by Zoe Wolfe

In reviewing one of Shakespeare’s most iconic and tragic tales, where does one begin? The classic “to be or not to be” speech? The star studded cast? The set? The directing? All of these must be discussed in due time, but it might be best to start at the beginning.

As the dim lights come up, you see Hamlet (only recognizable because we know that he is played by Jude Law) kneeling, looking forlorn. This puts the viewer in a highly focused, almost frightened mindset. But as Hamlet exits and Barnardo and Francisco enter, the feeling is shattered. They start jabbering away, throwing around the witty lines that Shakespeare wrote for them, putting the audience at an utter loss. They speak so quickly that it is nearly impossible to keep up with what they are saying without having read the play at least a dozen times before. In the way they speak, they could be any duo from any Shakespeare play.
All of Law’s actions, however, are carefully chosen. You know exactly why he’s moving in a certain direction, or why he’s using a certain tone of voice. His intentions and the meaning of his lines are clear, even if you can’t understand every single word he’s saying. It is evident that director Michael Grandage put a lot of thought into Hamlet’s character and that he spent a lot of time working with Law to perfect his performance. Their hard work pays off, and Law’s portrayal of Hamlet is wonderfully in tune.
If Grandage had put as much thought into the rest of the characters as he did into Hamlet, then the play could have been truly amazing. With a number of characters, including Barnardo, Francisco, Horatio and Ophelia, all intentions are lost. The audience cannot clearly see what they want or how they are going to get it. While this might suffice in a contemporary play, the problem is blaringly obvious here. Many Shakespearean words and phrases are confusing or unfamiliar, so it would be in the director’s best interest to treat the script as a foreign language. Everything needs to be clear, or the audience will be lost.
The production’s time period is confusing, too. All of the characters are wearing somewhat modern clothes. The older men wear formal suits, while the women wear modern formal clothing. This is set against the stone backdrop of a medieval castle. This effect is not too confusing, because it seems to be trying to achieve an ambiguous time period. It gets muddled when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends, are introduced as characters. They are dressed in dark jeans and peacoats—very 2009.
They also act like modern people, while the older actors act more reserved, either trying to maintain ambiguity or Shakespearian pomp. Through his sarcasm and sporadic bursts of energy, Law also acts with modern flair. While Grandage might have been trying to show a difference between the old and the young, his choice works against him and confuses the viewer. He could have gone one way or the other, and in my opinion, he should have chosen to direct Hamlet as a modern play, because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of the best-acted characters.
While Hamlet is many things at once, and is sometimes plain confusing, it is still an enjoyable experience. Through Law’s portrayal of Hamlet, the audience gets an inside view into his character’s mind. Hamlet speaks directly to the audience with openness and a bare honesty that amazes the viewer. This play has the potential to be truly great, but it is missing the little bit of effort that it would need to reach that level.
HOW TO SEE THE SHOW: $35 student rush tickets. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.
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