The Rule of Law: Jude Law IS Hamlet

During a three month London adventure in 1999, I got (thanks to Dan Wright) the opportunity to see Jude Law in John Ford’s T’is Pity She’s a Whore at the Young Vic.  Impressed by Law’s ability to express the most intense anguish, I’ve been hoping ever since, first, that he’d do Hamlet (instead of one lame movie role after another) and second, that I’d be able to see him do it.  Both wishes just came true: not only has Jude Law done Hamlet, but (once again, due to the kindness of friends) I got to see him do it on Broadway!  And I was right.  What a Hamlet!

Hamlet is tricky, even for the best actors.  It’s become such a museum piece, there are so many famous sililoquies, every avid Shakespeare fan has a favorite performance to which they match each new approach, so that watching the play runs the risk of turning into a sort of Olympics of the Stage, where the actor playing Hamlet is not so much enjoyed as he is rated, in the same way that Olympic figure skaters get rated during their performance, feat by feat, by TV commentators.

Law sweeps this away with the utter naturalness of his style.  Sililoquies flow from him as easily as he greets his old school friends or rants at Ophelia.  Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language runs as trippingly off his tongue as if it were his own most natural form of expression, yet there’s none of that jack-hammer rat-a-tat-tat that some use when reciting Shakespeare, apparently in an effort to spew out the bloody awkward stuff the way they do their own native slang.

I think this is largely because Jude Law is as much a dancer as he is an actor.  He expresses the beautiful but strange language as much with his body as he does with his voice.  Together the two, the voice and the body, create a satisfyingly complete whole in a way that I can’t remember ever seeing before.  Anger possesses him utterly.  Anguish torments every fibre.  How perfectly Shakespeare has captured these emotions in words and how perfectly Law renders them, his gestures flowing, not from the words themselves, but from the emotions they are meant to express.  Today, thanks to television, we have all seen, over and over, how real people respond to disasters or the deaths of people they love, and so we can’t help but know how at such moments, words failing, it’s the body that reacts.  With his dancer’s sense of timing, Law also knows how to pause before reacting, something many actors either never learn or tend to forget in production.  It’s such an energetic performance, I can’t imagine how he can do it, not only night after night, but twice on matinee days.

Unfortunately there’s little good to be said for the rest of the production.  Law’s gutsy approach was not echoed by a single other member of the cast.  Apart from the King, who did prove a strong and convincing match to Hamlet’s energy, the rest simply entered, exited, stood or walked about as though waiting for something exciting to happen.  Horatio was particularly disappointing, less an antique Roman than a pool hall shark.  The set and lighting are good, providing some interesting accents to the action, but the costumes, modern suits in shades of gray, not only disappear into the gray walls and black floor of the castle set, but seem totally out of place. With no chairs or benches to relieve the need to stand, what group of twenty-first century people would choose to spend more than a minute or two in this cold, empty, castle foyer?

Now that my wishes have been fulfilled I have a new one, that Jude Law will repeat his performance on film, with costumes and sets that match, a Horatio whose body language speaks of his strength and dependability , a sober Gertrude who knows deep down right from the beginning that she’s damned, so that her son has only to remind her of it, and . . . and . . . oh, Michael Palin and Terry Jones as the gravediggers!   Hey, let’s shoot for the moon!

Unfortunately when it comes to Ophelia, it seems the role is unplayable.  Since it’s very likely that the Countess of Montgomery had a say in the publication of the First Folio, she could well have had something to say about the final version of her own mother’s unhappy fate and death.  For whatever reason it seems impossible for any young actress (or director) to actually bring her to life, at least, I’ve never seen it done. With Jude Law directing, maybe we could see an Ophelia who really cuts loose.  Wishes do sometimes come true.

5 thoughts on “The Rule of Law: Jude Law IS Hamlet

  1. Thanks for the review, Stephanie. I share your enthusiasm for Jude Law’s performance. Even his tone seemed much the same at the end as at the beginning, I never tired of him. But you are too kind to the actresses who played Ophelia and Gertrude. You may be right that Ophelia is unplayable, but, still, I have seen performances of far more strength and depth and pathos. This one gave Law very little, or nothing, to play to or against. And such was even more the case with Gertrude. How interesting it would be to see him reacting to actresses who could bring these two female characters into full life on stage. Anyway — thanks again. – Hank

  2. Yes, isn’t that what every great actor craves, others who can “play catch” with him/her in dialogues? It’s like dancing with a great dance partner. I wonder how Law would be as a director. With his grasp of what makes Shakespeare tick, I’ll bet he’d be great.

  3. I saw the show last Friday and agree with all of the above. The actress playing Ophelia had problems even more basic than her unsatisfying interpretation of lines and character; she needed elementary voice and movement training. To me, the production had only two strengths: Jude Law and the lighting design. I didn’t know he was a dancer, so I gasped and marveled at the grace of his turn and fall into Horatio’s arms to die. And then his moving delivery of his final speech was undercut by the wooden Fortinbras sequence.

  4. I’m afraid I misspoke if I suggested that Law has had dance training––many actors do, but it may just be how he works. Yes, the lighting and set worked beautifully together and greatly enhanced the play. But oh dear, the business suits in a medieval setting. Not good. I don’t mind “interpretations” in which Shakespeare takes place in other times and places than Renaissance England, but for me, present time in street clothes just doesn’t work with the language. The only version of Hamlet in a modern setting that’s worked for me was Ethan Hawk’s film interpreted as a present day struggle for corporate power. Somehow that was distant enough, if not in time, then in culture.

    I have a question, Felicia. I thought it was rude of the audience at our matinee not to applaud his stunning soliloquies. Did they applaud in the one you saw?

  5. I so agree with your post. I could not get over Jude’s performance. He mesmerized me. Every gesture, every word done with electricity running through his body. Jude has taken dance classes in order to portray Gigolo Joe in Spielberg’s AI….. This was the best interpretation of the Prince that I’ve ever seen.

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