Can a movie star on the stage transcend his film performances and even rise above the gossip pages?
The answer is yes when it comes to Jude Law, who's giving a spine-tingling and richly layered performance in a new version of "Hamlet" that makes you forget about his past roles and bad-boy melodramas.
There's certainly no shortage of quality Shakespeare in New York, from Broadway to Central Park to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to name a few.
What sets this three-hour-plus interpretation apart isn't just Law's performance, but Michael Grandage's excellent direction. He runs the Donmar Warehouse in London, where this show first ran.
Grandage's "Hamlet" is lean, focused and electrifying, like his last Broadway outing, the potent political drama "Frost/Nixon." There's no artificiality or fussy frills, and the bard's characters and their relationships seem vivid and real.
Using black-on-black sets and costumes (by Christopher Oram), shadowy lighting (by Neil Austin) and eerie ambient sound (by Adam Cork), he creates an ominous world of deception and betrayal in his staging.
Scenes etched in your memory from school days or another recent "Hamlet" production are reframed with fresh coats of inspiration. Especially arresting is a snow-dusted "to be or not to be" scene. The murder of Polonius gets a 180-degree turn in perspective from a typical staging.
In a bright stroke, Hamlet declares his rancor for the marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Geraldine James, elegant, even in death) to his uncle Claudius (Kevin R. McNally) with some hostile redecoration. Who knew the dour Dane could be so amusing, if briefly?
The company of players from London is filled with topnotch actors who deliver the text with bell-like clarity. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is lovely and touching as Ophelia, while Gwilym Lee makes a fiery Laertes. Ron Cook impresses twice, in a clever doubling of roles. He's endearing Polonius and the no-nonsense gravedigger who buries Ophelia.
Of course, every "Hamlet" rises or falls with its leading man, and Law holds you rapt in this new production. He may have been nude in his first Broadway show, back in 1995 in "Indiscretions," but he couldn't have been as revealing as he is now.
If vigor were all in acting Shakespeare, Jude Law would be a gold medal Hamlet. Playing the doomed Prince of Denmark in the barnstorming production that opened on Tuesday night at the Broadhurst Theater, directed by Michael Grandage, Mr. Law approaches his role with the focus, determination and adrenaline level of an Olympic track competitor staring down an endless line of hurdles.
Hold your breath, sports fans! Here’s Mr. Law, lithe and taut, bracing himself for that first tricky soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt.” No melting here. Mr. Law, gesturing and enunciating violently, nails the speech with the attack of an electric hammer. But can he keep it up for “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and “To be or not to be” and “Alas, poor Yorick”? Yes, he can, bringing the same athletic gusto and no trace of fatigue (or modulation) to each and every one.
People who ask for a little introspection from the man whose name is a byword for that activity may find it perplexing that this Hamlet never seems to look inward, which means that he never grows up — or grows, period. When Mr. Law’s hyperkinetic Dane announces early that “I have that within which passeth show,” it is a promise that will not be fulfilled.
Mr. Law, a rakish leading man of film, doesn’t disappear onstage the way some screen stars do. Though small-boned and delicately featured, he fills the theater to the saturation point. But the finer shades of feeling that a movie camera has been known to extract from his face — most notably in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) — are rarely in evidence here.
His Hamlet — which has only increased in intensity, if not in depth, since I saw it in London last summer — is, above all, an externalizer, never shy about acting out his inner conflicts and acting on his instincts. It is hard to understand the distress of Hamlet’s friends and family when he feigns madness, since the prince, in this case, appears to be as he always was: sarcastic, contemptuous, quick-witted and mad only in the sense of being really, really angry.
Mr. Law conveys these traits with a grandstanding bravado and annotative clarity that is often pitched full throttle into the audience. The much-quoted instructions that Hamlet delivers to a troupe of visiting players apparently do not apply to princes in mourning. This one mouths his words like a town crier and saws the air with his hands.
He does follow his own advice in suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action.” If Hamlet talks about his mind, you can bet that Mr. Law will point to his forehead; when he mentions the heavens, his arm shoots straight up; and when the guy says his gorge rises, rest assured that he clutches at his stomach. If every actor were like Mr. Law, signed performances for the hard of hearing would be unnecessary.
Most of the supporting cast members have chosen to follow Mr. Law’s semaphore style, though in a scaled-down manner that befits a team that knows its raison d’être is to avoid obstructing the view of the name above the title. (As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, Geraldine James goes for a more impassive effect, and as a consequence, vanishes before your eyes.) Though the look of Christopher Oram’s black-on-black set (exquisitely lighted by Neil Austin) is very of the moment, the overall effect is what you imagine a 19th-century touring production of “Hamlet” might have been like, with a crowd magnet like Edwin Booth or Henry Irving.
Such histrionic bluster, enhanced by Adam Cork’s scary-movie music and sound effects, is not without its advantages. This is one production in which I could understand every word, and you feel the heat of energy from the stage. In the sequence in which Hamlet and the Player King (the resonant-voiced Peter Eyre, who doubles memorably as the weary, tortured ghost of Hamlet’s father) swap favorite memorized speeches from hoary old tragedies, you sense the pleasure the characters and the men playing them derive from the ripe theatricality of it all.
But that’s one of the few times you are viscerally connected to the people onstage. As the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Mr. Grandage has been responsible for some of the most emotionally engaging shows I’ve seen in London in recent years, including marvelous revivals of “Passion Play,” “The Wild Duck” and “Caligula.” (He was nominated for a Tony for his ingenious staging of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon.”)
