It is snowing in Elsinore. A young man, little more than a boy, shivers in the wind and encroaching dark. "To be or not to be," he begins, testing his own emotional resolve. Does he want to go on… or not? Can he find the strength to kill the man who has murdered his father, and is he willing to challenge his own mother for the future of his country? In the struggle of Prince Hamlet is the ambiguity of every boy on the brink of manhood.
Hamlet's dilemma is political, to be sure. He has returned from university to find his world utterly changed. His country is under attack, full of domestic enemies, and ruled by a vain and unworthy king instead of his own wise father. But it is also personal. His mother, less than a month after the death of his father, has married his uncle, the new king. The girl he loves is the daughter of the new regime's top aide and he wonders if he can still trust her. His world is shaking at its foundations. So, to be or not to be? That is the question.
This is Hamlet, believed by many to be the greatest play ever written. In Michael Grandage's dark and atmospheric production, recently arrived here after a sold-out run in London's West End and at Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where the play is set, it is now Jude Law's turn to measure himself against Shakespeare's moodiest character. Every actor wants to play Hamlet, and most of the good ones will try it before they get too old and move on to Macbeth or King Lear, but what particular quality makes Hamlet the mountain to climb for them all?
During a rehearsal break, Law takes a moment to answer that question for Playbill. "In my opinion, it's the greatest part written for an actor between 19 and 40," he says. (Law is 37.) "This amazing character lives within an extraordinary context and he asks the questions we all ask: Why are we here? Who are we? Where do we go from here? And what is the point of it all?" Law is unsparing in his praise of the rest of the cast and particularly of director Grandage. "He never assumes, like so many other theatre people, that the audience has seen the play before. He approaches it with a freshness about what is on the page: No modern additions. Undiluted Shakespeare."
I point out that the diversity of roles he has chosen would suggest that he's an actor who likes being scared by his work. Not exactly, he corrects me. "Simply, I like a challenge and I don't like repeating myself. And I want to know that when I go home at the end of the day, I've learned something." Does Broadway scare him? "Not at all. I'm thrilled to be coming back. [He appeared in 1995's Indiscretions.] I love Broadway. I'm incredibly excited about returning with Hamlet."
The magic of Hamlet gets to us all in the end, but it is the audience that judges the success or failure of each performance. Hamlet warns the players who come to entertain the king and queen and find themselves acting out the murder of Hamlet's father: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action."
Every major actor in nearly 400 years has tried to do just that. Now it's Jude Law's turn.