I had vowed to stay away from Hamlet, especially productions that starred celebrity actors but stuck to tried-and-true stagings. I was tired of knowing what was going to happen--be it poetry or sword-fights---before it did.
Loyal to my oath, I did not buy tickets to the Broadway transplant of London's Donmar Warehouse Hamlet , which stars Jude Law (above).
Then my friend P. called, a clever woman who can be emphatic in five languages. "I have just seen the best Hamlet ever," she declared. "I was transfixed. You must go." I murmured and demurred.
Then she called again after the Ben Brantley review in The New York Times that panned and praised in unequal measure. "What a vile review," she said. "That man said this was a Hamlet for people who didn't know Hamlet. He made me feel stupid for loving the play. You must go and give me your opinion."
P. and I have been friends since we were in college together. Loyal to my pal, I found myself at a matinee on Sunday, November 1, with P. and her husband C. To placate me, P. had smuggled an Activa raspberry yoghurt into the theater so that pangs of hunger would not cramp my opinions. "Be honest," she ordered, "Be ruthlessly honest."
P., this blog is for you. Hamlet gave me what the staging of all canonical plays should give its audience---the suspension of the belief that the play on the stage has been done before. Tears even trickled down my cheeks when, amidst the carnage of the last scene, Horatio held Hamlet in his arms, a brotherly pieta, and sighed, "Good night, sweet prince." He paused before he spoke. Oh, hell, I thought, he can't bear the idea of having to trot out these lines once more. He must sense that the audience, although mostly silent and attentive, included that big, fat guy who bellowed during the performance, "This is Old English, and I can't understand it." But then, experiencing the actual performance of the lines, I realized the actor was taking time to organize his words out of the chaos of grief.
Honestly, this is not the most compelling Hamlet I have ever seen. The women are wan. One must feel enough sexual heat between Claudius and Gertrude to understand why, after her noble husband died, she would so quickly and happily turn to his brother Claudius. At long last, she can release her repressed passions. Only a little heat arises from this very, very good production---and deliberately so. This Danish court is a place of hard necessities and cold calculations. The set looms over the actors like a stone prison cell. To desire freedom and love and honor is to risk disaster and death---as Ophelia and Hamlet learn. And to be brilliantly intelligent and playful, and Hamlet is, is to risk going mad. In the great debate as to whether Hamlet is mad or feigns madness, Jude Law's force field of a Hamlet chooses the latter. He cavorts with energy, forethought, and cunning. Despite his contemplation of suicide, he wants to survive. His only mistake is to kill the wily but obtuse Polonius, believing him to be Claudius.
Why did I weep? Because this court, which includes the ghost of the King, does break Hamlet and Ophelia. Because the toxic horrors of small, intriguing courts and of codes of revenge did not vanish with the early modern England of Shakespeare. Globally, they remain active. And because Shakespeare's poetry, worming and dancing and darting into our hearts, forces us to weep. Damn and exalt poetry's
power to do so.
After the play, P., C., and I walked along West 44th Street. Crowds of adolescents were waiting to get autographs, particularly that of Jude Law. In the audience had been several younger children as well. Good for you, Jude, I thought. You have used celebrity to bring them to poetry----as handsome celebrity Hamlets before you have done. And if you used obvious gestures to underline and bring out the meanings of your "Old English" script, as Brantley accused you of doing, you were doing your job. You were insisting that "Old English" and its puns and sorrows could be once again new.