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First night: Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse

First Published 4 June 2009, Last Updated 6 June 2018

Jude Law, alone, haunted, crouched in the darkness, surrounded by the towering bleakness of Elsinor. It is a wordless opening scene that masterfully sets the tone for the Hollywood star’s return to the stage as Hamlet.

For Law’s Danish Prince is an isolated soul, tormented from the start by the death of his father and the swift remarriage of his mother, left to drift solitarily through court, unable to escape his grief.

If there was ever any fear that Law had forgotten the art of stage performance since his last outing in 2002’s Dr Faustus, it passed more swiftly and quietly than a ghost in the night, as his performance grew to fill Christopher Oram’s cold, looming set. His is an energetic, physical Hamlet, eyes searching for truth in the face of man’s duplicity.

Such duplicity comes from Kevin R McNally’s Claudius, a likeable, amiable political leader in the first half who reveals his darker persuasion as the evening progresses. His nuanced Claudius is no panto villain, despite the buttoned up lapel-free suit which, by his own admission, has a touch of the Bond villain about it.

The closing production in the Donmar Warehouse’s successful West End season, which prided itself on its accessible pricing, continues its theme by presenting an accessible Hamlet. Any fear that density of language could be a stumbling block to newcomers is swept aside by the clear, emotional performances Michael Grandage draws from his cast.

Ron Cook, looking gnomic with his greying beard, is a subtle, understated Polonius, never forcing the comedy from the role; Gugu Mbatha-Raw provides a wide-eyed, fresh-faced Opheila who descends into a haunting, schizophrenic madness; while Penelope Wilton, quietly supporting for much of the production, comes alive in her bedroom scene.

Yet for all the strong supporting cast, Hamlet is about the central performance, the role which can define an actor’s career. Many may have attended last night’s production wondering whether the film star could still do it on stage; none could have left without that question answered.



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