… a two man show …

Sometimes theater goers will say of classic plays, “I saw The Seagull — or A Doll’s House — or Hamlet — recently, I’m just not ready to see another one”. Fair enough, but Jude Law puts such a distinctive mark on Hamlet that, believe me, you haven’t seen this, ever.

His Hamlet is a younger man than most seem to be (regardless of the actor’s age).  His performance is athletic, unquestionably charismatic (the audience applauds after every great scene like after an aria in an opera), and openly vulnerable.  He listens to others intensely, and his words, thoughts and actions come as genuine responses flowing from within — the script falls away and Shakespeare’s character emerges as a real, conflicted, engaged man.  He’s all over the stage.  He gives himself completely, with a great actor’s generosity, to the performance.

Law does full justice to the astonishing poetry without any archaic distance to separate us from the language — we hear the way he talks.  In this he’s helped by the production’s unobtrusive modern dress that underscores the play’s timelessness.  You hardly notice whether the actors are wearing Elizabethan costumes or not.

The youthfulness of this Hamlet lays an interesting slant on his tangled involvement with his mother, his father, and the saturated sexuality of his mother’s new marriage to his murdered father’s brother.  “Why doesn’t he kill Claudius?”  “What’s his problem?”  To the many answers to that central puzzle, Law brings what seems to me a new take — though a man physically, he’s still somehow a boy living at home caught up in youthful conflicts.  The care with which he listens to others and himself suggests he’s still formative.  He’s not yet ready for the burden that’s placed on him.

If only the rest of the actors were as good as Law!  They are uniformly routine stereotypes in the way they play their characters (Claudius, Gertrude), some seem to be thinking about something else (Horatio), some are strained (Ophelia) and some are downright dull (Laertes).  They mostly spring from London’s Donmar Warehouse theater that has a big reputation, simply not lived up to in this production.

All the weight of the play is on two men’s shoulders — Jude Law and Shakespeare.  Luckily they’re both in brilliant form!

Hamlet plays at the Broadhurst Theater, 44th Street West of Broadway, through December 6.

p.s.  How interesting that two film actors created two outstanding Shakespearean characters this year — Jude Law as Hamlet, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago in Othello, reviewed by me here.