Jude Law is a riveting, mercurial and thrillingly vital Hamlet in this taut London production.
All this can I truly deliver.” So says Matt Ryan’s stunned Horatio, cradling the body of his friend. The same is true not only of Jude Law’s riveting, thrillingly vital Hamlet, but of Michael Grandage’s taut production. There have been more politicized or more personal visions of the play, but the outstanding quality of this assured incarnation of Shakespeare’s richest work is its unerring sense of completeness.
Some directors impose perspective, emphasizing a particular thread or take on the text. Grandage works more like a conductor, allowing separate parts to be heard in relation to each other, balancing performances and themes and fashioning them into a dramatic whole.
His balancing act is made flesh in Law’s mercurial performance. This is a man without a plan, struggling through grief, terror and rage to a beautifully distilled, mature resignation as he comes to understand his fate.
The revelation of Law’s performance is the dynamic connection between mind and expressive body. A tall man, he looks surprisingly compact because he’s so physically at ease. Like a great tennis player, he can, from a position of repose, seemingly leap to anywhere, which makes him commanding and dangerous.
Leaning in relief up against the chilly, austere back wall, his face greeting gently falling snow, he flings his arms open, crying out for death, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.” His gesture of despair and vulnerability comes from the very center of his body, making it all the more devastating.
Law reveals the intent behind the “antic disposition” rather than showing off its effects. Diverting though the latter can be, it’s distancing; Law is fully intent on keeping audiences tethered to Hamlet’s underlying emotional and intellectual journey.
Stalking through Neil Austin’s piercing shafts of light that ignite Christopher Oram’s flagstone-floored castle set, Kevin R. McNally’s suited Claudius avoids the trap of too obviously being the bad guy. Disguising his intent not only makes his control of Hamlet more engaging, it also strengthens Hamlet’s dilemma. If Claudius appears genuinely innocent, there’s every reason why Hamlet is besieged by doubt.
Similarly, Polonius, usually absurdly played by someone old enough to be Laertes’ grandfather, is here played by Ron Cook, who eschews the old-dodderer approach. Cook instead uses Polonius’ pickiness and grandiloquence as an indicator of the court official’s self-importance.
He is also the pivot of the brilliantly staged closet scene. A translucent curtain drops across the front of the stage with Gertrude (Penelope Wilton) and Hamlet behind it, leaving the audience siding with Polonius. Thus, we watch the watcher watching. This makes his murder far more shocking. With the curtain now torn down, the thrillerlike focus rockets to Wilton’s powerfully distressing Gertrude.
The production doesn’t solve the Ophelia problem. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s madness is suitably sing-song strange rather than an actorly tour de force, but the presentation of an idealistic, innocent girl whose mind slips feels like an adjunct to the central action. And though Alex Waldmann looks like her brother, his Laertes lacks the necessary dramatic weight.
But those weaknesses only underline the intense clarity and compelling momentum surrounding them. The dazzling meeting of Law’s prowess and Grandage’s direction drives home the magnitude of both the role and the play.