I was not the only person in the darkened theater to breathe an inward sigh of relief when Jude Law took the stage. His daughter had been born the night before, so there had been some uncertainty as to whether the star of Hamlet would indeed be playing Hamlet. He was, and the show went on at the Broadhurst Theater, which is hosting a limited run of this successful London production, to general applause and more than a few chuckles.
Chuckles and Hamlet might not seem to go together, and please do not be led to think that director Michael Grandage is exploring the humorous side of Shakespeare's tragedy. Shakespeare himself wrote some moments of comic relief, but in this production the laughter does not stem from the text. It comes from an overfamiliarity with the text. It is as if the audience, knowing the storyline of Hamlet, is in on the joke. When Polonius begins to lecture his son, the audience laughs knowingly before he has finished his lecture because they remember him as a long-winded old man. Making one of Shakespeare's most famous plays appear fresh rather than familiar is perhaps the greatest challenge to staging it today.
This dark, unimaginative production lets the jokes roll on rather than challenge this familiarity. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a traditional version of Hamlet. Among other things, it has the great virtue of using Shakespeare's original text. But the traditional need not be so boring. The setting consists of thick gray walls, pierced with shafts of brilliant white light. The costumes are grey and black pieces of modern clothing. The sound effects are minimal: only a series of booms to drive home the import of some moment, in case you might have missed it. It is unlikely you would, given the histrionic renditions. The actors mouth the words like towns criers who have had an acting class rather than trippingly on the tongue. They are competent (especially Geraldine James as Gertrude), and the dramatic delivery is appropriate in general. But it is ladled on with a trowel. The heavy-handed use of such techniques creates no emotional arc for the audience.
While the entire play is acted to the hilt, that is not entirely a bad thing. Law as Hamlet capers about in madness and brings a strong physicality to the role as well as a moral seriousness. The text of Shakespeare comes forth clearly and naturally. The set and costumes may be drab, but they do not detract from the strong internal landscape that we watch Hamlet traverse. While its traditional characterizations and trappings may be reductivist, it does not dumb down the language or cut difficult passages.