Not Just A Quintessence of Dust: Broadway’s Hamlet
“Remember me,” echoes the ghost of the dead King Hamlet in Act I, Scene V of Shakespeare’s epic play, “Remember me.” From the minute the lights beam up on a stark and dismal stage, on the ghost glowing like he would in moonlight and Barnardo’s cry of “Whose there?!” director Michael Grandage’s Hamlet is bitterly beautiful, a production that, for all its flaws, has moments that leave you breathless.
One of the finest things about Grandage’s show is how it cries its whole soul to the audience, baring itself fully on stage, evoking a feeling that was closely tied to Hamlet’s (Jude Law’s) ability to strongly convey the complexities of the young Danish prince. While Law, an extremely physical actor, can appear overdramatic and even overly comical at certain points (he often points to his head, for example, which can feel more oratory than realistic; he mimes his lines in places that should be more serious than silly), he more than compensates for it with his magical ability to be both haunting and hilarious. Law plays with Shakespeare’s words, especially when alongside Polonius (Ron Cook), an equally funny (and talented) performer. It is these two that really drive the show—Cook giving the tragedy some much-needed lightness emotion (which Law, playing off of Cook, seems to really enjoy), while Law is so physically wrecked by Hamlet’s character that he is literally fighting back tears on stage. Miraculously, Law’s expressive style is extremely effective, and his character is a very funny, very smart (perhaps too smart: “nothing is either good nor bad; but thinking makes it so”), very hurt, and very believable Prince Hamlet.
Unfortunately, not all the actors possess his quality. While Cook is quite a smirk-worthy Polonius, the rest of the cast seems drab at best. Gertrude (Geraldine James) and Claudius (Kevin R. McNally) are boring characters, blending into the background for the majority of the show (although there are memorable flickers--McNally’s soliloquy and James’s “closet” scene are both very well done, perhaps because of Law’s supporting role). Laertes (Gwilym Lee) is good in his scenes, but those are few and far between. The weakest link of this cast, however, is without a doubt—and this very upsetting—Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose “mad scene” is so sane that even the actors on stage don’t believe in it. While Mbatha-Raw does play Ophelia as someone who truly loves Hamlet (the nunnery scene is one of the most beautiful in the entire show), without Law by her side she is vague, dull, and unrealistic. Horatio (Matt Ryan) was the only other truly memorable member of the cast; he possessed a caring for his friend that was very sweet, believable, and fit his character quite well. The audience is lucky that it is these three heavyweights—Law, Cook, and Ryan—who have the most stage time.
Set designer Christopher Oram seems to take the line “Denmark’s a prison” quite literally, putting together a set that could very well be a medieval Danish castle in winter. He pops in some surprises, however, that are refreshing and exciting, something that worked well for this production. The starkness was also appreciated, since it represents both the mentality of young Hamlet while echoing the set of the earliest Renaissance productions. The black, white, and grey color scheme was also very good, conveying the bleakness of the world as seen through Hamlet’s eyes. The costumes (also designed by Oram) were the only thing that really felt off—being done in contemporary dress while the rest of the design felt medieval was a bit strange—although I must admit a barefoot, thermal-shirted Hamlet walking through snow for the world’s most famous soliloquy was beautifully heart-wrenching.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Broadway’s latest production of one of history’s greatest shows, finding Law’s striking performance alone enough reason to fork over some extra Christmas cash ($25 last row tickets!) and witness Hamlet for yourself. At just under three-and-a-half hours, this performance has moments that are dizzyingly passionate, lines delivered in ways that make them truer than true, and just enough gusto to make you not just believe in, but care about the disenchanted prince who feigns madness to avenge his father and gives the audience so much more. I’m not saying you’ll leave the theater a changed person (if you’d like that, go see Our Town), but perhaps you’ll leave with a few glimmers of beauty in a bleak, dark world.
So rest easy, King Hamlet; while Grandage’s Hamlet is by no means perfect, it is not easily forgotten.
Hamlet, a production that started in London’s West End and features the original London cast, is running for a limited Broadway engagement until December 6th. For tickets and information see www.telecharge.com
Image Courtesy of Cherry Coloured Online