Dispatches | August 19, 2009
Jude Law's Hamlet
I had a thing for Hamlet well before stumbling across a small exhibit at the British Library of playbills, scripts and photographs of former productions, along with sound recordings of famous actors—John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, and Mel Gibson—reciting the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. I listened to each of them twice and then when I returned home bought every video and DVD of Hamlet that I could find, as well as adaptations such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet 2, In the Bleak Midwinter and the second season of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows.
So when I learned that Jude Law was performing in Hamlet this summer at Wydham’s Theater I had to get tickets even though I knew the show sold out nearly a year in advance. After landing in England and checking into our hotel, I dragged my sleepy husband to the theater to stand in line for remainder tickets. The person in front of us got the last standing-room-only ticket for the night; however, a woman behind us was trying to return her tickets a day early. The theater gods were smiling upon us. We went outside and in the middle of Leicester Square bought two of the best seats in the house at one of the most coveted performances of the season. The readiness is all.
Jude Law has a charming petulance and stylish volatility that’s perfectly suited for Hamlet. He also has clearly put in the hours studying and perfecting his craft, which is evident in his clear, thoughtful interpretation of Hamlet’s lines and his ability to move fluidly and quickly through a myriad of emotions. He can rage and weep and rant with the best of them, yet his finest scenes were the ones that required a lightly comic touch: bantering with his school buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, instructing the players on how to recite their lines in “Mousetrap,” and teasing out the meaning’s of the gravedigger’s equivocations.
Yes, Jude Law was wonderful but not brilliant, nor was the production. There wasn’t anything surprising or daring in his interpretation of the role, and the set, costumes, and staging were standard fare. There were also times when I missed the naturalness of Olivier’s delivery. Law along with most of the other actors who were performing the Bard’s work this summer seem to have ditched plain spoken style for a more stagey, performance-minded delivery. In their manuscript collection room, again at the British Library, I listened to Olivier’s rendition of the “Poor Yorick” speech. It had the quality of an overheard conversation—quiet, simple, heartfelt.
Yet Jude Law is the natural inheritor of the part. I cannot imagine that any of his American contemporaries—Brad Pit, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Mathew Mcconaughey to name a few—have the acting chops to command the stage for three hours. The Jude Law of film only hints at the depth of his talent. On screen, his performance can sometimes be eclipsed by his looks. On stage in the West End, released from his heart-throb, leading-man straightjacket, he clearly delights in his freedom and the chance to play one of the best roles every written.
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