Broadway should prepare for an adrenalin rush with Jonathan Kent’s new “Hamlet,” which brings Ralph Fiennes back to the stage as the moodiest of matinee idols, and finds in Francesca Annis the best (and most beautiful) Gertrude in my experience. Is this a great “Hamlet”? Not yet. It’s too impetuous and uninflected to pack much of an interpretive wallop, but for sheer narrative energy, it’s in a class by itself. Those wanting an exercise in dry elocution are advised to look elsewhere.
Kent’s staging has kept at least one eye on New York, where the director had a surprise hit last season with the Diana Rigg “Medea.”
And he’s right, from the point of view of audiences on Broadway, where the production transfers in April, to remind us that the English-speaking theater’s most exalted and examined play first off tells a story. From an initial moroseness at Elsinore that quickly gives way to rage, Fiennes’ Hamlet is fueled by fury and a settling of scores.
Those who recall Fiennes’ theater work before “Schindler’s List” made him a star will find the actor transformed.
While he continues to speak verse fluently and well, even in the chasm-like acoustics of the Hackney Empire, he has loosened up on stage. The Gielgudian “voice beautiful” feel of his early Royal Shakespeare Company work has been discarded in favor of a contemporary, almost throwaway style that nonetheless honors the language.
His is a Hamlet without set pieces, in a “Hamlet” that — for good or ill — makes no grand statement.
Accordingly, “to be or not to be” emerges without warning as a conversational asterisk, uttered as an aside while Ophelia (Tara FitzGerald) stands nearby, unaware, in a doorway. When not grabbing at his unkempt garb, Fiennes claws about the stage in a state of chic dishevelment.
If this is a Hamlet one would want to bring home to mother for a bath and a proper meal, Annis’ mother is a Gertrude for all time: a sensuous and youthful woman — gorgeously costumed by James Acheson — who seems to recognize instantly her error in pairing up with Claudius (James Laurenson).
The closet scene bristles with sexual tension, so it’s a shock to see Annis freshly composed for the final duel, in which Mark Henderson’s elegant lighting spotlights her dead body in a pale, ghostly wash.
Peter J. Davison’s high-walled geometric design glimpses numerous corridors of intrigue and guilt.
Its forbidding Edwardian chill is made to order for Peter Eyre’s sonorous Polonius, and inimical to the simple affections of FitzGerald’s Ophelia, turned lethally inward in response to Hamlet’s disgust. FitzGerald’s mad scene is far less stagy than usual.
The only serious casting debits: Damian Lewis’ blank Laertes and a Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of varying degrees of silliness. They all look as if they’re biding their time waiting for Hamlet to take charge in a production that never wastes time if it can hurtle bullishly on.