Jude Law’s Hamlet – A Review

Jude Law Hamlet

Jude Law as Hamlet

All too often my reviews are as long as a speech given by Polonius, therefore, much like Polonius, I will attempt to be brief in this review. My only prologue to this composition is that I was in a production of Hamlet in college. Although my part was small, I still herald it as the best production I was ever a part of. This means that while I am very familiar with the play, I am also extremely critical of other productions of it. Much like Hamlet glorifies his father after he is dead; I am most assuredly guilty of remembering my production to be better than it probably was.

And now onto the review.

The current production of Hamlet starring Jude Law is a good production for those of whom think they will never understand Shakespeare. The entire cast goes to great pains to convey the meaning of their words to the audience, and no one does this more than Jude Law. Jude Law uses his hands to animate the meaning of his words, his tone of voice to clue the audience when something is supposed to be funny or serious, and generally relies on his looks, which are ever bit as gorgeous as they are on screen, to hold the audience’s attention during the more cerebral soliloquies. The audience, for the most part, seemed to be grateful for these dramatic antics, but I found them condescending and a sign of weakness in Law as an actor. The play is in English, so treating it like it was in a foreign language seemed to shift the goal of the actors and the audience. The actors’ goal seemed to be conveying the general plot to the audience, and the audience seemed to think that if they understood the show they were to be commended. With all this focus on communication the performance seem to greatly lack in one department…ACTING! With the exception of Polonius and Claudius, there was very little acting in this entire production.

Jude Law seemed to shine in the moment of comedy in Hamlet. For those of whom think Hamlet is nothing but a 3 hour slog fest of doom and gloom for the tragic Dane, I suggest you re-read the play. However, you could certainly avoid rereading by attending the production. I would say that rereading the play is cheaper and just as satisfying. Only in the comedic moments did Jude Law seems to enjoy his role, and forgets that he was playing such a prestigious role. Unfortunately, once these moments end Law reverted back to being a Shakespeare translator and stops acting. As a result all drama and tragedy that Hamlet is a part of is taught rather than performed.

Law’s greatest flaw is that he actually does all of the things that Hamlet tells the players not to do. Although Jude Law is actually guilty of all the things he requests the players avoid, I think perhaps the request most blatantly disregarded is that he struts and bellows in a way unlike anyone, mad or not, found in the real world. In the scene, wherein Hamlet feigns madness with Polonius and calls him a Fishmonger, Law greets Polonius by randomly humping him, imitates a crab, and generally makes a fool out of himself. There is a fine line between playing the fool and playing one that is mad, unfortunately the distinction is lost on Law.

Jude Law gave a performance that I could tolerate, but not overly impressed with. However, the women of the cast are truly the weak links. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Ophelia, is a shining example of some of the worst acting I have ever seen. She seems to not understand a word she is saying, and, although she is very pretty, seems to think she can get by on her looks. Ophelia’s mad scene has never felt longer, and her version of madness is not overly convincing. I assume she figured that since she went from wearing a pretty dress to a pair of pajamas we are to consider such a fashion faux pas the surest sign that she has lost her marbles. It makes one wonder if Hamlet truly is insane if ever found her interesting for any other reason than her looks. I am sure that the love poem he wrote her would have gone over her head even if all it said was “Do you like me? Yes or no.”

Geraldine James, Gertrude, gives a bit more to work with. She actually does a pretty good job for the first half of the play, but when time comes for the famous closet scene, everything simply falls apart. Gertrude does not seem to care that her son is seeing ghosts, simply confused. She also tells Hamlet she is pained by all the things he says to her, but it is not really apparent that she feels anything at all. Apparently Queen Gertrude has decided to mimic Queen Elizabeth II, and is completely unable to emote at all. After the famous closet scene we see Gertrude no longer willing to come and go at the behest of her new husband, but we are not overly sure why. She did not seem convinced of Hamlet’s claims against him, and although we often are shown her thinking before exiting, her thoughts are completely unknown to us. It might have been more prudent to ration her defiance to follow the king more to give it more effect. It seems there is much we do not know about Gertrude towards the end. Why does she give such a beautiful speech to Laertes about how Ophelia died? She seems to walk in and just deliver it as if she was paid to do so. Finally, does Gertrude drink the poison for any other reason? Or was she just thirsty? James portrayal of Gertrude leaves all of these questions to the audience, but her performance does not leave anyone actually wanting to know the answers.

