Jude Law Plays the Dane

06Jun09

Oh no! The West End has been taken over by plays starring famous people! Around the same time a new virus sweeps the world, civilisation teeters, the BNP wins an election. Coincidence? Get real. This hand-wringing over famous actors, um, acting has always puzzled me. In fact, I’m sure I’ve ranted about this before. They’re famous because they’re popular and good. Perfectly sensible reason to cast someone, I would have thought, certainly better than hiring people who are useless and creepy.

Despite this stout defence of commerciality in theatre, it was with misgivings that I went to see Jude Law in Hamlet (part of the Donmar West End season) this week. He seemed such a glitzy choice that I really couldn’t think that it was based on anything other that flinty-eyed bottom linage. Because beautiful people are stupid, right? Talentless and one-dimensional, to make the rest of us well-rounded but warty types feel better. Argh, cruel fate! He was great. Really, really good. Fizzy, energetic, muscular and tender. He was also audible as well as speedy, thank God, because Hamlet is a bit of a chatterbox, frankly, and if the actor takes his time then we could be there all night. Plus I finally understood all that Fortinbras stuff – a nightmare nephew who’s sent off to pick a pointless fight in Poland before he starts a war at home. Now there’s a bit of Realpolitik for you. 

This production fairly zipped along. Law (my heavens he’s good looking. Sorry, but there’s really no getting away from it and here are some pics) speaks the soliloquies like he means them. He possesses the text absolutely. Any normal person would feel sick at the thought of saying ‘Tobeornottobe’ like it’s only just occurred to him, and you can forget about musing ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him’, but somehow young Judy manages it.

Couple of points though. His physicality is wrong. He’s too fit and too focused. He’s more like hothead Fortinbras or maybe Prince Hal, or even boringly noble Laertes. He’s a man of action and energy, and – I think I speak for the ladies here – there’s no way Ophelia would take that much wooing if Jude Law came acalling.

He’s also too old. What is he, nearly 40? (David Tennant too) So the actor who plays his loved father has to be like massive, rumbly James Earl Jones: a super-double Y-chromosome Man to make sense of Hamlet’s desolation. It also means that his mum has to be older than she probably would have been, which makes all that stuff about incestuous sheets is a bit disconcerting since it’s Penelope Wilton and Kevin McNally reportedly at it like rabbits.

Other points. Ophelia is a woefully badly written role. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lovely, useless and despicably used. Penelope Wilton is a marvel and Kevin McNally turns everything he touches to gold. But the Hamlet I really, really wish I’d seen was Ben Whishaw. Now there’s a sweet prince to break your heart.

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