Jude Law is not happy. He’s roaming the stage like a caged animal, snarling at his parents and humiliating his friends. “Now could I drink hot blood,” he spits, with more venom than any Hamlet I’ve seen before. This is a dark, foreboding Elsinore, and it has a doomed Prince to match.
“Denmark’s a prison” has rarely felt so apt for a production of Hamlet. The stage is beset by high stone walls that leak light through unreachable grates, and doors that swing shut upon cold rooms like jail cells. This is a sterile promontory indeed, a world of dark blues and grays, of emotion and ambition contained. Every day is dress-down Friday and even the Queen wears a cardigan.
The text has been cut down to well below three hours and it shows. The story has a sense of urgency and drive that can be lost in some productions, and it zips along at a pace that will no doubt surprise and delight those seeing Hamlet for the first time, who perhaps had feared a four-hour dirge of woe. The excesses of the play-within-the-play are trimmed to the bare minimum, yet the scene in which Hamlet witnesses Fortinbras’ army marching to war is thankfully left intact – one of my favourite scenes, and too often the first victim of sweeping cuts. But there a moments when the odd lost line here or there stand out in revealing ways. “The air bites shrewdly” was one such, seemingly unimportant and yet I felt its absence, perhaps because David Tennant at the RSC used it for a moment of unexpected humour. Is it by those small touches that great Hamlets can be distinguished from the merely very good? Or is it the depth of the impression of the man that you are left with in the end?
To that extent, Jude Law surprised me greatly. It’s tempting to assume that Hollywood stars are parachuted into major West End roles to bump up the box office, and the Donmar is not guiltless in that respect (Ewan McGregor, though a good actor, made a very disappointing Iago). But after a sulky first scene Law’s Hamlet opens up to the fathoms of rage and bitterness beneath, creating a Hamlet of such anger that you feel at times his soul will crack with the strain of it. He is only the second Hamlet I have seen to physically take a knife to himself in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy – although, unlike Paul Jacobs with the Tower Theatre Company, he didn’t go the whole nine yards with fake blood – and when he rounds on Rosencrantz and Guildenstein, you truly believe he might do them harm.
As Law rages, the muted atmosphere of the setting seems to leak into the other actors at times. Kevin R McNally’s Claudius is strangely ineffective, showing little of the frightening murderer that lurks within, willing to seize power at any cost and kill those who get in his way. Coming only a few months after Patrick Stewart’s reign of terror with the RSC it is a stark contrast for anyone who has seen both productions. Claudius is not the kind of man who will take you on in armed combat – he will poison you as you sleep, he will conspire to have others kill you without a stain on his own hands. In some ways that is a far more frightening trait to find in a leader or King, but here it did not translate.
Likewise, Ron Cook’s Polonius comes off second best to the RSC’s Oliver Ford Davies, but the drastic cuts to the text are partly to blame – with the play running at a slimmed-down two and a half hours, Polonius’ rambling speeches have borne the brunt of the axe-wielding. When allowed to get into a comedic rhythm he displays what a great character is in there, waiting to get out of the straitjacket of his cut-down role. One scene in particular between Polonius and Reynaldo is slashed so drastically that the end of their conversation would make no sense to those not familiar with the play. Judging by the gasps that ran through the audience as Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup in Act 5, there were quite a few Hamlet virgins in the theatre! But when allowed to waffle in conversation with Hamlet, Cook displays good comic timing and the play is momentarily lifted from its gloom.
Penelope Wilton’s Gertrude was, like much of the production, rather constrained, but she made the oppressive, suffocating atmosphere work for the character rather than against. She is trapped in her circumstance just as Hamlet is. I only wish for some hint of backstory for Gertrude – did she love Claudius before? Had she always carried a torch for the younger brother, while wedding the elder for political reasons? Or has Claudius seduced her, has her grief pushed her into his arms? We cannot wholly trust Hamlet’s rose-tinted view of his parents’ marriage, knowing as we do that he likens his father to Gods and Heroes (while he himself, in his own eyes, is weak and unworthy in comparison). If the son cannot live up to his father’s legacy, how could the widow ever mourn long enough in Hamlet’s eyes? If Gertrude is an underwritten part, then the actress who plays her has her work cut out filling in the gaps with the nuances of her performance, and Wilton did as great a job as any I have seen.
Ophelia can also be an unsatisfying character. We see no scenes between her and Hamlet before the Ghost’s late-night visitation, and so cannot judge for ourselves whether his love was indeed of honourable fashion, or whether he has had his way with his ‘unmastered importunity’. Gugu Mbatha-Raw played Ophelia with quiet grace, too quiet and subdued at times, and went mad with a still, chilling song like a broken bird. I’ve never been a fan of screaming, tantrum-throwing Ophelias, but she faded into the background too much, and ultimately didn’t come close to my all-time favourite Ophelia, Emily O’Connor of the Factory Theatre Company.
Laertes was too pretty. Am I allowed to say that? Too dandyish to be a believable foe, and at the same time I felt little empathy for him. Usually, during the burial scene where Hamlet bursts in on Ophelia’s funeral and he and Laertes almost come to blows, the sympathy of the audience can lean to Laertes – father and sister dead, and now the man apparently responsible is gatecrashing her modest funeral – yet I found my loyalties remaining with Hamlet just this once. As Alex Waldmann fought Law in their epic Act 5 duel, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d stop the action for one of them breaking a nail. Meow. It really isn’t their fault. Perhaps my tolerance level wanes with each production I see.
In the end, Hamlet died as he performed, very admirably and with anger in place of histrionics. Kudos to Law for proving sceptics (myself included) wrong. I hear that the production will be playing on Broadway soon. I wish it well, but in the end, I can’t help but feel that, given the relative strengths of the supporting casts, ’tis a pity that that the NYC crowd won’t get to see the RSC with Tennant, Stewart et al.