Who's there? The most exciting opening scene in all drama begins thus, but the phrase was lost last night as Jude Law's Hamlet waited in the wings. Last year in Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company it was Dr Who's there, and David Tennant announced himself with electrifying intelligence.
Jude's sexier, though the hair line's receding - at 37 years old, like Tennant, he's a bit early middle-aged for the eternal student aspect of the role - and his voice is perhaps too huskily monotonous for someone who speaks almost half a play and over three hundred speeches.
But we have to give the contest on points, if not quite a knockout, to Tennant. And Michael Grandage's speedy production for the Donmar in the West End season - coming in at just over three hours with some clever cutting and hectic acceleration towards the end - is looking just a bit over repetitive in the Donmar style of black brick and musty lighting design, with portentous sound track to match.
Half the time you can't see the actors' faces properly, and the actor you can't see you can't hear, as the old adage goes. Jude is fine, it's just that he's not all that interesting when you do hear him. For a start he's not funny, which is sad given he's playing the wittiest tragic hero ever written. His speed of speech is a terrible affliction. And he looks like someone en route to the gym, in his grey sweat shirt and baggy pantaloons. The look of Christopher Oram's design is black, modern and dowdy. It gives me no pleasure at all to report that Penelope Wilton's Gertrude looks far too much like Jacqui Smith, the outgoing Home Secretary, in a series of unwise jackets and ugly bell bottoms; there must have been an early clampdown on the Elsinore wardrobe expenses with wind of the incoming puritanical Fortinbras.
Action is a prompt to words with Hamlet, not the other way round, which at least Law carries through in his non stop equivocation, even when confronted with the one person he really loved in his life, Gugu Mbatha-Raw's curiously programmed Ophelia. She's pretty but blank, and goes mad with the wild flowers in a tediously melodic sing-song, isolated by Neil Austin's lighting rather than anyone else's cruelty.
There's an unhealthy obsession here with creating stage pictures to compensate for real meaning, something Grandage has not succumbed to before. His Twelfth Night in this season was an absolute masterpiece of mood; worries grew over his hideously superficial Madame de Sade production with Judi Dench; and now the Hamlet suggests the recent Donmar seam of creative invention is fully mined.
The players, for instance, are a boring bunch of mimes in white silk who make nothing of their great scenes beyond Peter Eyre - who doubles First Player with a sonorous Ghost in a white wig and greatcoat - sounding off in old boy vein that seems to hark back to Forbes Robertson rather than, say, Donald Sinden. You don't get any sense that this wonderful play about the theatre, especially, has anything to say about, well, the theatre.
Law is given a snow storm - why? - to deliver "To be or not to be" and then poor old Ophelia is left standing in snow-flaked profile having been told to get her to a nunnery - where, if she's unlucky, I suppose, she'll bump into the wimpled refugees from Sister Act at the Palladium.
The most successful performance of the night is Kevin R McNally's as Claudius, wheeling and dealing to the end in a black frock coat though, like everyone else in this production, deprived of any emotional dependency on anyone else. David Burke is a boring gravedigger - no laughs anywhere - and Matt Ryan makes nothing of Horatio, though Alex Waldman is reasonably lively as Laertes.
The problem with Jude is not that he lacks stage acting chops - he's been brilliant at the Young Vic as Dr Faustus and in ‘Tis Pity She's A Whore - but that he probably lacks practice, which David Tennant didn't. You can no more turn up and play Hamlet than you can a Beethoven sonata.
Well, you can but it won't necessarily be any good. And in the catalogue of Hamlets, I think I'm here to say that Jude Law's won't be figuring alongside those of David Warner, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Cumming or even Derek Jacobi, who sat nervously joining his fingers together, as if in prayer, in the front stalls last night.
To 22 August (0844 482 5120; www.donmarwestend.com)
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