Penelope Wilton and Jude Law in Hamlet
(© Johan Persson)
Penelope Wilton and Jude Law in Hamlet
(© Johan Persson)
The Donmar Warehouse's year-long residency at Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End concludes with perhaps the most eagerly awaited production of the season: Jude Law's return to the British stage for the first time in seven years in the title role of Hamlet, under the direction of Michael Grandage. For those who worried that the actor has lost his stage chops during his period as a movie star, fear not: Law proves to be a charismatic Hamlet, both brooding and playful.

It's a testament to both Law and Grandage that when Hamlet delivers his "To be or not to be" soliloquy -- standing barefoot in a somewhat superfluous snow storm -- it feels neither pat nor contrived, but truly magical and shot through with real beauty. Still, Law is occasionally a little too literal in his choices, crabbing and monkeying around the stage when the text suggests it without fully conveying the character's angst.

Although the production does lull in places when Law is off stage, it is basically very well paced. Grandage is particularly adept at building dramatic tension and is equally able to milk genuine comedy from the text without it feeling forced. The director knows when to intercede and when to let the words speak for themselves -- and the final scenes are grippingly staged.

Conversely, and somewhat surprisingly, the production is marred by some casting choices. Penelope Wilton, usually such a powerful actress, seems miscast; she's an oddly anonymous Gertrude, who only really comes to life in the scene when she is confronted by her son. Kevin McNally's Claudius is very underpowered and all too often fades into the background.

On the plus side, Ron Cook is an incredibly amiable Polonius. While he's rather stuffy and lacks a sense of humor, he is undeniably warm of heart. For her part, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a low-key Ophelia. Her descent into madness is one of bafflement and soft song -- and while this choice at least allows her to sidestep the many pitfalls of acting out the mad scenes, it also lessens the impact of her demise.

Christopher Oram's imposing set, with its stern stone pillars and vast wooden doors, is both versatile and incredibly striking. While the production is not locked to any particular time period, the characters wear vaguely modern clothes in shades of black and grey. Indeed, the whole production has a muted aesthetic, offset by the occasional splash of white or crimson. Neil Austin's lighting, streaming from high slit windows or misting from above, also adds to the visual appeal.