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.


The Winter’s Tale


Exit, pursued by a bear is the best-known stage direction in history. It’s a combination of absurdity and horror that’s entirely appropriate to the play that it appears in: The Winter’s Tale, now showing at The Old Vic as one half of The Bridge Project, directed by Sam Mendes.

Like that other late (and wintry) masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Shakespeare’s penultimate play is a story of obsessive sexual jealousy, played out in a world that is familiar, but not quite ours: there’s a shipwreck on the (nonexistent) coast of Bohemia, predictions from the Oracle at Delphi, and a statue that comes mysteriously alive. Its psychology — jealousy, fraudulence, romance — is accurate but magnified into obsession. And, like Eyes Wide Shut, its happy ending offers little sense of closure: the dead are still dead, and the emotions of the story dormant not extinct.

The heart of the play is Leontes, King of Sicilia (Simon Russell Beale). Leontes becomes convinced that Queen Hermione (a fragile, deeply touching Rebecca Hall) is sleeping with his boyhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Once the idea is fixed in his mind he’s impossible to dissuade, seeing everything that happens through the lens of betrayal:

There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour

And this:

I have said
She’s an adulteress; I have said with whom:
More, she’s a traitor and Camillo is
A federary with her, and one that knows
What she should shame to know herself
But with her most vile principal, that she’s
A bed-swerver

Sluiced? Bed-swerver? This is full-blooded tabloid language, and still shocks a contemporary audience. Despite Hermione’s pleas, Leontes cannot be dissuaded, and has her imprisoned, even when the Oracle proclaims her innocence. Worse, when she is discovered to be pregnant, he disowns the baby, and orders the child to be flung on a fire. By the end of the play’s first section, both Hermione and the Leontes’ son are dead, and the baby has been left to die, abandoned on the shoreline of Bohemia —

— only to be found by a passing shepherd. And here the play shifts gear entirely, into pastoral romantic comedy, full of mistaken identities and disguises, all ruled over by Autolycus (Ethan Hawke), a travelling con man. Mendes plays this as a kind of bluegrass festival — in this production the Sicilians are played by the English, the Bohemians by Americans — and for a while, as the characters sing and dance together, the production feels more enjoyable for the cast than it does for the audience. It’s a disconcerting shift in tone, one of the reasons why The Winter’s Tale is often seen as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. So what is Shakespeare up to here? He’s questioning the very nature of narrative, and displaying his mastery of the craft, pushing drama to its limits. He’s showing us our greed for story, and how, even when it’s gossamer-thin, our ability to empathise can make it real. Yes it’s artificial; yes it’s psychologically extreme, but the collaboration between author, actors and audience ensures that, even at its limits, drama works its magic on us.

In the final act of the play this is made literal, as Hermione, commemorated as a statue, comes to life again. Mendes, far from concealing the artifice of this, emphasises it: we see Hermione take up her position on the plinth during the scene change, and there’s no attempt to disguise her as a statue. Yet the moment of her animation is extraordinary, and her reconciliation with Leontes touching. Do we forgive Leontes? No. But do we want him to be happy? Oddly, even now, we do. Despite his shocking cruelty, despite their son’s death, despite the wasted years of both their lives, our human yearning for a happy ending transcends absurdity and horror. And maybe, looking at the world around us, that’s a start.

Frayling frayed — and flayed


Sir Christopher Frayling (apparently seen here in a still from Honey I Shrunk the Professor) leaves Arts Council England today after five years of “relentless venom”, culminating in last year’s revolt against the revised spending plan. You can read his valedictory interview here. It certainly raises the debate about the role of the arts in a collapsing economy, and highlights the need for a persuasive, fearless champion of funding in the tricky years ahead. After all, as this Guardian article points out, the UK’s greatest hopes for this year’s Oscars — and our most commercially successful films — depend almost entirely upon talent whose careers were built in the subsidised world.