Wyndham's Theatre, London
It is heartening to find Wyndham's teeming with young people. And, even if they are drawn by the star power of Jude Law they will get to see a swift, clear, well-staged version of Shakespeare's most exciting play.
Old Hamlet hands may not discover anything radically new but Michael Grandage's production, the last in the Donmar's West End season, proves there is a public hunger for good, affordable Shakespeare.
What exactly does Law bring to Hamlet? Principally, a sense of moody solitude and moral disgust. Pre-empting Shakespeare, Grandage begins with a silent image of Law, in rumpled black shirt and wide-bottomed trousers, alone on a bare stage. And, even before he has seen the Ghost, Law's Hamlet is filled with gut-wrenching despair at Elsinore's pervasive corruption.
This is a Hamlet in whom the urge to action and revenge is constantly undermined by a built-in death wish: he seems incensed by the divine injunction against self-slaughter and, in the course of baiting Polonius, eagerly points a dagger at his own breast.
I missed the quicksilver humour that is part of Hamlet's character. But Law's Hamlet has the right inwardness and self-awareness. People who come to patronise him as a movie star essaying the great Dane will be in for a shock. He is a far from inexperienced classical actor and conveys the idea of Hamlet as a man who, as the critic John Wain once said, "cannot gear his meditation to action" and who is half in love with easeful death.
The other stand-out performance is Penelope Wilton's magnificent Gertrude. I have always thought the part underwritten but, by the simple expedient of always living in the moment, Wilton fills in Shakespeare's gaps. Wilton charts precisely Gertrude's transition from serene queen to appalled, unwitting accomplice in a royal murder.
Psychologically, the production is astute. What I miss, especially in the first half, is any social or political context. Elsinore starts as a court on a war footing, filled with hasty diplomatic activity, but here there is only a surrounding vacancy. After the unusually early interval, the production acquires a more textured atmosphere. Grandage stages the closet scene brilliantly by placing Polonius downstage, before a billowing gauze curtain, so that we too become eavesdroppers. Christopher Oram's set, dominated by gaunt, arched stone walls, also acquires a distinct character: as light, beautifully designed by Neil Austin, filters through high, narrow grilles we share Hamlet's perception that "Denmark's a prison".
The best support comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose touchingly bewildered Ophelia goes quietly mad instead of indulging in a psychiatric cabaret turn.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016