The question every actor or director has to ask when staging Hamlet is: why? This is the most famous play ever written, not to mention the most quoted: the text is so plump with familiar phrases that it’s hard to restore them to their context, to make them newly-minted once again. As a result each new production , and each actor, needs a clear sense of conviction of what he can bring uniquely to the role:
Sadly the only answer to the question, to judge by this production, is “so that Jude Law can play Hamlet”, and that doesn’t prove to be enough. Kenneth Branagh was originally due to direct it, and it may be that he and Law had a clearer vision for the play. Branagh, after all, has devoted much of his career to Hamlet, both on stage and, magnificently, film. His own Hamlet was one of great intellectual dash and swagger, a quicksilver wit who dazzled on the outside while crumbling within. But Branagh had to pull out for development on Thor (Brian Blessed as Odin! Surely the perfect match of character and actor) so Michael Grandage stepped in.
And what we get is a bit of a muddle. It’s crisp and efficient, rattling through the play in just three hours, but there’s no real sense of purpose, or of the world of the play. Hamlet is, at heart, a classic Agatha Christie set-up: an isolated setting, a brutal murder and a range of suspects, each with different motivations of their own. But for the story to work properly, you have to understand the world outside. In the case of Hamlet, whatever the period of the production (this one’s an uneasy combination of medieval walls and modern costume, like an All Saints catalogue shoot) we need to understand from the beginning that this is a country under genuine military threat, and that violence lurks everywhere beneath the surface. Otherwise — as happens here — Hamlet’s murder of Polonius feels absurd and almost farcical, and the accumulating corpses of the final act lose any real tragedy. It’s fine for Claudius to be a weak, uncertain leader (Kevin R McNally seems like Gordon Brown to Old Hamlet’s Tony Blair) but we still need to feel his hunger for power. And a contemporary audience needs a solid understanding that this is a world where God — and Hell — feel very palpable, and that damnation is never far away.
None of these elements really come across, and as a result Jude Law’s Hamlet feels oddly unmoored: with no clear sense of context it’s hard to feel what he’s fighting, or what he stands to lose. He’s clear-spoken, wiry and athletic, a pouncing, prowling bi-polar Tigger who’s smoothly menacing one moment, tightly wound the next: his interrogation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is particularly good. And he’s terrific in his banter with Polonius, played by Ron Cook in the best performance of the night. But while Hamlet has all the best lines, it’s hard to make them sing without a strong cast to react to, and it’s here that Law has been really let down. Matt Ryan is a dreary, pleading Horatio whose puppy-dog eyes made me long for a gun, Peter Eyre gabbled the Ghost as if speaking underwater and running out of breath, and even Penelope Wilton seemed a little lost as Gertrude: after playing Doctor Who‘s Prime Minister I longed for her to take control.
The one thing that really struck me in this Hamlet was how much he is lied to. In almost every conversation someone is attempting to deceive him, to spy on him or to betray him. Even those who love him plot against him, or if not against him then around him, trying to convert him to their cause. He can’t trust anyone around him, so he responds in kind. The disappointment of the production is that you feel that Law is in a similar position: giving it his best, while those around him duck away.