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why no love, Hamlet?

December 2, 2009

I saw Jude Law’s Hamlet today, which was  sometimes wow, sometimes yawn.  One line was totally dropped, unless they’re working with the quarto from outer space in which “You are merry” occasions “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge.” Oops.

Another oops? Hamlet and Laertes had a good old-fashioned fencing match, but there was no fight director listed in the program! Is there a weird, transatlantic reason for this? Either way, props to Terry King for the deaths and duels.

More thoughts on the production:

I enjoyed it more than either Theater for a New Audience’s or that one I saw in Brooklyn over the summer, but I was also expecting more. Like, when you get Jude Law as your Hamlet — and he was good — you should get some other people who can act. The Ghost/First Player just soldiered through his text, I don’t remember a thing about Laertes, or Gertrude except for her lovely speaking voice, or Claudius except that he knelt before he said “Bow, stubborn knees.”

My favorite thing about the show was that Jude Law told a lot of stories with his lines; I not only knew what Law was saying, but how he felt about the line and what reaction he wanted to get with it. When he says “My father’s died within two hours,” and Ophelia corrects him, “Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord,” I could swear his response of “So long!” was delivered to cover up an honest Freudian slip. I loved that.

When Ophelia tells him that her father is “at home, my lord, where should he be?”, he tips his head; the gesture says “That is such bullshit” and “You expect me to believe that?” and “It’s such a pity you said that.” I loved that he took a few lines, including “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak…”, and showed us how Hamlet moves from a simple response to a rhetorical exercise. Law’s Hamlet was smart, depressed, and obsessive — givens, you’d think, but appreciated nonetheless. Favorite soliloquy goes to “rogue and peasant slave,” delivered quietly, with a great deal of venom, and with a wonderfully funny and self-deprecating turn at “Why, what an ass am I!” He also gave my favorite-to-date reading of a difficult line: Ophelia asks, “How does your honor for this many a day?” and he, rather stunned at the sight of her, automatically responds “I humbly thank you, well” and then reconsiders how he’s actually doing (“wellll….”) but decides not to go into it and reaffirms his first response (“well!”).

I’m not head-over-heels for Law, though; ironically enough, he sawed the air too much with his hands and thereby ruined a lot of great moments, including most of the closet scene. He liked to mime what he was talking about, whether figurative (“skin and film the ulcerous place”) or jaw-grittingly literal (“Subscribed it, gave’t the impression, placed it safely”).

Props to a very fussy and funny Polonius, who also played the Gravedigger. Ophelia, just get off the stage. Horatio, grow a spine and a sense of humor and then maybe I’ll see why Hamlet likes you. And could you please care, at all, when he dies?

Horatio and Hamlet had one wonderful moment, though: in a lot of productions, when Horatio picks up the poisoned cup and threatens to drink it, Hamlet knocks it out of his hands. In the Derek Jacobi version, Hamlet is still standing, but too poisoned to move, and he begs Horatio not to do it. They did something similar here, but different enough to make me sit up: Hamlet doesn’t beg, he actually talks Horatio out of it. Horatio puts the cup down because he agrees with Hamlet, not as a favor to Hamlet. I don’t know that I’ll be happy with any other version of that moment. Law’s poisoned Hamlet was very understated and affecting, as well; I hate it when they stagger around and shout. He just…wilted until he tripped over his own feet and Horatio had to catch him.

Costumes: don’t put everyone in black at the beginning, otherwise it’s ridiculous when Gertrude implores Hamlet to “cast thy nighted color off.” Lights: I understand you were trying to make a statement, but all the Jesus specials on Hamlet were a little obvious. I liked the beams crossing, though. Set: I dig the big rolling doors at the back and yay for snow! The two side doors were just distracting, with the little lights shining through the cut-outs. Plus they didn’t get used all that much.

So those are many of my thoughts on the Donmar Warehouse Hamlet. Overall, I would rather spend three hours watching Hamlet than not watching Hamlet, but I wish it had all lived up to the subtlety and intelligence of (much of) Jude Law’s performance.

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