Jude Law in 'Hamlet' in New York: What a Piece of Work

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009


"Indicating" is a major no-no in the theater, the word acting teachers often use to admonish students who are not so much playing a role as telegraphing to an audience what it is they intend to play.

So let's put it this way about Jude Law's performance in the much-anticipated -- and highly disappointing -- new "Hamlet" on Broadway: He's a most handsome and polished indicator.

The approach he's been encouraged to pursue in this modern-dress production, which opened Tuesday night at the Broadhurst Theatre, is to assemble his Hamlet as one would a puzzle, out of a million isolated acting pieces. Invariably there is a concrete basis for what he's doing in Shakespeare's text, but the portrayal is consistently so literal, it's as if he's working out a character for a culture with only a tangential knowledge of English. (Shakespeare enthusiasts: no jokes, please.)

If the verse includes an allusion to heaven, you can bet Law will point to the sky. If Hamlet makes a reference to a jungle animal, sure as shootin' Law turns into one. For every action of any other actor on the stage, he supplies four, and he never stops gesticulating. Is the idea here that Law's Hamlet thinks all the world's a college stage?

If Hamlet's instructions to the visiting Players -- whom he famously enlists to catch the conscience of the king -- is to "not saw the air too much with your hand," Hamlet should on this occasion practice what he preaches.

It's not at all clear that audiences that have paid to see a well-spoken star perform prettily will come away from this lucid if lackluster staging dissatisfied. Law has matinee-idol magnetism to spare. As with the flawed "A Steady Rain" that is playing a block away with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, movie wattage may be radiance enough. And on some superficial level, director Michael Grandage's production successfully conveys the mechanics of the tragedy, while Christopher Oram's sleek black-on-black sets and costumes apply a suitably ominous varnish to all that's rotten in Denmark.

But if you're looking for an evening that provides anything close to a fresh perspective on the play, you're likely to have your hopes dashed but good. For here is a "Hamlet" without invigorating insight. Rarely, for example, do a Claudius and Gertrude -- Hamlet's usurping uncle and inconstant mother -- register so ineffectually. Kevin R. McNally seems to have been coached to deprive Claudius of any fight or even guile; even more surprising is the wan turn by the usually inspiring Geraldine James, whose shrinking violet of a Gertrude fades into the scenery. It doesn't help that the interlude Grandage chooses for unconventional presentation is the bedroom scene between Hamlet and Gertrude, here viewed through the sheer drapes Polonius hides behind. The effect is to muddy the focus and reduce one of the play's tensest confrontations to mere overheard agitated exchange.

The dynamic among Polonius (Ron Cook) and his children, the equally doomed Laertes (Gwilym Lee) and Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), plays out just as dully; you experience neither Polonius's foolishness nor Ophelia's daughterly devotion -- after the murder of her father, one of the ostensible causes of her madness. Matt Ryan's impassioned Horatio makes a far more favorable impression, especially in the production's best sequences, the early scenes in which the Ghost of Hamlet's father (Peter Eyre) materializes to set the machinery of revenge in motion.

These also seem Law's most accomplished scenes, maybe because we're not yet aware of what's in store. So much of the celebrated soliloquizing to come fails to bind us to the predicament of this Hamlet, or to help us understand what's at stake for this young man, as he wrestles with the meaning of his actions, contemplates the possibly horrific consequences and the bleak intimations of death.

At the performance I attended, Law appeared to drop two words in Hamlet's most famous line; my seatmate heard the same thing. "To be or not . . ." we heard him say. Whether we both had heard correctly is immaterial. The moment stood for all in this production that felt absent.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Grandage. Lighting, Neil Austin; composer and sound, Adam Cork. With Henry Pettigrew, Ian Drysdale, Sean Jackson, John MacMillian, Harry Atwell, Jenny Funnell. About 3 hours 15 minutes. Through Dec. 6 at Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Visit or call 212-239-6200.

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