O What a Good Looking Actor Is He
Jude Law would seem to be the ideal choice to play Hamlet. It is, after all, a revenge play with all the trappings of a B movie. In fact, the actor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s verse is easy enough to follow. One reason for the many accolades he’s received.
Be that as it may, Shakespeare’s play, rife with inconsistencies, confusions, plots, counterplots and inner contradictions is about intrigue. This is drama of the highest order and entertainment of the sort that makes the MGM lion roar. For that reason Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation in the 1996 movie, which he also directed, left me breathless. Set against the exterior of Blenheim Palace, the film is an awesome visual spectacle with an amazing score and spellbinding cast: Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams with celebrity cameos from the likes of Judi Dench and Gerard Depardieu. Amidst it all, Branagh portrays the character as a man of royal bearing and intellect who is, above and beyond all else, heartbroken.
At the other end of the spectrum, the 1964 black and white film of Richard Burton in the Broadway production, staged as a dress rehearsal, is a thrilling, yet credible display of theatrical wattage. Then, of course, there’s Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version, opening with the ocean beating against the cliffs of Elsinore and zooming into “to be or not to be”. Olivier’s “Hamlet” talks quietly in an inner conversation that reveals the art of self-reflection and that remains the paradigm for our time. But its Ralph Fiennes 1995 Tony Award-winning “Hamlet”, caught up in a plot that unfolds at break neck pace that perhaps suggests the vigorous clip at which Law glides through monologues and soliloquies.
This current production by London’s Donmar Warehouse opens with Jude Law crouching in the corner like a spoiled child who has given himself a “time out”. Unfurling like a cat, he addresses the audience with furrowed brow, bulging eyes and probing gestures. But the actor quickly moves beyond those hackneyed expressions with a mimetic physicality that brings to mind Geoffrey Rush’s Tony Award-winning role in last season’s “Exit the King”. His dying monarch was like the vaudevillian, who beyond reason and reality, simply refuses to leave the stage.
In Law’s case physicality creates the mask that covers the absence of thought. And it is thoughtfulness, after all, which is the essential quality to play in “Hamlet”.
As directed by Michael Grandage, the characters and the relationships between them lack believability. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ophelia is shrill and there is nothing romantic in her relationship with Hamlet, which is senseless, and especially disappointing given that she’s on the stage with Jude Law. Similarly, Geraldine James’ queen, Gertrude, is neither seductive nor dangerous; she’s merely expressionless and detached.
On the other hand, Kevin R. McNally as the king is well appointed, playing the role with a breezy directness, since that’s all the room that character can get here. And Polonius (Ron Cook) has the insidious quality of a snake that slithers beyond our grasp. But even when the characters come to life, there is an absence of drama and emotional connection to Grandage’s production. The focus is unabashedly on Jude Law who delivers verse for the audience’s benefit, not his own.
Designed by Christopher Oram in a minimalist style, there are no set pieces and only the most essential props are used. Unfortunately, Oram’s modern dress costumes, functional and comfortable in black and gray are a non-experience. All together the dark, dank atmosphere is off-putting, setting up the mirror to a “Hamlet” who is depressed to the point of madness and physical aggression.
By: Isa Goldberg
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