Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
  Opened 3 June, 2009

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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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