Tennant - who won raves for his performance in Gregory Doran's RSC production last year (See Review Round-up, 6 Aug 2008) - set a high bar for Law, for whom many had predicted the critical knives would be out ahead of last night's opening.
Law, whose last appearance on a London stage was in Dr Faustus at the Young Vic in 2002, is joined in the cast by Donmar West End stalwarts Kevin R McNally (Ivanov) as Claudius and Ron Cook (Twelfth Night) as Polonius. Penelope Wilton, acclaimed for her performance in The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse last year plays Gertrude, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw (recently seen in Gethsemane at the National) plays Ophelia.
Hamlet is directed by Donmar artistic director Grandage - who took over from Kenneth Branagh, the season’s artistic associate (See News, 14 Oct 2008) - and designed by Christopher Oram, with lighting by Neil Austin and sound by Adam Cork.
“People who come to patronise him as a movie star essaying the great Dane will be in for a shock” writes the Guardian's Michael Billington, who, like most of his colleagues, kept his knife firmly sheathed. Some, including the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, felt that in “the great Hamlet bout” it is in fact Law who now has the edge, although most noted his performance lacks the “wry humour” of Tennant's portrayal. There was little consensus regarding the other principals, with some finding Kevin R McNally's Claudius “colourless” and others “nuanced” - Mbatha-Raw's Ophelia also ran the gamut from “touchingly bewildered” to “disappointing”. Penelope Wilton was generally considered a “stand-out” with her “initially complacent, finally deeply mistrustful” Gertrude. But the evening firmly belonged to Law, who, according to the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer, “joins the modern pantheon of spellbinding sweet princes with a performance of rare vulnerability and emotional openness”.
- Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Law must be one of the angriest Hamlets ever, when he exclaims 'now could I drink hot blood', you wonder what he could have been feasting on before now. There’s little of the philosopher prince contemplating life’s bigger questions; there’s little of the hesitancy of a man weighing up a host of options ... Law speaks the verse beautifully - if a trifle rapidly at first - and he’s riding high on charisma … What’s missing is the political tension, which Grandage underplays. There’s little sign of tension about Fortinbras’ intentions and Laertes is not the focus of a popular revolt. In fact, we’re not quite sure why Kevin R McNally’s rather colourless Claudius seizes the throne … But there’s a fine Gertrude from Penelope Wilton, portraying a woman with real fire in her, who gradually learns the truth about her second husband.”
- Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) “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 …What exactly does Law bring to Hamlet? Principally, a sense of moody solitude and moral disgust … 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 ... 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 … The best support comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose touchingly bewildered Ophelia goes quietly mad instead of indulging in a psychiatric cabaret turn.”
- Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “If the most glamorous young Hamlets of recent months were rivals, which would be more worth following? Myself, I’d go for Tennant, citing the variety that he brought to the role. Not that I would join any posse chasing Law with rotten eggs through Covent Garden. His verse-speaking is immaculate and his charisma comes powering out from below the pock-marked columns, black walls and towering gates of Christopher Oram’s grim set ... There’s little here of Tennant’s wry humour or vulnerability, though Law’s Hamlet does have moments of anguish in Gertrude’s bedroom and, near the end, acquires some depth when he ponders the meaning of death … As the praying Claudius, Kevin R. McNally produces the inner anguish that Law misses and in Penelope Wilton he has a fine Gertrude, initially complacent, finally deeply mistrustful of her husband. However, a curt Ron Cook misses Polonius’s garrulous self-regard and, as Ophelia, Gugu Mbatha-Raw could do more to prepare for a breakdown that anyway lacks sexual horror.”
- Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) - “This week we had the great Hamlet bout. Could Jude Law be as good in the role as David Tennant was in last year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production? And the news from the West End ringside, so far as I’m concerned, is that it’s a squeaker - and that Mr Law is just ahead on points. That said, the Wyndham’s production is not a patch on the RSC show in several other respects. The company has been strangely miscast. Its Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, Gertrude and ghost are all disappointing … But handsome Mr Law is excellent. He makes a likeable Hamlet, without, thank goodness, the bulging-eyed, 21st century sarcasm of Mr Tennant … This Hamlet also explodes with anger at his onetime friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he gathers that they are trying to deceive him. Throughout the second half, Mr Law really motors.”
- Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “The knives (or indeed bodkins) were out for Law from the moment it was announced that he was taking on the title role. Now they can be sheathed. For as the scholar-soldier-prince Law’s performance is detailed and powerful … Law’s is not a funny Hamlet, but he possesses both self-lacerating candour and romantic dash. Among the supporting roles - this is a play, of course, in which the lead speaks roughly 40 per cent of the lines - Ron Cook’s Polonius, a mass of ceremonious expostulations, stands out ... Kevin McNally’s Claudius resembles a cross between gangster and bureaucrat, while Penelope Wilton, hardly an obvious choice to play Gertrude, has been made to look desperately dowdy. Still, McNally’s performance is nuanced, and Wilton shows fine control … The closet scene in which Hamlet stabs Polonius is handled with originality (we, like Polonius, become eavesdroppers). Just as arresting, though less readily explicable, is the decision to have Law deliver 'To be or not to be' while being showered with snow. Such quirks will divide opinion, but the strength of Law’s performance is impossible to deny.”
- Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Jude Law, who confessed to moments of absolute terror about playing the role during rehearsals, joins the modern pantheon of spellbinding sweet princes with a performance of rare vulnerability and emotional openness … Law's boyish Hamlet is often on the brink of tears, but there is also no mistaking the intelligence of his mind or the nobility of his heart as he confides in the audience in soliloquies that allow us to follow every fleeting thought, every quicksilver change of mood … The Donmar Warehouse's West End season is particularly aimed at new audiences and Michael Grandage's gripping, accessible production strikes me as the ideal introduction to this greatest of all plays … Peter Eyre gives a thrilling masterclass in Shakespearean verse-speaking as both the Ghost and the Player King … Ron Cook captures both the humour and the grating-voiced meanness of spirit of Polonius, Penelope Wilton movingly captures the wracked anguish of Gertrude and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is simply the sweetest, prettiest and most pitifully vulnerable Ophelia I have ever seen.”