Tuesday, 8 March 2016
2009 Hamlet - Hello, Sweet Prince - New York Times
THERE could be no more apt and atmospheric place to play Hamlet than at Kronborg Castle, built here in the 16th century at the edge of the sound separating Denmark from Sweden. Laurence Olivier did it and so, over the years, did Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh.
Their ghosts, as much as the fictional ghost of the murdered king, seemed to whisper in the background the other night when the latest Hamlet, the British actor Jude Law, performed in the castle courtyard. The presence of the real-life, perfectly sane crown prince of Denmark, Frederik, in the audience on opening night added another layer to the aura of otherworldliness.
The burden and expectation of all this symbolism and history could haunt, even consume, an actor. But Mr. Law, 36, has weathered these and other potential “Hamlet”-based slings and arrows with a practiced ease. He has just finished a celebrated 12-week run in London. The six performances in Elsinore, called Helsingor in Denmark, were a pause before the production moves to the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway for three months. (Previews begin next Saturday.)
Maybe he is just a good actor, but Mr. Law appears convincingly cool and unfazed by any burdens that he might or might not be feeling. In a pair of interviews, one in his dressing room in London and the other at his hotel in Elsinore, joined by Michael Grandage, the director of “Hamlet,” Mr. Law seemed ridiculously energetic, considering that the play lasts more than three hours and requires him, by his estimation, to speak 40 percent of the lines. When it comes to “Hamlet,” both director and actor agreed, the only way to shake off memories of great performances past is to accept that the play has no Platonic ideal. “The play will only ever be defined by the personality of the actor taking the part, and the moment he’s in it,” Mr. Grandage said.
Mr. Law added: “Of course there are times when you think, ‘I’m putting myself up there with these fine actors.’ But there is no definitive ‘Hamlet,’ because you don’t play Hamlet, Hamlet plays you. You come out in him, which is why every production is different. You can have a scholarly Hamlet, or someone who is very comedic, or someone who enjoys the lethargy of the part. There’s something so essential about him. He tattoos himself on your skin.”
By that gauge Mr. Law’s Hamlet is less a brooding Dane than an angry, hyperkinetic one. In person, though, Mr. Law is charm itself and truly handsome, with a finely chiseled nose, a Paul Newmanesque jawline and sensual lips. He is taller than you might think and lean, and his eyes tend to pick up the blue-related colors of his clothes (on these occasions, the gray of his shirt). Proffering a cup of tea, he fusses that it’s too hot and dilutes it with cold water.
He has a million things to say about Hamlet and — with rehearsals and photo shoots and the demands of being a star — limited time to expound. He came to the role as part of a special season in which the small, not-for-profit Donmar Warehouse embarked on a yearlong residency at Wyndhams Theater in the West End.
The goal was to attract new audiences, particularly young ones. And in the case of Mr. Law’s “Hamlet” it more than paid off. Every seat was sold — in many cases to teenagers drawn by the lure of Mr. Law — for every performance.
Mr. Law’s theater experience includes “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and “Dr. Faustus,” so “there’s no sense of someone waking up in the morning and saying, ‘I want to do a bit of stage today ,’ ” said Mr. Grandage, who is also the Donmar’s artistic director. “There’s a legitimacy about having this particular movie star return to the stage, because people here knew that he was a theater actor who at some point became a movie star.”
And though one of their favorite sports is sneering at the ill-judged theatrical efforts of Hollywood celebrities, London’s snippy theater critics mostly admired and occasionally even swooned over Mr. Law’s Hamlet, praising the performance’s intelligence and fluent physicality. In Variety, David Benedict wrote that Mr. Law was “riveting” and “thrillingly vital.”
“The revelation of Law’s performance is the dynamic connection between mind and expressive body,” Mr. Benedict wrote. “Like a great tennis player, from a position of repose he can seemingly leap to anywhere, which makes him commanding and dangerous.”
The soliloquies are among the first hurdles any actor playing Hamlet has to surmount. They include some of Shakespeare’s most powerful set pieces — “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” — but are so familiar they can sound formulaic to the point of banality.
“When you’re faced with ‘To be or not to be,’ in the first rehearsal,” Mr. Law said, “there’s a sense of ‘Oh, God, I’m stepping into the world’s greatest cliché.’ But without sounding like a naff old actor, I’m Hamlet, and what a great way to question life and death.” He added: “The reason they’re so famous is because they’re beautifully written and incredibly powerful pieces of dialogue. Never underestimate the power of these lines. Our language is littered with words and phrases from this play, and we use them because we have not, in 400 years, found a better way of putting things.”
