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Jude Law contemplates existence as Hamlet

“Don’t call it a comeback!” ~ LL Cool J

LL was all of twenty-two (22) years-old when he wrote that line. But consider that he had his first hit when he was seventeen, and that in Showbiz! time you can be on top of the world one moment and two celebrity-seconds later, shallow, unscrupulous producers are trying to cast you in a D-list celebrity reality show.

Now consider the case of Mr. Jude Law, who was considered one of the “10 most bankable stars” of 2006 (along with Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks), and who in 2009 tells Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, “to be honest, I don’t know what I’ll do after this. I have no films planned. I haven’t been hugely inspired by what’s come my way in the film industry lately, and this has opened up my eyes to how great roles can be, and how great acting can be.” Do I smell a whiff of desperation? (Did I mention that St. Jude is the patron of lost causes?)

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I went to check out Oskar Eustis’s production of Hamlet last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The skies threatened rain all day, and finally delivered just as the play was about to start. It misted more or less heavily until I left, which was thirty minutes into the show.

I kind of feel bad for the actors. They’re the ones who have to suffer the brunt of shame when things go bad. On the other hand, a sense of self-preservation is necessary in all living things. If you can tell things aren’t going right, it’s your responsibility to take up the slack. And Shakespeare isn’t boring! If people are bored the text is not the problem — it’s the production. Hamlet is, in my opinion, the hardest role — ever — for an actor. Hamlet’s indecision has to be rendered by an actor with incredibly strong instincts for nuance and timing or it comes across as mere confusion.

The obvious and avoidable screw ups — when Hamlet forgot his lines in hist first scene, or when Polonious (played by Sam Waterson) got so off track in Act II, scene i you could hear crickets chirping — that I can blame on the weather. But some problems were in the production concept, and those problems aren’t going away even after the rain clears up.

Michael StuhlbargHamlet is definitely not a he-man or a “decider“. When Claudius tells him in the second scene that his grief for his father is “unmanly” he tells us, the audience, that Hamlet is going to have a crisis of heroism. I was no fan of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet for this very reason: Hamlet is a sensitive boy. But casting Michael Stuhlbarg as the dithering Dane made Hamlet into Alvy Singer, a neurotic bumbler who tosses out one-liners like a borscht belt comedian.

Sam Waterson played Polonius, and as I said above, the rain may have had something to do with his inability to deliver his lines. It could also have been because Richard Easton was originally cast for the part (though in the program Waterson credited as Polonius). Did they have a last minute personnel switch-up? Is this a sign that Eustis’s ship has leaks?

The biggest problem with the show was the direction, which is a little surprising considering Eustis’s reputation. All the actors from the bit-player guards to our hero decided to convey the intensity of tragedy by yelling, from the first scene where Francisco and Bernardo see the ghost to Hamlet’s first soliloquy. If there is one iron-clad rule that all directors who tackle Shakespeare must follow, it is to let the poetry do the work and restrain the actors’ desire to over act. Ironically Shakespeare dramatizes this fundamental truth in Act III, scene ii with the “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it” speech:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness. O! it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o’er-doing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.”

Pray you, Mr. Eustis, tell your actors this. They start the play by shouting, and have no other means to increase the dramatic tension than by increasing the volume of their voices.

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