The wonderful thing about each production of Hamlet is that it feels completely different to its predecessors. Just by virtue of the play’s staggering length in the folio (not to mention the quarto version to boot), it’s impossible to perform intact and, as such, each director approaching the play is forced to see the angel in the marble and cut until he sets it free.
The Hamlet created by Michael Grandage here is dark, hostile, cold and threatening. Christopher Oram’s superb set towers over proceedings with obsidian brutalist menace while the fiercely monochrome design through the production speaks to threat, danger and monotony (and leaves Charing Cross Road during the interval feel like an offensive burst of vulgarity which, to be fair, it probably should most of the time). The few flashes of colour which we do get are well used and beautifully realised and all the more effective for their rarity. There’s no doubt about it: this is a stunningly well designed and beautifully thought out production.
They key thing is, of course, Jude Law. The reason most people are here, roasting ourselves in the Wyndhams in August, queuing up outside for hours beforehand to gain a standing ticket isn’t because Michael Grandage has judiciously cut the play or Christopher Oram’s been hanging around the Barbican looking for set design inspiration. The real reason this show is completely sold out and the hot ticket in London at the moment is because Jude Law is playing Hamlet. We’ll come to that, because first I’d like to discuss cardigans:
Never in the history of Shakespeare, has there been a production of Hamlet which has done so much for cardigans. Wearing grey cardigan after grey cardigan throughout the first half (they are curiously absent in the second, the intellectual reasons for which will be detailed in an academic text shortly to be peer reviewed) Jude Law single-handedly manages to rehabilitate the knitwear industry within the space of 80 minutes. (Never slow to spot a trend, Japanese cult store Uniqlo – previously famous for their brightly coloured and affordable clothing lines – have launched a range of grey-scale cardies which can be purchased on their website in shades including grey, dark grey, salt and pepper, jet grey, navy grey, vibrant grey and light black.)
Jude? Jude is superb. He’s moody, menacing, funny, likeable, understandable, sympathetic, impossible and ambigious. He lacks the physicality of David Tennant, but there’s nothing lacking: Law does with a nuance what Tennant did with a hopscotch. Neither is right or wrong, but whatever Law’s doing he’s certainly doing it right for him. His performance wonderful.
The rest of the cast are very much in a supporting role. Claudius (Kevin R McNally) and Gertrude (Penelope Wilton) do the job just fine, but they never get much above playthings for Law to bounce himself off. Ron Cook’s Polonius is Polonial, Peter Eyre (Ghost/Player King) has a few superb moments and Gugu Mbatha-Raw manages to pull off that rare feat of being properly bonkers as Ophelia without being annoying, but this play is all about Jude Law asserting himself as one of the very best actors we have. And a little bit about cardigans.
P.S. There’s a good guide to getting tickets for this (and other) impossibly sold out shows over at Life in the Cheap Seats.