Sunday, December 20, 2009
“Hamlet” crosses desolation with hilarity in a production transcending time and history
Most Shakespeare productions highlight the importance of seeing of the Bard’s works for yourself and translating the confusing and multi-layered 16th century verbosity into body language, physical exchanges, moaning and groaning, high and low inflections, moving toward and away from others, cringing and wincing, crying, hitting, and reactions to others’ speeches. Michael Grandage’s “Hamlet,” enjoying a 12-week run in New York City’s Broadhurst Theatre, satisfies this call and brings the play alive.
Grandage’s production emphasizes the power of the play itself with a minimalist set. The stage, props and lighting are abstract and monochromatic. Sound effects are only mildly applied, like in the beginning as a desolate winter wind greets the audience and immediate sets the tone. As the lights come up dimly, we see the star of the show first—Jude Law as Hamlet. Curled up on the floor and draped in black, Hamlet looks pale as a ghost. He picks himself up and saunters off stage, disappearing just as the guards stride in—perhaps foreshadowing how he follows in his father’s footsteps.
Law himself is sheer genius in this legendary role. He must have perfectly crafted every exquisite gesture. Law speaks so much with his hands and his body movements that it’s abundantly clear he’s about to explode. For example, he hung his head in disgust at Claudius’ speech about fathers, and then keenly recoiled, with his hand over his mouth, when Claudius (played by Kevin McNally) asks Hamlet to call him father.
Then he shares an aesthetically and emotionally beautiful moment with the-King-his-father’s Ghost (Peter Eyre). Once the Ghost appears, Hamlet is physically restrained by three men; but even three-against-one can’t keep him from this reunion—he strikes them to get away. He follows his father into the mist and then, once they’re alone, melts under the Ghost’s intensity. While fog spills over the stage, one solitary beam of piercing white light falls upon the Ghost—barefoot, decrepit, and immensely weary. Hamlet dutifully kneels next to, not in the light of his father, with his back to the audience. In Eyre’s gorgeous bass voice, which reverberates throughout the large theatre even when he whispers, King Hamlet gives a torrid speech revealing Claudius’ treachery. When King Hamlet declares, “Remember me,” he turns remarkably timid and gentle, taking tiny steps toward his son and hesitantly kissing his hand. This, one of the few moments in the play that is heartbreaking for its unrefined tenderness, is further intensified in Law’s body language: his back is arched with misery and longing as he watches his father leave. Law continues to use his body language and his voice to keep us enthralled.
Along with the colorless set design, the actors themselves mostly convey a sense of grim disturbance and heightened tension. They stand apart at distances that were ever-so-slightly exaggerated—planting themselves just a bit further away from each other than one would expect. Moreover, Law makes his movements snap with bitter, even manic energy which could only be soothed by Horatio’s (Matt Ryan) presence. While this made for emotionally riveting theatre, the show was saved from total bleakness by moments of laughter. In one of the most ludicrously funny moments of the production, Law walks on stage, labels Polonius a fishmonger, and proceeds to grab the poor old man and hump him half a dozen times.
He has reason to torment him, though: Polonius was insufferable in this production. From seeing another production of “Hamlet” in Philadelphia with the Lantern Theatre Company, I know that this character has the potential to be likeable. Interestingly, the character is taken to a completely opposite end in the Broadway production. In Philly, Tim Moyer had funny tendencies but inspired sympathy at the same time: his Polonius acts in the attempt to protect his daughter. On the other hand, Ron Cook‘s Polonius is clearly an ambitious, “tedious old fool” who cares not a whit for Ophelia. Moyer’s Polonius tries to maintain respectability, but he is so gullible that he instantly falls into Hamlet’s trap of looking insane. Contrastingly, Cook dutifully humors Hamlet’s moods without seeming too concerned; he’s clearly only in it for the power. Also, the way in which these two actors deliver, “What do you think of me?” distinguishes them. Moyer, after a long pause, softly asks this of the ravenous royals making out while he’s trying to explain the situation between his daughter and their son. In New York, Cook demands an affirmation of his importance, completely deviating from the dire situation between Hamlet and Ophelia.
Gertrude is another character interpreted in unique ways at each theatre. In the Lantern’s Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius, played by Philadelphia theater veterans Mary Martello and Joe Guzmán, make lustful beelines for their exits. At the Broadhurst, their relationship is completely the opposite. Even in the beginning, the two maintained proper British reserve; their occasional hand-holding in public barely suggest at their sexual relationship. The difference is even more exaggerated in the second half of the Broadway production: Gertrude, played by the gorgeous and sophisticated Geraldine James—who looks like a queen even in real life—takes to heart her son’s pleas about it: “throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half, Good night—but go not to my uncle's bed.” For the rest of the play, she abstains from accepting Claudius’ touch.
The two Hamlets—Geoff Sobelle in Philadelphia—are very similar in their maniacal energy, fits of passion, playful sarcasm and crazy hand gestures. But in other ways, the two actors portray their Hamlet differently. Sobelle’s Hamlet is just a bit wackier—which makes sense considering the actor’s absurdist-comic—as is exemplified in his swinging like a monkey from the bars of the set’s scaffolding. While Law’s activity and clarity of purpose are extraordinarily honed throughout the whole play, Sobelle is impatient and intent only when he is most disturbed: at his father’s ghost’s angry prompting for vengeance and at Ophelia’s funeral. Law, then, distinguishes his character by finding a forceful energy behind his philosophy. That’s why this Broadway uncut production of Shakespeare’s longest play actually felt short. Law’s Hamlet is not simply pondering every single exchange—his mind is rapidly investigating and rallying up his courage.
The magnificent performances all the actors deliver in this production truly bring Shakespeare to life. Under Grandage’s direction, Law especially shines an inspiring light on the philosophical, touching, fatalistic play.