Hugo Boss Hamlet
If there was an award for best-dressed Hamlet, Jude Law would walk it. His smart-suited performance bucks a trend for geek-chic Hamlets. Admittedly this isn't a brand new trend: since David Warner's Aldermaston scarf in 1963 or Mark Rylance's stripy pyjamas (nothing better to suggest an antic disposition) in 1989, Hamlets have dressed to express that they are off message and out of joint in the Elsinore spin cycle. The prince's inky costume would have proclaimed catwalk - but not smart - melancholy in the very first production in c1600, while his subsequent deconstructed doublet and pale pale shirt would have nailed the 'careless desolation' of this most fashionable malaise.
It may seem shallow as a puddle to discuss Hamlet through the cut of his suit, but it encapsulates Jude Law's version. He's an angry prince, in part because he's primed to step onto the Danish throne. We never learn what he was studying at Wittenburg, but I'd guess an MBA - with that and the threads he's good to go and fire up his first power point presentation for the cabinet ('Norway: trade is the new diplomacy').
This is quite unlike the outsider Hamlets of recent years. Few have sought power, from Simon Russell Beale's self-hurtingly wry prince and George Anton's extreme provocateur for Calixto Bieto, to David Tennant's antic hero (which, no, I didn't see, thanks for reminding me. But I saw the production that framed him, and at least there's a chance to catch it on screen). Peter Brook staged it as a carpet-bound meditation with Adrian Lester, while the Wooster Group pays impish homage to Richard Burton's landmark filmed version.
Most of these Hamlets have been dangerously funny, or at least witty (as Russell Beale showed, wit cuts both ways). But not Law: he's serious, even stern, and speaks snappily but with odd halts, as if his mind was racing ahead of his tongue. The speed characterises Michael Grandage's production, which gallops through its cut text. People march on, gabble and march off again before they've built a character. In a play haunted by moments of moral choice and possibility, there's no time in which the action can hinge.
This can only limit the prince himself, a man who apprehends more possibilities than most, even as they hem him in. Law is fine (bitter, big hands stretched wide), but he's not my idea of Hamlet. And the production, which closes the Donmar Warehouse's season of classic plays in a West End theatre, suggests that Michael Grandage has retreated from the sharp finesse of his best work.
I'm reluctant to rubbish the season, because it's such a fine idea: yummy casts in nourishing plays, with seat prices far cheaper than the West End norm (I sat in the middle of the back row of the balcony for a remarkable ten quid). But Grandage's productions have been culinary. They look ravishing: set designer Christopher Oram's weathered, beaten textures and Neil Austin's fog and diamond lighting are heart-stopping. Hamlet stages 'To be or not to be' amid snowfall at the back of the granite stage, Law sinking to the ground against the black back wall. Swoony visuals can't themselves make plays sing: if Grandage missed the probing wit in Hamlet, he ducked the darkness in Twelfth Night, and he failed to detect any point at all in Mishima's wigtastic Madame de Sade (Judi Dench and the rest of the cast not so much acting as holding up a wall of heavy rhetoric, hoping it didn't fall and crush them). Only Chekhov's Ivanov emerged as an urgent, necessary play - a black-hearted tragicomedy of depression and debt. It's yelping despair was what we needed to hear. Hamlet's furrowed brow and smart clothes look good but won't help in a crisis.
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