones — have bodies.

It’s a very well-spoken production all around, and Law’s fluency in handling both the rhythms and meanings of Shakespeare’s poetry is impressive. Yet his “To be or not to be” and “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” aren’t the selling points here. The chief source of excellence is the way the tragic hero's connections have been revitalized.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the final act, when Hamlet and Laertes (an enthralling Gwilym Lee) duel to the death. The brilliantly staged fight scene is played out not as a warhorse exercise but as a thrilling contest between young men whose honor has been irreparably injured yet who still value the buried best in each other.

Before this fatal encounter, Hamlet confides to Horatio, “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let me sleep.” Law doesn’t gild the line — he shares it.

-- Charles McNulty

Top: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jude Law. Bottom: Jude Law. Credit: Johan Persson/AP

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