Since this country began, HAMLET has been in constant production. Let’s narrow the history down to the Twentieth Century up to now. For the first twenty years, Broadway saw HAMLET every season, most often staring an actor by the name of E. H. Sothern, who grew in and out of the role during his career. It must have been like Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY! for thirty years or Yul Breynner in THE KING AND I for forty years. Some actors become so famous for a role that the audience wants to see them do it no matter how inappropriately aged they become in the role. The legendary Hamlets start in the Nineteenth Century with Edwin Booth in and around the 1870s. Sarah Bernhardt brazenly took on the role in the late 1880s and kept material from HAMLET in her personal appearance show for the rest of her career. After E. H. Sothern’s twenty year monopoly on the character in New York, Broadway was ready for a revolutionary portrayal and from all accounts they got it from John Barrymore in 1922. He then took London by storm in 1925. The performance is legendary and greatly influenced Laurence Olivier, who would later play the role in London, on tour and on film. John Gielgud’s production starring Richard Burton in 1964 became the longest running HAMLET production in Broadway history (136 performances). Stephen Long made an ideal Hamlet in 1975. He was featured in numerous Shakespeare productions on Broadway and was respected as one of the foremost Shakespearian actors in America during the 1970s and 1980s, returning to HAMLET often, including a 1992 Broadway production when he was aging out of the role (He is now co-Artistic Director of the Actor’s Studio). A decent production in 1995 had a Tony Award winning performance from Ralph Fiennes, which elevated the production to something grand. This phenomenon has more or less happened again with the current production staring Jude Law.
The production comes from London with most of that cast intact and is directed by Michael Grandage. The cast as a whole is only adequate, with several members diminishing the production. The most problematic member is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a horrible Ophelia––her voice strangely rising into her head when she gets excited. She seems inept, though she has had a good career in the UK with dozens of impressive TV credits and plenty of theatre in her background. John MacMillan is a bore of a Rozencrantz, reciting his lines like an earnest high school boy. Kevin R. McNally as Claudius doesn’t harm the production, but neither does he elevate it. Here is an opportunity for an actor to really show his muster and the performance is only passable. Gertrude in uneventfully played by Geraldine James who is known to be a standout actress usually. On the other hand, Gwilym Lee is excellent as Laertes, giving an intense performance that can match what Jude Law gives us. Peter Eyre is superb as the Ghost and Player King with a resonant voice and supreme command of the stage. Likewise, Matt Ryan as Horatio distinguishes the production with a believable, strong performance that fits into the concept of the production perfectly.
Jude Law also fits into the concept of the production perfectly. His presence elevates the production from just fine to a truly special event. Without him there would be no compelling reason to see it. And it isn’t just because he is a movie star, though this fact has enabled the production to make back its investment in a very short time. No, Jude Law is perhaps the most perfect star actor at this very moment in time to play in a major production of HAMLET. He should tour the states with it and endear himself even further to the masses, for he would move from a respected film actor to a beloved actor. The people love nothing more than to see a favorite star triumph in a personal appearance upon the stage and Mr. Law triumphs, making the most of those famous words. He brings frightening intensity to the mad Hamlet, soft heartfelt humanity to the sensitive Hamlet and a comic nature that balances the large dramatic sections of the play. The performance is intriguing and exciting in an imperfect production.
Although Christopher Oram is credited for the costumes, it looks as though Hugo Boss has donated the wardrobe. They are modern blacks and grays sitting on top of Oram’s set design of blacks and grays. The unit set makes for a perfectly useful playing area, unadorned though it may be, with only a few theatrical flourishes of colored drapes and snow at one point. The most interesting directorial touch is the stabbing of Polonius through the curtain, which is shown from reverse. What we see is Polonius’s point of view as he hides behind the curtain. The curtain is diaphanous, so that we see the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude through a slight haze. When Hamlet stabs Polonius through the curtain we see it all, the curtain tearing down as Polonius falls. This was the only out of the ordinary and terrific stage moment outside of the authoritative presence of Jude Law.
Surrounding me were a lot of well dressed couples in their late 20s and early 30s, having spent the bucks for a special night out with a movie star. I suspect that a lot of these people are not always at the theater. I overheard one fellow talking about how he couldn’t understand anything that was said for the first ten minutes until he was finally able to adapt to the language. A good number of people in this audience were probably seeing their first HAMLET. They responded well to anything with the slightest bit of comedy and anything physical in nature. I literally saw the row in front of me sit up in their seats when the sword fight began. This HAMLET was a good introduction for the newcomer, even if some of it was less than perfect.