Michael Grandage on 'Hamlet' and Jude Law

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Michael Grandage tells Time Out about his new production of ‘Hamlet’, starring Jude Law at Wyndham's Theatre

  • Michael Grandage on 'Hamlet' and Jude Law

    Michael Grandage

  • Michael Grandage hadn’t planned to direct Jude Law in ‘Hamlet’ – any more than young Edward Bennett expected to step into David Tennant’s shoes when the Dane last pondered human existence in the West End. When Grandage announced that the Donmar Warehouse would put on a West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre, Kenneth Branagh – whom Grandage directed as ‘Ivanov’ in the season’s superb opener – was down to direct. Then along came a film schedule clash. Grandage insists that he was ‘eager to step in before anyone else did.’ And he is more of an assurance of quality than Branagh could have been, simply because no director in the UK has his track record of putting film actors in subtle, beautiful stage productions which showcase their talent and support the gaps in their experience.

    ‘The critics were sceptical about my casting Ewan McGregor in ‘Othello,’ points out Grandage , ‘but they mostly agreed afterwards that he could do it.’ True, it was not McGregor but the award-winning Chiwetel Ejiofor who had the leading role. And that was in the intimate Covent Garden 250-seater, which is easier to project yourself across than the 750-seat Wyndham’s. But then, says Grandage, ‘Jude’s stage career is bigger than most people think and it’s mostly been with difficult roles. I’ve seen everything he’s done and in “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” [at the Young Vic] I saw that hunger and passion which is needed for “Hamlet”.’

    There’s a lot more riding on Law’s ‘Hamlet’ than one actor’s credibility: Grandage’s whole West End season has been priced so accessibly (with tickets from £10-£32.50) that it requires a ludicrous number of bums on seats to break even, despite the Donmar’s pay agreement under which Law, Branagh and Judi Dench pocket less than your average London plumber. Lukewarm reviews for Yukio Mishima’s ‘Madame de Sade’ have had a dampening effect, despite Dame Judi’s box office clout, but Grandage is unrepentant. ‘People coming to see Judi might have preferred “The Importance of Being Earnest” but it’s a difficult play like “De Sade” that makes it a Donmar season.’

    So, with 85 per cent capacity needed and a recession biting, will the season break even? ‘I hope it will. “Ivanov” and “Twelfth Night” got up to the high eighties. But we still need to make that leap with “Hamlet”. We wanted to reach first-timers and and all the indications are that we have achieved that with knobs on.’ Does he regret not pricing a bit higher? ‘If we had, would we have sold the same amount of tickets to the people we wanted to reach? I don’t think so. But in the next three years a lot of companies like us, who raise most of their funding privately, will go to the wall.’

    Grandage is forthright, ebullient, possessed of a gold-plated track record and utterly at ease with suit-friendly phrases like ‘audience-building exercise’ – it’s easy to see how he wins the confidence of sponsors like United House as well as actors like Dench and Branagh. For such a powerful force in British theatre he’s startlingly modest. But his great talent as a director is to move you with an invisible hand. Every detail in his productions is thought through so completely that you could be deprived of one sense and still take in the subtleties of the story. ‘If I read a play I see it immediately, even hear some of its music,’ he says. ‘When you work with brilliant actors quite often they’ll do something more inspirational than you’ve ever thought of. But it’s about creating a world that can happen in.’

    The fact that so many people will be seeing ‘Hamlet’ for the first time has increased Grandage’s determination to make it modern and transparent. ‘You can’t unknow something – like Freud for example.’ It’s true that generations of students have applied Freud’s Oedipus complex to Hamlet’s intense relationship with his mother Gertrude, played in this production by Penelope Wilton. As for the prince himself – ‘I’m reluctant to start labelling Hamlet as bi-polar. But the rushes when things are going right, the moments of deep despair. You need a personality who can hit that. Jude has a physical maturity and a young man’s inquiring mind. He’s been studying and wanting this part for years, not months, and all that’s there in his “Hamlet”.’

    ‘Hamlet’ is at Wyndham’s May 29-Aug 22. Call 0844 482 5120 for tickets.

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