Review – Hamlet with Jude Law, Donmar at the Wyndham’s Theatre

Thursday 4 June 2009

jude law hamletWho could have envisaged that Phil would get to direct Mr Jude Law in Mr Shakespeare‘s Hamlet in the auspicious Donmar West End season?

For in an implausible and rather Shakespearean case of mistaken identity that’s how it seemed on Tuesday night.* During the interval Phil bumped into someone he’d met on a work trip a couple of years ago who turned to her companion and introduced Phil with the words “This is Michael Grandage, the director”.

How Phil wished he had carried on the conceit but Andrew was laughing at the idea too much. The woman was quite insistent “But you look just like him.”

Ah well, put it down to it being the hottest night of the year or perhaps the fact that Phil had walked head first into a plate glass window in Spain a few days earlier and radically altered his facial features (considerably for the better, clearly).

One of the enjoyable things about watching Hamlet, of course, is counting the number of popular phrases or sayings it contains (“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” etc). But this being the third time Andrew had seen a Hamlet in nine months he devised a new game to keep it interesting. This time he was on the lookout for film titles and he did quite well, coming  up with Murder Most Foul, Leave Her to Heaven, To Be Or Not To Be and (at a stretch) North (By) North West, further augmenting this triumph with a couple of plays (The Mousetrap and Single Spies) just to add a bit of variety**. During the interval, Andrew explained the game to Phil who later came up with Breath of life (almost certainly a wild guess) and Ghost (cheating).

But the point is that there were probably many more hidden in there which we didn’t spot. For the trouble was that the Whingers found themselves surprisingly distracted by the goings-on at Elsinore (or in Danish, “Helsingør”, as we insist on correcting people in lieu of any useful knowledge about the play). It was really rather good.

There were disappointments, of course. In this rather gloomy-looking set (atmospherically lit by Neil Austin) the cast seem to have been dressed by Jigsaw and the Whingers did find themselves longing for a bit of doublet and hose and – indeed – crying out for a bit of colour.

Let’s just remind ourselves what the costumes would look like in a proper production of Hamlet, Mr Oram:

Hamlet Old Vic 1935

This is from the Old Vic in 1935: Vivienne Bennett as Ophelia, Abraham Sofaer as the King (sic), Maurice Evans (the Puzzler in Batman, Samantha’s father in Bewitched. Was also in Rosemarys Baby and Planet Of The Apes) as Hamlet, Dorothy Green as the Queen (sic).

And while we’re addressing wardrobe they really should put Jude in a codpiece or at least get him to wear a dancer’s belt under his trousers. From their front row seats, it wasn’t so much not knowing where to look as knowing exactly where not to look. Very distracting.

The Whingers also found themselves getting very sad about their inability carry off a cardigan which Jude Law can do depressingly well. Not that it actually stops Andrew who is quite relaxed about shuffling down to the corner shop of a morning with a cardie over his pyjamas. Andrew was also very jealous of the chic little mac that Hamlet was sporting during the Most Haunted scene on the battlements.

So what sort of Hamlet is Mister Law? Well, he’s quite angst-ridden at the off, starting with his back to the audience in one big sulk. He talks directly to the audience and he seems – all things considered- to be not that mad. He gets very angry. He is very physical, he does a lot of hand acting, he shows great range and is really quite hypnotic as an actor. Who would have thought?

And although he’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as David Tennant’s Hamlet there are some nice touches such as when he is setting up for The Mousetrap and rearranges the chairs set for Gertrude and Claudius so they are not so close together.

Some of Phil’s Mister Grandage’s other staging touches include the audience being behind the arras with Polonius which was quite fun. And full marks too for having the whole thing over and done in a very economical 3 hours 10 minutes.

Still, it could be even shorter. Isn’t it time someone had the courage to cut the gravedigger scene? Or at least edit it rather severely? It’s an awfully tedious preamble to the famous quote. It’s like listening to a very long unfunny joke with a very weak punchline. Just get on with the plot. Let it go. We don’t need any relief from the terrible events of the main plot. We can cope with terrible events. We sat through Dido, Qeen of Carthage (well, half of it).

