A CurtainUp Review
Even the company of players, whose scene is truncated rather than the over embellishment we have seen in recent productions, are there to illuminate the king's guilt rather than to also provide a diversion for the grieving Hamlet. So how does Grandage do this? Christopher Oram's design is the key. Often the players, as untainted by the corruption of the court, enter as a breath of fresh air contrasting the dark mourning colours of Hamlet with bright primaries. Here the players arrive in dark clothes but in costume on stage they dress in white and play their play on a white floorcloth, so brilliantly lit that we see those remainder flashes in front of our eyes for several minutes afterwards.
This is very much Jude Law's play. The clarity of the verse is as clear as any I can remember and spoken with understanding and sincerity. The emotional quality of his soliloquies is striking. The opening scene of the play sees Hamlet a crumpled figure, hearing voices in his head, "Ghost, ghost, ghost" they seem to murmur. Hamlet leaves and we are on the battlements with Peter Eyre's vocally splendid, pale eyed ghost appearing through the smoke and genuinely making the soldiers startle.
To the court and Grandage's signature flourish (or is it Oram's?) of a red velvet descending curtain, not lowered but falling down so that the fabric unfurls through its own weight, telling us that we are in the presence of the court. Claudius (Kevin McNally) is a slimy king and the courtiers are scruffy in modern dress linens. Laertes (Alex Waldmann) is obsequious as, conscious of his status as son of a non-royal, he petitions the king on exaggerated bended knee. Can this be a play about fathers and sons? Hamlet, Laertes, Young Fortinbras (although he's a nephew)?
Straight into the first solilioquy "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt" and here Hamlet speaks directly to the audience. Jude Law's Hamlet is facially animated, full of variety — I'm impressed. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as pretty an Ophelia as you could hope to see and still a sweet child, never mawkish or irritating as this part can be. Laertes also seems very young and when his request to his sister is met with giggles, he says with severity "Fear It Ophelia!" Ron Cook's Polonius speaks his advice without artifice, plain spoken, clear and eminently sensible.
Peter Eyre's grey complexioned ghost returns and intones like one of the now-dead theatrical knights with wonderful resonance. Hamlet's observations on cursed spite that he has to be the one to avenge his father, are said with his hands to his head as if suffering from a migraine. Hamlet's pretence of madness takes the form of attacking Polonius in a mock sexual pelvic thrust and when asked for his leave, the "Except my Life " rejoinder is said noisily and differently from the more usual wistful. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy is delivered with snow falling from the full height of the battlements and Hamlet, a small crouched figure, shivering in the cold in thin clothes and bare feet. Penelope Wilton's Gertrude seems to be feeling her age, she is anxious, weary and almost seems to be regretting her marriage but she tells Claudius she will obey him.
The interval is taken before the play within the play. Hamlet joins in with the players throwing confetti and providing props like the crown and glasses of champagne. The closet scene is played with Polonius to the front of the stage and Hamlet and Gertrude shielded behind a gauze curtain to the rear which Polonius hangs onto and brings down as he is stabbed, in another falling curtain moment. We feel the distress and anger as Hamlet really does "speak daggers" to his mother. Ophelia sings her bawdy songs, offers herbs and drowns. Laertes returns, there's a quick visit to the graveyard and so to the smoky duel scene. Hamlet stops off from the duel to catch the poisoned queen in his arms as a shifty Claudius looks on. At the end of the duel scene, the stage is deserted, no courtiers, just three bodies plus Hamlet and Horatio as young Fortinbras marches in, heralding the new order.
Christopher Oram's majestic and unadorned dark battlements are castle-like with light breaking through the arrow slit apertures high above — Neil Austin is responsible for the impeccable lighting. These walls convey too the prison-like nature of Hamlet's predicament. Grandage's production has plenty of atmosphere but nothing to distract from the central figure and Hamlet's lines. The less frippery the better. The full Hamlet normally runs at approaching four hours, more with a second interval. It is unlikely that the full Hamlet was played in Shakespeare's day and Grandage's version comes in at just under three and a quarter hours.
I personally ask for no more than a young, sincere Hamlet spoken beautifully and with feeling. Jude Law is 36 years old but still looks boyish and is destined to bring the love of Shakespeare's best play to a new audience.
London Production Notes:
Cast: Starring Jude Law, Peter Eyre, Penelope Wilton, Kevin R McNally, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ron Jones; with: David Burke, Alan Turkington, Henry Pettigrew, Matt Ryan, Ian Drysdale, Alex Waldmann, Sean Jackson, John MacMillan, Gwilym Lee, Jenny Funnell, Harry Attwell, Faye Winter, Colin Haigh, James Le Feuvre
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Composer and Sound: Adam Cork
Fight Director: Terry King
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th June 2009 performance at the Wyndham's Theatre