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.