The other performers were all perfectly competent, if not electrifying. Gertrude (Dame-in-waiting Penelope Wilton) and Ophelia (Spooks Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are pretty duff roles really, although the Whingers did enjoy Miss Wilton’s death scene.  Kevin R McNally‘s Claudius sports a rather strange outfit which he himself describes as “the Blofeld look”.

Phil felt that Ron Cook‘s Polonius and Alex Waldmann‘s Laertes were rather good. Both Whingers found Matt Ryan‘s Horatio strangely charismatic, which is just as well, the poor chap is also Jude Law’s understudy.

In other news there are now bag checks at the Wyndham’s, there’s a first. Have they introduced them for Jude even though they didn’t bother for Judi? Shocking.

In the alley by the Wyndham’s the Whingers quaffed their usual after-show tipple at Koha but the entertainment hadn’t ended. Hordes of fans (intermingled with other cast members who seemed to be hanging around to enjoy the spectacle) clustered round the roped off stage door waiting for Mr Law.

He went up even further in the Whinger’s estimation by actually hanging around having his picture taken and signing autographs for those who could be bothered. Andrew mused “how awful it must be to be famous” and rather pointlessly added, “I’d hate it”. But he was right and like Susan Boyle there must be times when even Jude wishes he was obscure.

Meanwhile Phil was getting tetchy lest Grandage might appear as he knows what happens if you meet your own doppelgänger. No wonder Andrew was so keen to keep Phil hanging around.

Incidentally, this is how a curtain call for a proper production of Hamlet should look:

Hamlet Old Vic 1939

The three central figures are: George Howe (Polonius) Fay Compton (Ophelia) and John Gielgud (Hamlet). This production took place in the courtyard of Kronborg Castle, Elsinore  in 1939. Miss Compton would have been 45 years old at the time.


* Yes, Tuesday’s performance was a PREVIEW and before you start moaning and accusing us of judging a production before it has opened please note that Mister Billington of The Guardian and Mister Spencer of The Daily Telegraph were also there. We understand they also saw Sister Act a day before it opened (Mister Spencer mentions it)

** Andrew suspected there might also be a film called Sweet To The Sweet and it turns out there have been two – but in 1906 and 1913 so he was clearly cheating in the same way that some people do when they are playing Scrabble and they look a word up in the dictionary when actually they have no idea whether such a word exists. Not mentioning any names or anything.


20 Responses to “Review – Hamlet with Jude Law, Donmar at the Wyndham’s Theatre”

  1. J.A. Says:

    To quote Derek Nimmo:

    There was a production of Hamlet at the Old Vic in the 50s, in which the part of Gertrude was played by Fay Compton (the Burton production). She hadn’t done much Shakespeare, in fact she’d spent much of her career in a succession of light comedies in the West End. Understandably she was rather nervous on the first night.

    She got as far as the closet scene with Hamlet, and when she came to the line “Thou hast thy father much offended” her mind went a complete blank. But she did quickly come up with “You’ve upset your father dreadfully”.

  2. Sally G Says:

    Law wasnt too bad. McNally was crap.Cook came up short.Laertes – terrible…Not a great night.

  3. Weez Says:

    As an unashamed Horatio fangirl, I’m pleased to hear Ryan meets Whinger standards. :3

  4. Natasha Says:

    What Dreams May Come – another one for the film titles list, awful movie though.

    I rather liked Christopher Oram’s design – though I agree the costumes were a bit Jigsaw – Laertes even has a man-bag.

  5. “there must be times when even Jude wishes he was obscure” – this made me laugh! Well done

  6. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I’m with Sally.

    Also, “he does a lot of hand acting” – indeed, seldom can Hamlet’s injunction to the players “do not saw the air too much with your hand” have been so laced with dramatic irony. And you’ll never get a better gravedigger scene than Sam West’s a few years ago in Stratford (alas, it had been cut by the time it came to London), when immediately after the Yorick speech he turned to the younger gravedigger, uttered the one-word (textually interpolated) question, “Skullruggery?” and they started practising passes with the skull. Put me in mind of the Dave Allen sketch where after “Alas, poor Yorick; I knew him, Horatio…” Hamlet starts drinking a glass of water and then the skull ventriloquially begins to speak, “To gee or not to gee…”

  7. lucy Says:

    sweet to the sweet doesn’t count because the quotation is actually ‘sweets to the sweet’. just a double cheat really.

