‘No one can do the definitive Hamlet. It’s too big for that. But you can do an enormous amount.’ Wise words. Jude Law’s as it happens. All Hamlets fail and it’s a great tribute that Law’s fails remarkably little. His stage presence is thrilling, intense and highly athletic, and he has no trouble capturing the pace and rhythm of the verse. What he misses is any hint of humour or warmth. There’s very little ordinary likeability about the Prince. Instead we get a brooding, frustrated outsider full of scorn and bile, and with a strain of impatient mockery that hints at priggishness and even cruelty. His treatment of Ophelia is coarse and violent. Long ago there was a tradition that Hamlet would re-enter after his ‘To a nunnery, go’ speech and kiss Ophelia’s hair. No chance of that here. The soliloquies, which some actors perform as ornamental solos, Law infuses with an intensely personal energy, all passion and self-lacerating doubt. His only attempt at comedy is a not wholly successful chimpanzee routine that only underscores the character’s jaded world-view. This is a fine if not an absolutely first-rate Dane.
Michael Grandage’s perfectly paced production plays to his great strengths: showmanship and practicality. Christopher Oram’s set portrays Elsinore as a dungeon haunted by plots and whispers. The effects are a bit ‘pop video’. Smoke swirls. Lights pierce. Shadows loom. But it all works. There’s a simplicity, a grandeur and a visual menace here that are completely apposite to the play’s mood. Many tired orthodoxies get a spring clean. The Mouse-trap is performed in a dazzling glare of brilliant light that contrasts tellingly with the gloom enveloping the rest of the action. The closet scene (it only became ‘a bedroom’ after Freud’s theories promoted popular anxieties about the Oedipal taboo) is done without a bed. Good choice. The stage direction indicates ‘another Room in the Castle’ and it’s absurd to imagine that a senior courtier would hide himself in the monarch’s bed-chamber. The scene is staged back to front so that we eavesdrop on the action alongside Polonius and the device gives his death a shocking immediacy and suddenness. Brilliant stuff.
Strangely, though, for such an assured production, the supporting cast are a little prosaic, patchy even. Kevin McNally hasn’t any majesty or mystery as Claudius. He just seems quite nice. Gertrude (Penelope Wilton in a floaty trousersuit) is a little too grandmotherly. Ron Cook does a sitcom Polonius, fun but thin, and Alex Waldmann’s Laertes is a charming, curly-headed kid, perfect for the second lead in a high-school romcom, but without the muscle and fire for this dangerous Renaissance hothead. A sweetly bewildered Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) takes the lunacy just far enough and spares us the usual Broadmoor hysterics. The Ghost, so often fluffed, is superbly done by Peter Eyre, whose voice is so rich and mellow it should be bottled and sold as a headache cure. Despite minor glitches, this is the runaway hit of the summer.
And just behind it comes Arcadia. If Tom Stoppard were to play the fantasy dinner-party game, he’d probably overlook Hitler, Homer and Jesus and just invite ten more Tom Stoppards. And if the Stoppards stayed for the weekend you’d get a play like this shimmering piece of intellectual brilliance.
We’re in a Derbyshire mansion which hasn’t changed for 200 years and we shift effortlessly between then and now. Two interlinked plots run in parallel. Today, a literary sleuth is out to prove that Lord Byron shot and killed a minor poet at the mansion in 1809. We flit back two centuries and we’re shown a languidly brilliant tutor giving lessons to an aristocratic teenage girl who has stumbled across an early version of chaos theory. Stoppard’s verbal frivolities are a delight. ‘As her tutor,’ says a country-house bore, ‘it’s your duty to protect the girl’s ignorance.’ The tutor is challenged to a duel by a cuckolded botanist. ‘I demand satisfaction.’ ‘Your wife,’ he replies, ‘also demanded satisfaction.’
The West End is often said to be short of ‘serious drama’, which perhaps means plays that combine wit, metaphysics, passion, romance, spectacle and sex appeal. Here we have every item on the list plus a bravura cast headed by Neil Pearson as an adorably narcissistic media don and Nancy Carroll as a catty Enlightenment matriarch. If the West End is serious about serious plays then this visually stunning and hilariously funny show — perhaps the wittiest drama written since Wilde was jailed — should run and run.