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.

Laurence Olivier Says…

For the past three months, I’ve been romanced by a dead man. I met him this summer when I traveled to London to research for TMR at the British Library. There he was, dashing and handsome, in a folder of eight-by-ten glossies. And his entire life—his fears, hopes, ambitions, failures, and many successes—were available to me in the form of as-yet unbound manuscripts. Larkin doesn’t beguile. Hughes is too surly. Wilde has nothing left to give. But Laurence Olivier? I fell for him instantly. There’s so much of him to love—985 unpublished volumes, in fact.

I’ve always been susceptible to British charm. And Olivier’s personal papers, archived at the Library, are replete with it. In 1960, while rehearsing The Tumbler, a young Charlton Heston asked the older actor over a bottle of brandy how he dealt with negative reviews. Olivier patted him on the shoulder and said, “Laddie, it’s much more important and much harder, but you’ve got to learn to dismiss the good ones!” (He was always calling people “Laddie,” “Love,” “Darling” and “Dear Boy,” as only the English can.)

I’m sure people have become tired of my prefacing every story or insight with “Olivier says,” but I’m helpless to avoid it. After reading four biographies and his memoir and watching the Criterion collection of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry V, I have Olivier on the brain.

For one thing, Olivier loved cats. I love cats. Before getting his teeth fixed, he had a gap between his front teeth. And then when he became famous and had a little money, he loved expensive clothes wine, and food. Just like me.

His practical, no-nonsense approach to his art also appeals to me. He didn’t put much stock in intellectual talk. In fact, he believed that all talk and minimal rehearsal made very bad actors.

A. Alvarez believed that young writers are a promiscuous lot. We jump into bed with artists of the past and fall in lust. “Every so often serial promiscuity results in le coup de foudre: you hear a voice and recognize it and know it’s for you just as surely as you recognize Miss Right across the room before you’ve ever spoken to her.”

In college my husband had a crush on Faulkner.

“What did he offer you?” I asked.

“Rhythm, freedom, the ability to make a story out of nothing,” he said, a little lost in memory.

But the infatuation didn’t last. My husband’s love sickness for Faulkner was critical until the author in his later work started winging it on whiskey, his writing on auto pilot.  Speer decided that he merely liked him but didn’t want to be him.

A. Alvarez believes that literary infatuation, like youthful infatuation, doesn’t last. “And it’s hard to be friends afterwards.”

I’m not sure that I agree. As I am putting the finishing touches on the foreword to the Olivier feature that will be published in the winter issue, my love does seem to be waning, and I’ve already begun reading for my next TMR visual feature (a relationship I’m keeping secret for the moment). But end my friendship with Olivier? Never. I often think of him fondly, and we’ll always have our intimate time together in the reading room at the British Library.