Fortunately, there are some good things about this production. Kevin R. McNally gives an incredible performance as Claudius, and truly creates a unique spin on the betraying brother. His oily ease with kissing the wife of his murdered brother, and open arms to embrace Hamlet as a son is truly creepy. It is truly a delight to slowly watch him lose his cool as Hamlet uncovers his evil deeds.

Ron Cook, who plays both Polonius and the first grave digger, is truly the best actor in the show. His hilarious delivery in both roles is void of all distasteful antics that Hamlet describes to the players. He suits each action to the word, and each word to each action. He is not overly dramatic to the point that he seems to be acting, and truly captures the love and affection of the audience. If not for Mr. Cook’s performance I would have thought that Broadway would never know what Shakespeare is supposed to look like, but thankfully this production has a perfect example. The rest of the cast would do well to learn from this master with whom they share a stage.

It appears that much like Polonius I have failed to be brief, therefore the rest of my review I shall reduce to single sentences:

  • Rosencrantz has an incredible stage voice, and is lovely to look at.
  • I found it odd that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not seem to be very in sync with each other.
  • The players seemed to be a living prop, and gave performances wooden as the recorders they carried.
  • The costumes were absolutely amazing, and I want all the coats in the show!
  • The set was incredible!
  • The sound effects were cool, but in were a little too layered in some scenes.
  • The final sword fight was well choreographed.
  • Ian Drysdale plays the straightest Osiric I have ever seen.

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5 Comments

  1. Patti said,

    October 24, 2009 at 1:10 am

    I don’t think anything was lost on Law; I do think a lot was lost on you. Pity. I found his performance mesmerizing, interesting, and indeed missed Hamlet when he wasn’t on stage. Everything else went flat. So we evidently saw 2 different plays.

  2. kyoske said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Dear Patti,

    I am glad to know someone in the audience enjoyed Hamlet. As someone who believes Mr. Law was acting above my head, I am curious to know your feelings on the numerous things I actually discussed about his performance. Did you find Mr. Law’s gesticulations to be helpful? What were your thoughts on his choices? In short, what was so mesmerizing? I never said that Mr. Law’s performance was boring, I found it condescending.
    Any two people can attend a production and feel very differently about the production. Whereas I do think Mr. Law’s acting choices were flawed, I was also aghast at many other aspects of the play.
    As I felt Polonius was the best actor in the play what were your thoughts in him? I’d be more than interested in having a dialogue about what your impressions of the production were, but simply stating that you found my criticism of Mr. Law’s performance was a result of my misunderstanding him is not overly helpful.

  3. Kate said,

    November 23, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Hi, just reading this review – I saw Hamlet yesterday, actually, and enjoyed it very much. Jude Law did gesticulate a lot, but I did not find it condescending. I found his performance very interesting and mostly good, even though there were sections that weren’t perfect.
    Polonius/Gravemaker was great, Ophelia was a bore, and Gertrude was hit and miss, but instead of assuming this was all the actors’ doing, I would lay “blame” on the director.
    A good director can make a bad actor better and a good actor worse. If the Ophelia missed the mark, it’s probably because of direction.

  4. kyoske said,

    December 2, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Kate: I completely understand your desire to point to the director as the source of many of the problems I described. Honestly, I had plenty of issues with the directing, but my review was long enough, so I didn’t feel like getting into that. You are certainly right that many of the issues I raised may have been at the director’s request, and if they were, then I would be more than happy to direct my dislike of the performance towards him.

    The director made choices I disliked, particularly in the way he “developed” (I use that term in quotations because it is questionable if it was done at all) the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Why does Hamlet act like he has never met Horatio before? Or barely remember him? This seems odd, especially given the relationship they seem to have textually and the way the play ends.

    With regard to Ophelia…well she seemed to move around the stage like she was told to, she just gave a very flat performance. I question why the director kept her, given the performance she gave, but her lack of ability in the acting department seemed solely her fault. IF it turns out she was instructed to act like a plastic pretty Barbie doll who is equally boring mad as she was sane, then the director has some explaining to do!

