(John Lahr's review appeared in The New Yorker, 10/9.)

The Theatre

Swash And Buckle

A heroic “Hamlet” and musings on mortality.

At the finale of the last “Hamlet” to be seen in New York (the 2008 Public Theatre production in Central Park), Fortinbras called for a hero’s cannonade to honor the slain Prince of Denmark—“Go, bid the soldiers shoot”—only to have his lieutenant whip out a pistol and shoot Horatio. Horatio, you’ll recall, is the person whom Hamlet, with his dying breath, commands “to tell my story”; the jaw-droppingly ludicrous misinterpretation played almost like an unconscious wish to annihilate the brooding hero altogether—and, by extension, the whole damn Shakespearean canon. After this low-water mark, even mere competence would look like brilliance. Now, with Michael Grandage’s barn-burning “Hamlet,” imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse (at the Broadhurst, in a twelve-week engagement), New Yorkers can replace the memory of the recent fiasco with a truer, more exciting measure of Shakespeare’s unrivalled storytelling.

The slick, streamlined three-hour production stars Jude Law, who, at thirty-six, is genuinely “the glass of fashion and the mold of form.” There have been better postwar British Hamlets—such as David Warner and Jonathan Pryce—who put their fingerprints on the role for a generation. Law’s performance does not reach their level of inspired nuance, but it is admirable nonetheless, a sensation, if not a revelation. Whippet-thin and alert, Law is swift of foot and of speech. He has a sharp critical intelligence. He dexterously parses and shades Shakespeare’s poetry, making the words as clear, crisp, and compelling as his profile. For his soliloquies, Law comes downstage and, with his piercing almond eyes, draws us into his turbulent consciousness. It’s big magic.

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