Jude Law’s finest screen performances
have been underpinned by a bitterness, applied first to his own
character and then outward. This is a register which works well with
the role of Hamlet in his more conventional aspect as an
Elizabethan/Jacobean malcontent figure. He finds it easy to believe the
worst of others because he gives himself so little quarter to begin
with. So, in the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy, Law builds to a
howl of “O, vengeance!” before slapping himself down peremptorily with
“Why, what an ass am I!” It also suits “To be, or not to be”, which he
begins barefoot in the snow outside the Danish court, although
ultimately he tries too hard to measure up to this speech. Not as hard,
though, as Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ophelia tries to measure up to Law, nor
with as little success as her; even when underplaying lines in her mad
scenes, she seems too effortful.
Law’s Hamlet may be in the right key, but he does not hit all the
notes. This actor is least comfortable in the scenes where Hamlet is
acting, putting on his antic disposition to disguise his true motives.
Law either gets such lines over with as quickly as possible, or else
actually delivers them straight-ish. Much of the rest of Michael
Grandage’s final production in this Donmar West End season seems
similarly diffident. Kevin R McNally’s Claudius never makes his mark on
the action, and Penelope Wilton is so unqueenly as Gertrude that my
companion described her as “like an HR manager of Marks & Spencer”.
(McNally, in contrast, with his collarless buttoned-up suit jacket and
medallion, looks like the director of a pop-psychology sect.) Horatio,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are all anodyne; so, most fatally, is Alex
Waldmann’s Laertes, who seems far too young and callow to sensibly pit
himself against Law’s Hamlet. (He is also not a good enough swordsman
to make the odds of the final bout plausible.) Ron Cook succeeds in
characterising Polonius as an officious middle manager who has risen to
his level of incompetence; he also benefits from a novel staging of the
closet scene, in which we see Hamlet and Gertrude through the gauze of
the “arras” with Polonius hiding on our side of it, until Hamlet tears
it down while stabbing him.
Law makes one of the better Hamlets I have seen, though not one of the
best, and the rest of the production fails to coalesce around him.
Written for the Financial