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.