His “Hamlet” generates little psychological tension, though. And it is remarkably lacking in the vivid, specific characterizations you expect of Shakespeare in performance. If the actors playing the villainous Claudius (Kevin R. McNally) and the pompous Polonius (Ron Cook) — or the stalwart Horatio (Matt Ryan) and the aggrieved Laertes (Gwilym Lee) — changed parts midway, I doubt anyone would care much. It’s as if they were all Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns (played here, for the record, by John MacMillan and Harry Attwell).
Granted, Mr. Law doesn’t give his fellow actors much in the way of interpersonal connection. When Polonius tells his daughter, Ophelia (the beautiful, unconvincing Gugu Mbatha-Raw), that Hamlet is “out of thy star,” he could be speaking to anyone. This Hamlet occupies — nay, is — his own constellation, and his radiance is bestowed almost exclusively upon the audience.
Still, Mr. Law’s undeniable charisma and gender-crossing sex appeal may captivate Broadway theatergoers who wouldn’t normally attend productions of Shakespeare. (When I caught the show in London I was heartened by the sizable presence of teenagers who seemed truly enthralled by the performance.) And, by the way, the sleeves on which Hamlet wears his feelings are seriously chic.
Mr. Oram has created an array of Pradaesque costumes — in shades of black, gray and navy — that could step right into the windows of Barneys. Hamlet’s cardigan, short raincoat and pea jacket are all must-have items for fall. If Mr. Law’s Prince seems way too active for a hero known for inaction, no one is going to argue when Ophelia calls him “the glass of fashion.”
The castle at Elsinore, in director Michael Grandage's stolid "Hamlet," is a towering mausoleum. Designer Christopher Oram has built monolithic marbled walls pierced by lofty windows through which Neil Austin pours shards of dungeon-like light. The austere stage pictures are arresting, as is the presence of sinewy Jude Law in a series of skinny knits and rumpled raincoats in grim shades from gray through black. However, the cohesiveness of the production's mostly monochromatic visual scheme is not matched by similar consistency of concept or emotional depth. It's an accessible presentation, but rarely exciting and even less often moving.
Of course, the main attraction is Law's Hamlet, and like the production as a whole, his performance is a mixed bag -- in some ways impressive, in others distancing. His is less the brooding prince than the Extremely Pissed-Off one. The majority of his lines are spat out in passionate anger or disgust, sustaining a level of intensity that becomes wearing. Likewise the actor's emphatic gesticulation, which frequently seems more studied for illustrative effect than the result of internal characterization. Law is not lacking in stage technique, and his brisk handling of the language shows unerring confidence, but he's working hard and seldom lets us forget that.
When your melancholy protagonist is so busy seething and snarling, it's hard to tap into the vacillating process of sorrow, torment, self-doubt and possible madness via which this most agonized of procrastinators ultimately accepts his fate and that of those around him -- the innocent and the guilty. This is a role that lives in the gap between thought and deed, so imbuing it with such a forceful, reactive temperament seems contrary to Shakespeare's intentions.
The surprise, however, is that while much of Law's bold performance rides roughshod over the character's core traits of scholarly philosophizing and depressed introspection, he does arrive by the end of the play at an effective reconciliation with the role. Hamlet's reflections on mortality in the final scenes cut deeper, and his bitter fatalism breathes dimensions into the characterization that have been missing through much of the preceding fury.
Grandage's command over this climactic stretch also is strengthened, from the inventive switched perspective of the closet scene in which Hamlet, while confronting his mother, Gertrude (Geraldine James), unintentionally kills prying court counselor Polonius (Ron Cook), through the prince's return from England and his dynamically staged duel with Polonius' vengeful son Laertes (Gwilym Lee).
Whether the cumulative power of Law's performance justifies the approach is open for debate, but elsewhere the production is dampened by indifferent casting.
Kevin R. McNally earns points for giving Claudius shades of ambiguity and declining to make the usurper king blatantly sinister, but the actor strays too far in the opposite direction; he's a little innocuous to register as a man capable of killing his brother, then snatching his throne and marrying the dead man's wife before the corpse was cold. Claudius' recently acquired consort, Gertrude, is a passive role as written, requiring an actress capable of substantiating the queen's doubts and divided loyalties. James' crisp but colorless reading gives few clues as to whether she's been duped by Claudius or is his ally. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a physically lovely Ophelia but otherwise leaves a blank impression, including her ineffectual sing-song mad scene.
Smaller roles are more adequately served: Matt Ryan's Horatio is stirring in his allegiance to Hamlet; Lee's Laertes cuts a soulful figure; and Cook is a wily Polonius, his gnawing Napoleonic complex making him clearly the smartest, most alert person in the room. In this role and as the chirpy gravedigger, Cook plays with Shakespeare's language in witty ways that give his scenes a distinctive energy.
Which is what's missing from this production overall. There are beautiful images here, such as Law delivering Hamlet's "To be, or not to be ..." soliloquy beneath a light snowfall, framed by a castle doorway. But it's become such an aesthetic cliche that it might be time to call a moratorium on London productions that play out high drama against unyielding slabs of cold brick or stone. It's all very severe and stylish, as are the contemporary outfits, but a look is no substitute for an illuminating context. All the visual dourness seems to infect the characters, whose lack of emotional connection to one another saps their love and hate of true feeling.