Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The throne of Denmark is desecrated by a bastard!

Or so I kept thinking as I watched the current revival of Hamlet, the second consecutive import from London's Donmar Warehouse to play the Broadhurst Theatre. The first was last season's well-received Mary Stuart (from which I've paraphrased for the title). While there is a different director and creative team behind Hamlet, there are elements in the scenography that are just too eerily reminiscent of the former play. The costumes are contemporized to complement a moody charcoal grey set set (complete with brick wall), except in lieu of Brooks Brothers suits, it was more Banana Republic meets Doctor Zhivago chic. Plus, certain key monologues were underscored by that same creepy synthesizer. It felt that at any moment, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer would show up to throw Hamlet and his hot mess of a Royal Court out on its ear.

The play is performed frequently (this is the 66th known production on Broadway), has been filmed several times and is often taught in high school and college. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father, who implicates that Hamlet's uncle murdered him to gain the throne. Hamlet has been despondent over the death of his father, but pushed further into his dejection when his mother marries his uncle less than two months later. What follows is one of the most analyzed and dissected revenge studies in literature.

There is one reason for this particular revival and that is Jude Law. The film star and this production is making its third and final stop, after successfully playing in London and Elsinore, its original cast mostly intact. Mr. Law doesn't offer the bookish introspect one tends to expect. His indecision to enact revenge against his murderous uncle is calculated out of his rage. Law is unexpectedly dynamic as the eponymous character, and most unexpectedly, he's often quite funny. However, when his anger gets the best of him, he is at his most terrifying and cruel, particularly when he dismisses Ophelia with scorn and has a chat with dear old Mom about marrying Uncle Claudius.

He also has the matter of those soliloquies to tackle: seven in total. The character of Hamlet is one of the most psychologically complex in drama, with actions and words that not only bewilder the people around him but often the audience as well. It is through those soliloquies that the audience comes closest to understanding the tragic hero. He offers what is probably Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be," but for as sumptuously as it was staged in the midst of an understated snow storm, and poignantly delivered by Mr. Law, it is overshadowed by his stunning execution of the previous soliloquy "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I."

Not all of the production is up to par. There is excellent staging with inventive visual images from director Michael Grandage, whose spare direction focuses on the text and makes it quite easy for newcomers to Hamlet and/or Shakespeare in general to understand what is going on. When it is Mr. Law and Mr. Grandage at work, the play works best. However, the production is marred by woefully uneven casting. As an ensemble, the actors are just not on the same plane as the star. Some fared better than others: Geraldine James grew on me as Gertrude as the evening progressed, scoring impressively in the bedroom scene as well as showing a reticence toward her new husband after seeing the effect she has had on her son. Ron Cook was amusing, but little else as Polonius. Peter Cook makes a better impression as the Player King than as the ghost of Hamlet's father. Kevin R. McNally barely registered as an endlessly remorseful and endlessly boring Claudius. Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn't up to the demands of the part of Ophelia, with an ineffectual mad scene that seemed to be in another play entirely. The play starts to sag whenever Law isn't onstage (which admittedly isn't often), and clocking in at well over three hours, there are times when you realize the play's length.

One of my problems however, was with some members of the audience. I tend not to be an elitist snob about such things, but I was annoyed by some audience members who snickered and giggled endlessly at every line or phrase that has become a colloquialism. I found myself being taken out of the play several times as a result. It doesn't help that there are so many of the them. But then again, I guess that's a testament to what is arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language. One of the real joys of any production is to hear those words - it's a transcendent work. This revival is a strictly limited engagement and I'm sure will be a hot ticket due to the movie star drawing power of Mr. Law. This Hamlet departs Elsinore December 6. However, if you miss this one, I'm sure revival number 67 won't be too far behind.


Esther said...

When I saw Macbeth with Patrick Stewart it was kind of fun to check off the phrases that have become book titles - the sound and the fury; something wicked this way comes, to name a couple. And I love "Is this a dagger I see before me?"

Gil said...

So more recently, I've been trying to see Shakespeare only if it's likely to be the ultimate production of that play that I'll have the chance to see (or if it's particularly innovative). Best Example: I saw the fantastic Ian McKellan King Lear a few years back and I'm now done with King Lear, I don't need to see that play again because it's complete in my mind.

I'm sure Hamlet will tread the boards many more times in my life; do you think this one is up for anything in the range of "ultimate production"? Reading your review, am I right in thinking that without Law it wouldn't have enough going for it?

Kevin Daly said...

Gil, that's the crux of the biscuit. Without Law, it's catatonic. With him, it's engaging and often fascinating.

I gotta say though, I'd jump at any opportunity to see Hamlet. But then again, it's my favorite Shakespearean tragedy. Though truth be told, I'd also be done after one King Lear myself (Not my favorite...)

Gil said...

I suppose I'll skip it. To me Hamlet is a hamburger... they're everywhere, and I live in New York City, so I don't bother eating one unless it's really fantastic. Whereas King Lear is like...

Well damn I'm having trouble figuring out a food that I usually don't like, unless it's really well-prepared in which case it's damn delicious.

Oh man, metaphor fail.