    The reason I didn’t immediately point to the director, is that so many of the actors in the show were excellent. Claudius and Polonius performed brilliantly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seemed to do a passable job. Why didn’t they do what the Players and Hamlet did? It’s possible that the director felt that the Players and Hamlet could get away with it, or needed to do the things I disliked, but that the others did not. However, my feeling on the matter was that a lot of it was the actor’s choice. When you act you make choices, and you build a character. If the director dislikes something, they will normally tell you, but that doesn’t mean you will listen. Also, a director can only get so much from an actor. Some directors are better at “pulling” things out of actors than others. Look at Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” for example. For these reasons, I normally lay blame to actors for how they choose to perform a role, and I generally lay blame to directors for larger picture items.

  5. Jdom said,

    May 6, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I saw the production of Hamlet, whilst at the Wyndoms. This was the first time I had ever seen Hamlet on stage, so I was rather intrigue as to what Jude Law would bring to the role. Although, it was a good theatrical performance, it didn’t blow me away.

    Hamlet is a very complex character. There are a lot of internal issues, inner monologues and inner conflicts, that are a treat for any actor to get his teeth into. But what struck me with Laws performance is that it lacked an emotional depth that the role demands. At no stage did I feel he loved Ophelia, or that he would actually revenge his farther murder. All I saw was a technically gifted actor going through the motions. Instead of actually investing his soul and heart to give a more truthful, visceral performance, it seems as though Law chose the easy option, which was to play the comedy. Although, bearing in mind that he’s been absent from the stage since 2002 in Dr Faustus and is more accustomed to movies, I was still pleasantly impressed. Although the same cant be said for the rest of the cast.

    Apart from Claudius, The Ghost and The Grave Digger the rest of the cast lacked the ability to bring the story to life. For such a prestigious production, you would have thought there would have been a cast that would have matched the hype. Laetres, was flat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were one dimensional and lifeless.

    Gugu Mbatha Raw (Ophelia) was absolutely shocking! Before I went to see her performance, I actually fancied her. Not now. Her performance lacked soul, passion and was completely flat. She reminded me of those stuffed toys, which repeat a sentence once you pull the string attached to its back. Those toys have no soul, they repeat lines without a hint of emotion and they also have blank expressions on their face, as they do not know what the hell they’re saying. In the scenes where Ophelia goes mad, we as the audience should have felt for this young girl who has just lost her father at the hands of her beloved, and who is having a nervous breakdown. We should have been taken on an emotional journey. Never did I get the sense that Ophelia had gone mad, instead I thought she had smoked a massive spliff, got high and was just walking around the stage monged out, pretending to be mad.

    It seems as though these actors were casted, not because of their talents, but because they have appeared on TV or are associated with the top agencies. Usually, these actors are chosen, just because they went to the top drama schools, (RADA is the most notorious). Although they may have trained at the most prestigious institutes, these individuals lack passion, rawness and have no personal presents on stage. Why do we settle for second, third rate performances that lack emotion? Me personally, I wont an actor to share their soul, whilst on stage.
    To many of these so-called artists FAKE emotion, something that was clearly evident in this production. This may be down to the direction of the director, who for the most part, looks as though he focused his attention primarily on Jude Law and his performance, which stood out a mile, compared to his fellow actors. Although, in defense of the cast, they only had 5 weeks rehearsal, whereas Jude had an entire year to familiarize himself with the play. So, in all fairness, his performance should have been head and shoulders above the rest.

    Again, I thought Judes performance was entertaining and he made some very interesting choices, as an actor, but you can never beat an artist who speaks from the soul.

    Acting is not about PRETENDING! Good actors live in the moment. When you see a truly mezmoring performance, the actor is never acting, he just is. Just as the world’s top sportsman wont be great every time they step out onto the field, so to an actor wont always be great when they step out onto the stage. But what we should witness are moments of their artistic genius, even if it is for only five seconds. Hamlet has all the ingredients for an actor to totally immerse themselves in the world, lose themselves and capsulate an audience. Unfortuanly, this performance/prodution does not achieve that.


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