  8. Apologies, Lucy. It’s typing error. Those films are called Sweets To The Sweet.

  9. lucy Says:

    cool, apologies accepted. i wouldn’t normally be so picky, but you know what with the doubt already displayed over the legitimacy of it as one that counted and all, i thought it should be noted. probably now its just swell though. great.

  10. RAL Says:

    Really??? I was trying to leave after about 15 mins but couldn’t get out in the **only** blackout/ scene change because the woman next to me was (rather inconsiderately I thought) on crutches and couldn’t stand up! I was trapped to the interval and left fuming at the wasted time. Interminably unintelligible. And all that bad acting! AHHH! Wish I’d flogged my ticket to one of the tourists queuing for returns!

  11. CH Says:

    I thought Jude Law was terrific as Hamlet – he really made the language sing. But the chap playing Laertes was embarrassingly bad. He just shouted out the lines very loudly with all the wrong emphasis and no feeling. He was also very camp, and not in a good way. I saw him in the Donmar’s production of a Twelfth Night and he was pretty grim in that too but at least it was comedy and you could, almost, overlook the overacting.

  12. Lynne Says:

    Jude was indeed much better than I anticipated but my night was marred slightly by the american chap sitting behind me having each speech explained to him in loud stage whispers by his companion and compounded by a couple deciding to slowly unwrap the cellophane off a box of Malteasers during one of the soliloquies. I wish I could block out these irritations but it seems that this is a skill I have yet to perfect.

  13. Lynne – Don’t be shy, do as I do, turn round and tell them to “Shut the f**k up” usually works.

    Though not when I say it to Andrew.

  14. Phaeton Says:

    Agree with CH – my companion and I found Laertes a real Shakespeare bore: every other line going up and down like a muppet.

    Also, why didn’t Penelope Wilton ever move? Had Michael Grandage used up the movement allowance on Jude Law’s (excellent) hands?

  15. loopysue_p Says:

    Law’s gesticulations were noticeable, but since I was sitting in the second row of the balcony they replaced the facial expressions which were lost to us. (Sadly I wasn’t close enough seat get the view of Law’s physique that the Whingers so enjoyed!) Law seemed to inhabit the part completely in the second half. By the end I was more impressed by his performance than I had feared I might be at the start: he was a MODERN Hamlet and that’s what I wanted, particularly as the last one I saw (Ed Stoppard, 2005) was disappointing. Law’s was the only truly ‘human’ performance – the other characters were for the most part theatrical devices rather than credible characters.

    Ophelia and Gertrude gave workmanlike performances but I couldn’t feel moved or saddened for either of them. It made me wonder whether Shakespeare could write good parts for women. Lady Macbeth is a strong part but she’s basically operating like a bloke. The strong women in Lear are similarly masculine and ambitious or else drippy and useless, like all his Violas and Rosalinds. And Juliet – don’t get me started on Juliet.( I’ll have to try to see some of the other plays to find out whether this theory has legs.)

    The set was impressive – ‘To be or not to be’ in the snow was fun – Law’s bare feet in the snow made me shiver – or was it just that I was sitting directly under a huge air conditioning outlet? Lighting was spectacular when it needed to be, and always an excellent and subtle adjunct to the set: great use of shadows when Claudius was trying to pray.

    Watching from the ‘gods’ makes you realise the set has to work from all angles, not just directly in front of the proscenium. The Wyndham’s gilded picture frame around the stage made it feel as if I was looking down into a fish tank, emphasising the ‘Denmark is a prison’ with all the characters forced to play their parts in some kind of ironic cosmic joke. But the costumes were too ordinary and all nearly as black as Hamlet’s mourning weeds.

    Oh, and thanks Ian Shuttleworth for the reminder of the Dave Allen – I had trouble stifling giggles during ‘Agas, goor Yorick’.

  16. Otschi Says:

    I think it was amazing. I came from Germany only to see this performance on Wyndhams and I´m really satisfied

  17. […] deserve a revival. Still, Hamlet, bah and yawn.) Second, the early reviews (such as the West End Whingers) weren’t very enthusiastic. And third, well, I just didn’t want to bother with this […]

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