HAMLET WITH JUDE LAW: Tragedy a la Banana Republic
Published: October 2009
Michael Grandage’s Hamlet is contemporary and mostly monochrome, and Jude Law’s doomed Prince of Denmark is, first and foremost, cool.  He’s fit, angry and energetic, just “one of us,” sporting casual, hip clothes and a $1,000 artfully tousled haircut – exactly how the audience expects him to be – and we love it.

The minimalist set design is a cross between a bare bank lobby with green marble walls and a tall, wooden castle gate backstage that opens to reveal a passageway and a stern stone wall. The lighting is mostly drab and equally minimal, with several beautiful moments where a spot of golden light or blue snowfall offers some visual variety and contrast. There’s an ongoing, overwhelming sense of overcast: gray on gray and black on black. We get the metaphor. Yes, dark is cool, and there’s something rotten in (today’s) Denmark, but the gloom is visually pounding for far too long after we get it, and it offers few memorable surprises (like the beautiful splash of white when the actors perform in front of the court). Most costumes are in assorted shades of gray and bi-tonal cold colours (deep gray and magenta or black and blue) which, at times, resemble a banal fall/winter department store window display with animated mannequins. Claudius the King looks and talks like a cross between a CEO and a modern Prince (of Monaco, perhaps?), while Gertrude, the Queen, Ophelia, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are dressed a la Banana Republic – like people you might bump into at work or a makeshift ensemble doing a rehearsal of Hamlet in their own street clothes. They are as ethnically diverse as people on a subway platform in New York or London. Polonius and other courtiers are dressed in dark, rumpled suits that resemble those of some underpaid provincial bank clerks. Only Mr. Law’s chic cardigans distinguish themselves as higher end fashion.       

In short, Jude Law faces the daunting task of delivering a memorable Hamlet supported by a rather dull cast, drab set design and costumes (by Christopher Oram), and a directorial guidance by Michael Grandage (the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London) that discourages silences, nuances, modulations, characterization, syncretism, and much of the mystery and magic that make theatre emotionally engaging.

This is a three-hour show with one intermission. In the first part of the performance, Mr. Law misses the mark. He rushes through the Shakespeare metrics and fails to stir powerful emotion and empathy, commanding the stage with mostly the aura of his movie-star persona. Under Grandage’s (mis)direction, the most famous monologue, “to be or not to be,” falls like an off-the-cuff remark and is delivered without much dramatic power from all the way at the back of the scene – Jude Law with an open book in his hand, pacing under a cloud of snowfall, looking askew (to the stage left wing). We barely hear his words, and we don’t feel his drama, let alone his tragedy. There’s no eye or emotional contact with the audience whatsoever. His monologue is supposed to be “different” and “visually cool,” not necessarily powerful and thought-provoking. That is, because most of Shakespeare’s memorable scenes and lines have become like musical standards, that each new director is supposed to interpret in a new way without missing the core appeal, just like American Idol contestants are supposed to bring a unique voice, harmony, and orchestration to each well known song. “Different” doesn’t work all the time.  One example is Mr. Michael Grandage’s casting of mousey Ron Cook first as Polonius (one of the least sympathetic characters of the play; at least in the Broadhurst Theater performance) and later as Gravedigger #1, transferring our muted repulsion to one of the supposedly most lively and fun small characters in the play; thereby missing much of the anticipated flavour of the entire Grave Digging scene.   


But other times “different” does work, like in the beautifully resolved scene when Hamlet kills Polonious who is stationed untraditionally at front stage, and we see Hamlet and Gertrude behind a sheer white curtain. Or the black court watching and white-clad actors, performing the re-enactment of the fratricide drama, like the negative of a film. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw creates a robust and fit girl-next-door Ophelia who lacks frailty to such a degree that her losing her mind once Hamlet kills her father, Polonius, lands unconvincingly and seems contrived, “from a different play,” especially since she’s sporting a modern, boxy pair of pajamas that doesn’t particularly enhance her femininity or vulnerability. But Ophelia in white pajamas is again, “different.” However, for the first time, there’s real sweetness in her sudden madness, and it almost moves us. We have a glimpse that perhaps under different direction, she could do a more nuanced and emotionally engaging performance. But it’s too late. Her romance with Hamlet has no chemistry or tension and lands flat, depriving Jude Law of yet another chance to stir our hearts and torment our souls. 


Fortunately, the second part of Hamlet is much better; if it had crossed my mind to leave the show before the intermission, in the end I was happy I stayed.  Michael Grandage changes some of the things that don’t work in the first part. Each scene seems more vibrant, and there are more humour, splashes of colour,  tinges of sadness and true emotion. Shakespeare’s language is better heard, and there’s more room to breathe and react between the lines. Jude Law addresses the audience several times from centre stage as if he’s coming into his own skin as Hamlet after a long struggle to become the character.  He is charismatic, intense, articulate, clever, funny, and much more powerful.

The performance ends with Fortinbras (refreshingly played by Alan Turkington) emerging on the stage full of dead bodies, and we are moved – but not overly sad or shaken – because this Hamlet was tragedy lite.
It was a performance intended to bring a young, hip, Banana Republic audience to the theatre, but still priced, like all Broadway shows, for an older Bergdorf Goodman clientele. Tuesday night (October 20) was a full house, but most of the affluent audience was past their prime.

Jude Law’s Hamlet it not an introspective misfit as much as a cool, vital, and sarcastic modern hero. You can only wonder how much better he could have been in a different production.