Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 6, 2009
Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The Donmar Warehouse Production directed by Michael Grandage. Set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting desig by Neil Austin. Composer and sound design by Adam Cork. Cast: Ross Armstrong, Harry Attwell, Ron Cook, Ian Drysdale, Peter Eyre, Jenny Funnell, Michael Hadley, Colin Haigh, Sean Jackson, Geraldine James, Jude Law, Gwilym Lee, James Le Feuvre, John MacMillan, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Kevin R. McNally, Henry Pettigrew, Matt Ryan, Alan Turkington, Faye Winter.
This approach lets you see, as not every interpretation does, both the cogs within cogs that fuel Hamlet’s propulsion toward vengeance as well as the underlying mechanics of those unintended outcomes. Law’s Hamlet is plotting from the instant we first see him, sitting in an isolated spotlight when the curtain rises. His despair over the death of his father and the almost immediately remarriage of his mother, Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius, the new king, consumes him to distraction. But even that bottomless initial loss is secondary to his suspicion that, as the officer Marcellus eventually puts it, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This may be confirmed for Hamlet only when his father returns from the grave to spell it out explicitly, but for us, there’s never any doubt.
It’s a classical treatment, to be sure, more in line with the role’s origins as Amlothi in Norse mythology than the super-psychoanalyzing star-vehicle treatments that are often the norm today. Despite his predilection for great thoughts and speeches - all of which are so famous, they need not even be referred to here - Law’s Hamlet already comprehends his course and his destiny, bringing his section of the play exactly what we bring to it from our perspective: inevitability. He may be conflicted by his yearning for right through wrong and by the recognition of mortality that his father’s murder has foisted upon him, but that’s all ornamentation. He’s realized and accepted his role in the action, moved on, and begun preparing for the next phase, even before he knows for sure what it is.
All of this, however, is right in the text, spelled out in language so clear and plain it’s not surprising that many directors and actors miss it altogether. So you don’t gain from this production the sense that you’re seeing in Hamlet anything that's in any way new - something that could frustrate those who’ve traveled to Elsinore many times before, and always want a thoroughly new vision. This production’s minimal innovations lie in other, if still related, places. Dissecting the mammoth role in the unadorned way he does, it’s easy to see why Law has no trouble sustaining constant forward momentum for over three hours of playing time, during almost all of which he’s onstage. Law and Grandage's real accomplishment is convincing us along the way that it’s everyone else in Hamlet’s life who is truly mad.
The enduring example, of course, is Ophelia. She’s played here by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman who may be youthful but is in no way stupid, which makes her descent into foggy humors unusually unsettling. You can see the clouds slowly roll in over her eyes as Hamlet’s vicious spurning - always using words he’s carefully chosen for show rather than honesty - forces her to abandon her connection to the world she thought she knew. That Hamlet almost crumples under the weight of her final fate is a clear-headed reaction to the loss he caused, but anger alone does not dementedness make. He seems, until the very end, far more focused of purpose than she does in her last minutes onstage, mumbling and singing ethereally as though she can’t tell fire from air and land from water. The two performances feed off of each other, just as they should.
Yet her unyielding shoulders and quick-evaporating concern reveal her inner feelings that when it comes to her son, there are no coincidences. If this production has a single guiding philosophy, that’s it - for better or worse. Law makes the most of every scene with his contemporaries, elevating Laertes (a charismatic and businesslike Gwilym Lee), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (John MacMillan and Harry Attwell), and Horatio (Matt Ryan) to primary players in his life that firms up his active role as the fulcrum of his world. Law’s natural likeability as the chap next door who can rage against walls when no one else is looking, makes all these relationships not just plausible, but definite. And double-casting Cook as the philosophical gravedigger sets up some interesting comparisons between that character’s and Polonius’s philosophies and fates.
Grandage has not given equally deep thought to other aspects of the production. The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Peter Eyre) is treated as too much of an ethereal afterthought, rather than a compelling portent. There are brief flashes of red, usually surrounding Claudius (such as the red carpet he walks on at his first appearance), but the dominant color scheme of Christopher Oram’s oppressively magisterial sets and restrained modern-dress costumes is black and white; when harshly lit (by Neil Austin), they give the play little visual depth or emotional warmth. This staid, too-sober look is sometimes directly at odds with the characters’ overarching passions. But this coolness is obviously at least partially intentional - Grandage really takes his cues from Shakespeare’s cry for Hamlet in the graveyard scene: “O, that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall to expel the winter's flaw!”, even insisting that Law deliver the Soliloquy to End All Soliloquies with several thousand snowflake costars.
“To be or not to be” are the words that have been most closely associated with Hamlet for centuries, so highlighting them in some way is to be expected. Yet if any single scene disappoints in this production, it’s this one. Hamlet’s wandering around the snowy castle grounds in only a tight-clinging shirt does not easily support the view of him as wholly rational. It feels like a concession to traditional concepts of the scene, not the full-scale return to first principles so much of the rest of the production represents. Given Hamlet’s otherwise rock-solid sensibility, the more “daring” take on the speech as pure theatre for the eavesdropping Claudius’s benefit - endorsed to strong effect in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of the play - would seem the order of the day.
That might, alas, deprive Law of one of the juiciest moments of many in his performance. Throughout, he unwinds every word in every monologue with utmost precision, spanning the realms of the abandoned son and the conquering revenger with equal and unprepossessing facility, and plows through all his dialogue with the burning insides of a man who will not be denied what he needs to exist. But That Speech is for him, as for most actors, a waypoint on the journey, a gift as much to him as to us, an operatic aria that even if thematically disconnected from what surrounds it, exerts an irresistible pull 400 years of constant repetition has not at all lessened.
Law surmounts it the way he does the whole role: with the confidence of a man who knows he has nothing to lose. “To be or not to be” becomes, then, less his musing about his blood-deep existential conundrum than the interior mutterings of a man who knew the answer long before he could formulate the question. If it’s still a layer of introspection foreign to the rest of this Hamlet, it’s a moment worth savoring for the deceptively simple truths it tells of a prince and a prince of an actor who know exactly who and why they are, and can’t wait to tell the world.