Mr. Law said he approached them as physical manifestations of his character’s tortured inner soul. Hamlet has a modern habit of “dancing with his thoughts,” he said, and then uttering them to himself, with the audience present only as eavesdroppers. “I would say that the soliloquies are happening in his head,” he said, which is why emotions turn so quickly. “It’s as if you might stop at a traffic light and suddenly get a wave of depression or ecstasy. You feel life is fantastic, and then you cross the road, and suddenly you don’t.”
Mr. Law said he tried to approach the play fresh each time, letting the emotions of each scene drive the subsequent scenes, almost as if he were improvising.
“Because of the speed and pace with which you have to wrench yourself up and down the emotional spectrum, you can’t quantify beforehand how far you have to go,” he said. “I was very daunted when I sat at the bottom of the mountain and looked at it as a whole and thought, ‘How do I get from here to the other side?’ But to watch where you’re going at the beginning of the play is the wrong way to go about it.
“It’s a lot easier to cope with if you play moment to moment. That mirrors what Hamlet goes through and where he gets to in the end, when he talks about ‘The readiness is all.’ ”
He has not read his reviews. “If you read good reviews, you become self-conscious about the bits they like, and it starts to make those bits tacky — as if you’re churning them out,” he said. “And if you get bad reviews, they’re going to crush your ego. It’s like vinegar in the wound. So there’s no point in reading them.”
Most of the original cast is moving with the production to New York. But there are some changes, already incorporated in Elsinore, including the arrival of Geraldine James as Gertrude. The alterations have caused the production to shift a bit, injected a dose of adrenaline into the play after three months of performances.
“It means you have an opportunity to rethink and revisit certain areas of the production,” Mr. Grandage said. “We’ve had a three-week rehearsal time with the new company, as opposed to having to say, ‘Hello, it’s lovely to have you in the play — now would you stand over there?’ ”
But the play has naturally developed over its run, he said. “It’s matured, and the level of internal dialogue has got deeper and deeper. All the people have used the run properly and started to explore their characters. No one has gotten to the point where they say, ‘Tick, I know my character and I can just get out there and speak the part.’ ”
The production’s aesthetic could be called Scandinavian minimalist. The set is simple, a chilly constellation of sliding doors and enormous walls that embody the notion that, as Hamlet says, Denmark is a prison. (This was especially true during the performances here at the castle, which was used as a prison in the 18th and 19th centuries.) The cast is dressed in muted grays and blacks, and the direction is extremely unfussy, so that the words can speak for themselves.
“You have to look at these 400-year-old plays as if they’re new,” Mr. Grandage said. “It’s not about the legacy, but about the very difficult task of producing the play for a new era. The majority of the audience are quite often people watching the play for the first time in their lives, and you’re doing the play for them. You should never do the play for people who already know it very well.”
New York audiences tend to respond differently from London ones, but it is never clear in advance how this will play out.
Mr. Grandage has some experience with this, having directed Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard M. Nixon in 1977. London audiences focused on Frost, Mr. Grandage said; in New York, they focused on Nixon. “The entire axis shifted, and it was a completely different play,” he said.
Mr. Law suggested that Hamlet might be in some ways more accessible to New Yorkers than he is to Londoners.
“In a modern way he’s very un-English, with the rawness and brutality with which he treats himself,” Mr. Law said. “It will be interesting to see what happens in a place that has embraced analysis more than our country has, to watch a play about a man who is going through this level of self-analysis.”
Mr. Law is a regular presence in tabloid gossip columns. His divorce from the mother of his three children and his relationship with the actress Sienna Miller were both highly public. He has been in the news again lately, with the disclosure that a young woman with whom he had a one-night stand is pregnant, apparently with his child.
As a result interviewers are under strict instructions not to bring up anything remotely personal. Not that you would really want to; the character Mr. Law is playing seems to have enough on his plate right now.
And Mr. Law is not interested in public self-analysis. For a moment, in his dressing room in London, he came close, when he was discussing how actors internalize Hamlet by approaching the role through the prisms of their own personalities. In his case he embraces Hamlet’s mercurial nature, he said, more than the character’s melancholy.
“I’m probably much closer to Hamlet than you realize, but it’s not something I want to go into too much, or talk about,” he said. “But rather than having just his lows, where he goes down and stays there, I go up and down more. Perhaps that’s my reveal of myself. I quite like to shave off feelings, when they’re not too constructive, and physicalize them. I don’t want to sit and brood.”
After doing many movies in recent years, Mr. Law is taking a break. “To be honest, I don’t know what I’ll do after this,” he said. “I have no films planned. I haven’t been hugely inspired by what’s come my way in the film industry lately, and this has opened up my eyes to how great roles can be, and how great acting can be.”