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?)

And why not? Mr. Law is a movie star with a pretty face, and snobby critics (like myself) disdain pretty boys who drown in roles beyond their depth. And how about his disaster of a personal life? Jude Law turns thirty-seven (37) in a month. Isn’t that a bit too old to play a melancholic youth? He left the mother of his three kids to take up with American movie star Sienna Miller, married her, dumped her, and just two months ago became the proud father of another daughter with twenty-four (24) year-old actress, model, and Floridian, Samantha Burke. The scent of desperation emanating from Mr. Law has an undertone of mid-life crisis too.

All of this is part of the too-too public record, as were the reviews from London that made their way to this side of the pond before Mr. Law and the rest of the cast (whoever they are) arrived to set up shop on Broadway. Benedict Nightingale’s review in the Times of London is the best of the lot. On one hand, he tells us that David Tennant’s performance of the role at Stratford and London’s West End earlier this year was more nuanced and “vulnerable.” (Mr. Tennant is well loved in England and best known for his part on the TV show Dr. Who.) On the other hand, Nightingale compliments Mr. Law on his “immaculate” verse-speaking and his charisma. The knife goes in as he damns Law with this faint praise: “His strength is that he’s robust and tough and, as Fortinbras says, ‘like to have proved most royal’. However, his limitation is that he’s, well, robust and tough and playing the ditherer Hamlet, not a decisive Henry V.”

My complaint about movie actors who move to the stage has always followed Nightingale’s logic. You see, movie actors aren’t allowed to really act. The camera does all the work for them, and the best thing they can do is shut up, get out of the way, sit still, and let the camera do its job. But on stage that obviously doesn’t work, so movie actors overcompensate by overacting. I saw Alec Baldwin at the Public many years ago scream himself hoarse in the title role of Macbeth because he confused volume with intensity. Is it any surprise that an excitable, middle-aged movie actor, unused to the stage, would play a Hamlet like Hank V? Mr. Law has the power but lacks the fear that makes Hamlet such a complex character.

I will admit, this production and this Hamlet is a thousand times better than the production of Hamlet in Central Park last year. (This is my review.) The sets in this production are minimal but visually striking, and the costumes, while not striking, are at least unobtrusive.  Nightingale is right — Mr. Law is frenetic and too assertive to be the dithering Dane, but his charm and physical grace very nearly sell his interpretation of the role. (I give due credit: Mr. Law started in theater before he became a movie star.) What’s interesting about Jude Law playing Hamlet has very little to do with what is supposed to happen in the Broadhurst Theater, however. We, the jaded modern audience, must spend a stupid amount of time on the stuff covered in the preceding paragraphs because what makes Hamlet (and Jude Law’s interpretation of it) cool is paradoxically its potential banality.

A young-ish woman who sat beside me at the performance was talking to her older male companion before the show about The State of Theater Today, and they both lamented the lack of interest young people have in “classics” of Western literature. While it is true that a third of the audience had to use either a walker or wheelchair to shamble to their seats, and another third were wearing the hearing aids supplied by the theater (and obviously picked up at an airline’s going-out-of-business sale), the remaining third of the audience were young people — mostly girls — who gasped and laughed at all the right moments in Mr. Law’s performance. They do care about Law’s personal life and his inner struggles, and that’s fine with me as long as it puts their asses in a seat for 3 1/2 hours to hear some poetry.

Then there’s the play. It is probably the most overperformed work of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. A friend, a well educated guy who has worked in theater, told me Hamlet is unperformable — it’s too diverse, too psychological, too digressive to work on stage. Most of us had to read it at one point or another in school, and lines from the play (“neither a borrower nor a lender be”; “brevity is the soul of wit”) are so thoroughly a part of our culture that we think Shakespeare stole them from us. The two hardest moments for an actor are when he has to say “to be, or not to be” and “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Those words are so thoroughly ours that many actors find it impossible to make them theirs. Audience members fall into two camps on this issue: one group knows this is “important literature”, and that they should appreciate it, but they don’t know it very well, and most of it is confusing gibberish; the other group knows the play too well, and has a very fixed idea of what a good production is. How can any director or actor please everyone in these circumstances? What can you possibly say about something as big and featureless as the classic of Western literature, or a paragon of celebrity? Hamlet is like the Bible: it can be and is all things to all people.  And what can you say about Jude Law that you can’t say about every other celebrity? The details of the train wreck are slightly different, but the story is always the same.

This is why Hamlet and his current avatar Jude Law are simultaneously so banal and so compelling. Being everywhere and everything, they lose all feature and definition and become nothing. Until, that is, they have to make the choice to do something and be someone.

Aye! There’s the rub! Hamlet is the story of a human being, limited, transcendent, and absurd. He perceives the golden age of his childhood as a distant memory, when his father was strong and well respected, and his mother was loving and pure. Then something happened. For some reason, whereof he knows not, he has lost all his mirth. It is the story we all experience as we pass from childhood to adulthood, when we find out that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny don’t actually exist, that our father and mother may not love each other so much any more (if they ever did), and that we are looking down the barrel of our own fate. We are all posterior and posthumous to the great heroes who came before us. (It’s fitting I should have seen the play on Veterans Day.) Worst of all, we have a sneaking suspicion that all plays are meaningless, all actors are merely celebrities, and that space cadet glow is only in our heads. There was never a time when the all-knowing playwright wrote the perfect play. All that nonsense is just another pretty story — like Santa Claus — to soothe the trauma of being meaningless. We have always been improvising and doing whatever it takes to make the audience laugh — or cry — because we can’t do anything else.

So you can get bogged down, not just by what all the critics think of Mr. Law’s performance, or what all the scholars have written about Hamlet, but by the realization that we have never been modern, and that the end of all plays is the curtain. But sometimes, occasionally, you see the desperation in Mr. Law’s face as something in the banality of his life intersects with the text of the play and the vision of the director. The teeny-bopper girls in the audience sense it too: the real absurdity of celebrity and its powerlessness have been plucked out of the eternal aether by a man who died almost four hundred years ago, and the train wreck of one generic celebrity becomes recognizably our own fate that we fly at blindly, wishing we could do something to change it, but knowing that we can’t. What Jude’s therapist couldn’t get him to see, the text of the play has made him understand, afternoon and evening for two months; and something vital has been born out of inadequate materials, like the life that is breathed into our nostrils to animate our useless clay.

I say, go see it. See it for whatever reason you please. But know that the power of this production is its ability to transcend itself in spite of its prefabricated success and undeserved celebrity.