July 19, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Donmar West End) @ Wyndham’s Theatre

I booked to see the Donmar’s major new Hamlet some eighteen months ago, taking an unusual step for me by paying top whack to get front row stalls seats. The idea was that this would be an end of year treat, a production I was going to purely for fun. That was back when Kenneth Branagh was still scheduled to direct, but his replacement with the ever-reliable Michael Grandage didn’t faze me. The main attraction, despite my ongoing ambivalence towards star casting, was of course Jude Law in the title role and, as the artwork had implied from the start, this was a production built entirely around the Dane.

Hamlet publicity art

This was a dark Hamlet, in the literal sense. Christopher Oram’s imposing set of stone walls allowed narrow shafts of light to fall from high window slits, but the stage itself was resolutely dark, and peopled with a cast almost entirely clad in black. As the play progressed variations were introduced: the players wore stark white in contrast, Ophelia and Gertrude donned pale greys and whites in their madness and repentance respectively, and Hamlet himself changed into a grey t-shirt. The overall colourlessness was held until the final scene, where slightly predictably a deep red curtain was used as a backdrop for the final duel and murders. Happily, the visual monotony was relieved by Neil Austin’s spectacular lighting design, which used bright, carefully angled lights to suggest a world of lightness and freedom just beyond the barred doors of Elsinore.

Law’s Hamlet was the first I’ve seen to resist the temptation to play up the humour of the role. While several of his scenes were hugely funny (notably his description of Polonius being at supper with the worms, played with a careless cruelty behind his smiles), the overriding impression was one of intensity. Sweat dripping off his face from the get-go, hands gesturing wildly and a taut, strained quality to his voice, this Hamlet was a fractured and troubled man, tightly wound and about ready to snap.

Dominating the production, Law’s performance was never less than rivetting. His bottled-up energy found its outlet in moments of pure emotion, such as his scream at Guildenstern’s attempts to play him like a pipe and his wordless grief at the realisation that Ophelia was dead, restrained by Horatio. In soliloquy he was a man torn apart, delivering "To be or not to be" while huddling himself in the midst of a snowfall, or directing "How all occasions do inform against me" internally, his disgust at his own inaction dawning on him as he spoke. Despite the production’s occasional attempts to iconicise the performance (such as his first appearance, crouched on the floor in a spotlight in a picture-perfect moment), Law’s strength was the humanity he brought to the role, bringing a touch of reality to over-familiar moments: holding Yorick’s skull became a nostalgic gulp of a scene, a dizzying moment of childish remembrance that juxtaposed in his mind with the grief and heady action of the moment.

While Grandage drew a wonderful performance out of Law, however, the rest of the production failed to live up to it. As with the director’s Twelfth Night, Hamlet suffered from a lack of invention in the staging and performances that rendered it somewhat flat. The one truly inventive decision was to play the closet scene in what was effectively reverse-angle: a transparent curtain fell from the ceiling a foot or so from the downstage edge, which Polonius hid in front of while Gertrude and Hamlet met behind. As Polonius was killed, he grabbed at the curtain and pulled it down over him, allowing Hamlet to wrap him in it. This proved a welcome diversion from the rather static staging of the rest of the play. Repeatedly, groups of nameless courtiers entered, moved to their appointed positions, stood still to watch the current scene and then left at its conclusion, effectively providing living scenery – considering the pioneering work being done around the country on ensemble playing, one would have hoped that a more interesting use for the understudies could have been found. As it was, the larger court scenes became artificially rigid.

The staging of smaller scenes was more interesting, but let down by uninspired performances. Alex Waldmann’s whiny Laertes was a particular disappointment, seeming more exasperated than angry with Claudius on his return to Denmark. His reaction to Ophelia’s death was badly misjudged: taking "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia/ And therefore I forbid my tears" as his cue, he instead managed to display an attitude of not caring, shrugging off the news with an oh-well-what-can-you-do tone. Matt Ryan’s Horatio was decent but made no real impression, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (John MacMillan and Gwilym Lee) fared slightly better in performances that emphasised the characters’ complicity, both becoming severe agents of Claudius in their later scenes. However, their troubled reactions as they were given the letter containing their orders for Hamlet’s death spoke of more complexity, and a rare appearance for the English Ambassador provided a welcome reminder of their fates.

Penelope Wilton was perhaps the biggest disappointment, in a performance that extended to little more than hand-wringing for much of its length. Wilton was peculiarly awkward, leaving the character looking ill at ease in her roles as queen, wife and mother. The performance was redeemed somewhat by an effective, physical closet scene, culminating in Hamlet straddling his mother as she lay screaming on the floor, but even here Wilton was the passive partner and Law’s energy directed the scene. Following this scene, her repentance was rather unsubtly shown through a couple of occasions where Claudius attempted to take her hand but was refused. Her death, drinking the cup, was entirely accidental, and her upstage death obscured by the rest of the action, leaving her demise anticlimactic.

Happily, not all the supporting performances were as weak. Kevin R McNally made for a strong, decisive Claudius: pragmatic in his wrongdoing, he managed his subjects effectively and invited loyalty from his followers: far more so than in other productions I’ve seen, one was aware of his abilities as a leader of men. While there was a suitably evil streak, most notably in his dying moments as he crawled across the floor towards Hamlet, snarling and reaching out towards him, McNally gave the role depth with a heartfelt praying scene, the king frustrated by the ineffectiveness of his prayers. In addition to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes, Osric became one of Claudius’ key henchmen. Ian Drysdale’s performance turned the character into an Oswald, first appearing in place of Voltemand as a messenger and later carrying Claudius’ errands around the court, before facing Hamlet directly as he encouraged him to take part in what he knew was a trap.

Ron Cook was, for the second time in a Grandage production this year, a highlight. His Polonius entered into a knowing relationship with the audience, making full use of his asides to draw laughs and lighten the tone, engaging our sympathies while at the same time allowing the character to look ridiculous. The character’s self-assuredness made him the perfect foil for Hamlet’s jibes, the sarcastic comments passing largely unnoticed, and his death marked a decisive turning point in the play’s mood. Gugu Mbatha-Raw did some decent work as Ophelia, coming into her own during the madness scenes. Her lines here were sung beautifully, her madness becoming a carefully constructed delusion rather than random ravings.

This was a very full production, for example including all the Fortinbras scenes and both Gravediggers – although, in the latter case, the scene only became funny once David Burke’s 1st Gravedigger entered into conversation with Hamlet. The fullness was welcome in the second act: where the first half of the play felt ponderous (at the halfway point, it had only reached the end of 3.1), the second half moved at a fair clip, with the short scenes driving the production forward. Despite my disappointment with some performances and with the production’s general uninventiveness, this was a perfectly servicable piece of West End Shakespeare, serving it straight and unfussy. In many ways, it provided an experience akin to a musical: Hamlet’s set pieces taking the place of the big musical numbers, with the rest of the production moving the play efficiently along in between. A great Hamlet, then, but a disappointing Hamlet.

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