The last time Hamlet came to town, some commentators who should have known a lot better rushed to advance judgement to moan about the casting of David Tennant of Hamlet for the RSC - and ended up looking pretty stupid when that performance and production emerged as one of the defining ones of our age.
As Charles Spencer put it in his Daily Telegraph review of the London transfer, “This is now without doubt one of the finest productions of Hamlet I have ever seen, led by an actor of extraordinary courage and charisma who has made a persuasive claim to true greatness.”
Yet the Sunday Telegraph’s theatre critic Tim Walker had said before it opened of the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd, “This is the man who has got it into his head to cast the Doctor Who star David Tennant as Hamlet to ‘connect’ with modern audiences”.
As Michael Coveney replied in a blog entry at the time, “You’d expect a professional critic to know about David Tennant’s brilliant stage career before he was Dr Who, surely”. (When media commentator Matthew Norman quoted this in his Independent column, he wryly added, “Why Michael blithely ignores the perils of over-research is his business.”)
But Walker wasn’t the only one to indulge in such foolish advance speculation. The veteran director Jonathan Miller, who was himself directing a production of the play at Bristol a year ago, also entered into the fray to moan about what he saw as “an obsession with celebrity” and dismissively referred to Tennant as “”that man from Doctor Who.”
As Coveney again answered in a blog at the time, “If [Miller had] seen Tennant’s Berowne for the RSC, or his brilliant Jimmy Porter, he’d know what a fantastic Hamlet he’ll probably make.” And indeed did.
Miller also took the opportunity a year ago to speculate on the prospects of Jude Law’s Hamlet, too, and compared him to the young actor (Jamie Ballard) who was playing the role under his own direction then at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory: “I suspect he can’t act better than the young unknown who played him for me who was quite extraordinary.” Again, as Coveney replied, “Suspect, Sir Jonathan? If you’d seen Law on stage at the National and the Young Vic over the past ten years in Jean Cocteau, Greek tragedy and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, you’d know he was more than well qualified to play Hamlet. Shame on you! I’m sure there may well be producers who’d like to present the Bristol Hamlet if they could raise the money. But you could no more raise the money on Ballard’s name now than you could ten years ago, despite Miller’s assertion that you could. You might raise it on Miller’s name, but audiences frankly don’t want to ‘see’ a director; they want to see actors.”
And now that Law is about to begin performances in the play this Friday at Wyndham’s Theatre, the tired old commentary has begun again about what he’ll be like and what the critical response will be: in the Independent on Sunday last weekend, Toby Young declared, “Poor Jude Law. He must be quaking in his boots. He’s been talking about playing Hamlet in the West End for at least seven years and the moment has finally arrived. He opens as the Dane at Wyndham’s Theatre on Friday - and rarely have the critics’ knives been so far out of their scabbards.”
According to Toby, “To begin with, he’s a movie star and nothing is more likely to raise the hackles of a self-respecting drama critic than a celebrity taking a break in their busy schedule to do 12 weeks in the West End. Then there’s the fact that Hamlet is just about the most demanding role an actor can play… But most importantly, there’s Law’s tarnished reputation. Last time he trod the boards - as Dr Faustus at the Young Vic - he got a fairly easy ride, but that was back in 2002, when he was still considered an up-and-comer. Since then he’s become a poster boy for overexposure.”
And in a Guardian blog published last week, Imogen Russell Williams cast doubt over the whole Donmar West End enterprise - and concluded, “After three productions ranging in mediocrity from the mildly intriguing to the downright dreadful, I’m condemned to Jude Law’s Hamlet. After being lucky enough to encounter a host of brilliant Danes on the stage - Branagh’s, Dillane’s, Whishaw’s, and most recently Tennant’s - I can muster only the most lukewarm single-barred glow of anticipation, bordering on dread, for Mr Law. I don’t see him redeeming this costly bit of stamp-collecting.”
Jude, it seems, on this reckoning just can’t win. He’s being damned before he even steps foot on the Wyndham’s stage (and is carrying the burden of responsibility now for some spectators for shows that he had absolutely nothing to do with). But one thing going to the theatre regularly for a living teaches you is to never rush to judgment - though bitter experience may lead you to guess correctly that a new play at Hampstead, for example, is more than likely going to be a turkey (and so it proved once again last night there, with the opening of April de Angelis’s excruciating Amongst Friends), it’s always best to travel hopefully.
Thank goodness most of my colleagues do the same. Even if the bloggers and the commentators aren’t being fair, I’m sure the critics, at least, will be. In yesterday’s Telegraph, Charles Spencer interviewed Law and his director, Michael Grandage, and asked Law how daunted he was by following Tennant and that vast pantheon of previous famous Hamlets. Law sensibly replied, “You have to forget all that. Hamlet is a bit like a great song that’s been covered by a load of different singers. It’s like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell all covering the same song. But they would each bring a different sound and colour to it.”
And hopefully he can also forget all the nonsense that is being written about his performance, too, before he’s even gone on stage to give it. And the critics will have to forget, too, all the speculation that is running rife about what we’ll think about it before we’ve even seen it, either.