Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jude Law in Hamlet
(© Johan Persson)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jude Law in Hamlet
(© Johan Persson)
Jude Law's portrayal of the melancholy Dane in director Michael Grandage's larger-than-life production of Hamlet, now at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, isn't just one of the best ever committed to the stage, it's also not your usual interpretation. In Law's hands, the grief the young man feels after the murder of his father has clearly planted in him an unquenchable anger, and that fury becomes his tragic flaw -- not his inability to take action. This Hamlet is so blindly intent on retaliation that he mistakenly catches the wrong victims in his traps, and, with heartbreaking irony, brings about his own demise.

Indeed, Law's Hamlet is hardly the brooding, vacillating and intermittently crazed figure ticket buyers may expect to see. Instead, he's emotional, calculating, quick-witted, short-fused, and constantly moving on fleet feet across set designer Christopher Oram's high-walled, claustrophobic Elsinore. As he plots his complicated revenge against his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius (Kevin R. McNally), he's as physically active as a body-builder at a well-equipped health club. Moreover, Shakespeare's gorgeously poetic lines are spears shaken belligerently at everyone within shouting distance -- including the audience, to whom he addresses Hamlet's four soliloquies from the front of the stage as directly, challengingly, and engagingly as they may have ever been proclaimed.

The entire enterprise, as Grandage has planned it, is also a piece of exhilarating work, speeding along as if jet-propelled. Along the way, it includes tangy directorial notions, not the least of which is the cleverly unorthodox staging of the Polonius-behind-the-arras sequence. The director also has made a point of scaling the sinister proceedings to Law's explosive performance and to the grandeur of Shakespeare's language. The members of the ensemble are encouraged to fill sonorously the large space in which they're playing under shafts of isolating light that designer Neil Austin beams on them from the narrow apertures placed, not unlike prison windows, high above them.

Not one of the well-spoken cast falls short of delivering the text with impassioned lucidity. McNally's Claudius has the assured diction of a corporate head denying charges of corruption. Geraldine James as Gertrude is convincingly regal. Ron Cook plays Polonius as a determined, easily gulled bureaucrat and then affects a lower-class accent and twinkling eye as the figuratively and literally down-to-earth gravedigger. Peter Eyre, as the elder Hamlet's ghost, makes memorable his "Remember me" command to Hamlet, and later does lovely work as the Player King. The others -- including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as an unusually aware Ophelia and Matt Ryan as a loyal and warm-hearted Horatio -- acquit themselves well enough.

But ultimately, the star's the thing here. When Hamlet, speaking to Rosencrantz (John MacMillan) and Guildenstern (Harry Attwell), says, "What a piece of work is a man/How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty," the description applies not just to Hamlet, but to Law himself.