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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAMLET
at Wyndham’s

A LAW UNTO HIMSELF
By JOHN NATHAN

  Penelope Wilton and Jude Law/PH: Johan Persson

The Donmar's starry West End season has finished as it started - with a terrific production.

Kenneth Branagh's title role performance in  Ivanov  set a standard that was not quite reached by Derek Jacobi's Malvolio in Twelfth Night, while the dull Madame de Sade with Judi Dench got no where near. But Jude Law's Hamlet  is probably the most lucid, clearly-spoken performance of Shakespeare's most exciting role I have seen or heard.

Law may not have the mercurial wit of David Tennant's recent Dane or exhibit the aching vulnerability of Ben Whishaw's amazing debut at the Old Vic in 2004, but the grief-stricken figure we first see crouching on the floor of a shadowy, stone built Elsinore, rises from his haunches and over the following three hours metamorphoses into a powerful, and powerfully built avenger.

In nearly every respect, Michael Grandage's  modern dress production - dark funereal chic is the fashion of the day - has gone back to the drawing board rather than rest on lazy assumptions.

Ron Cook's  Polonius is no sycophantic buffoon but a sharp-suited hard-edged court official. The bedroom scene is reinvented as we watch through curtains - and with Polonius's point-of-view - Hamlet confront Penelope Wilton's conservative Gertrude. And unlike many previous versions of Hamlet's mother, it is not a latent sexuality that Wilton transmits, but a fundamental decency. Wilton is always interesting, but I missed, if it exits, a moment of realization when Gertrude understands how thoroughly she has misjudged her husband.

Meanwhile Gigi Mbatha-Raw's  pretty and affecting Ophelia descends into an understated brand of insanity rather than the usual raging, semi-nude lunacy. And even the oft-used gag where Gertrude corrects Claudius (played thuggishly by Kevin R. McNally) about who is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern, has been ironed out. The result is a Hamlet that at times actually felt newly written.

Along with the Hollywood lead, Christopher Oram's  tomb-like design also stars. Soaring stone walls leak shafts of sunlight from the battlements huge wooden doors open on to a bleak snowy courtyard where Law's prince walks barefoot and sits as he calmly ponders whether to be or not to be.

The complaints are relatively small. Alex Waldmann's  puny Laertes is no match for Law's muscular prince. McNally's Claudius takes too long to find all three dimensions, though when he does, in the wake of Polonius's death, he reveals a violent ambition. Every "us" is accompanied by a thump to his chest, turning it into a royal "we".

And although for a while I feared that Law had shot his bolt too early &ampampampndash his anger so immediately overt that it was hard to see where this performance could go - the transformation from loose canon to a cool, self-deprecating conspirator is utterly convincing if a tad short of mesmerising.

Anyone who saw his Dr. Faustus at the Young Vic knew that this was always likely to be more than a proficient display of acting. And so it proves.

After Tennant's recent triumphant turn in the role, this is the second Hamlet in as many months that will attract an audience who normally prefer Playstations to plays.

For them, it is hard to imagine a better introduction to Shakespeare  than Grandage's thriller-paced production. And for old hands, the sheer clarity of Laws diction delivers Hamlet  anew.

 


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