When I settled into my seat at the Broadhurst Theatre for a recent preview of the Donmar Warehouse's "Hamlet," I expected to be enthralled by Jude Law's performance. And his sinewy, intelligent and often humorous turn as the Prince of Denmark did not disappoint.
Less expected, though, was my fascination with the production's set. When my eyes weren't focused on Law's mournful soliloquies (and to be honest, his undeniable comeliness), I was mesmerized by the gray tones and wintry air that permeates the walls surrounding him. A dismal, death-ridden castle has never looked so appealing.
Overseen by veteran set and costume designer Christopher Oram, the minimalist stage consists of timber walls covered with painted and sealed carved polystyrene; a floor cast from individual Jesmonite molds; a vacu-form brick wall, and two, huge central timber doors through which the various actors make their entrances. Yet with his more Spartan interior choices, Oram--along with lighting designer Neil Austin and sound designer Adam Cork--manages to conjure up everything from a graveyard to a ship's dock.
"With minimal scenic changes, for example the occasional drop cloth or the actual grave itself, and judicious use of light and sound, an audience 'understands' the location more than they actually need to see it literally," explains Oram. "It is in this way also the doors work
both on a practical level to allow various scales of entrances, both formal, and informal, but also a metaphorical level to show us Hamlet's state of mind, his own sense of freedom and entrapment, of the private, and the public."
Working with the Donmar Warehouse's artistic director Michael Grandage, Oram took his aesthetic cues from the idea of a jail.
"One starting point of the design was Hamlet's line referring to Denmark as a prison," he says. "Although on our research trip to the real Elsinore we discovered the actual castle to be relatively decorative, the grayness of the weather, and bleak location became more of an inspiration than the actual architecture itself."
Oran took an equally contemporary approach in designing the costumes. Despite being a queen, Hamlet's mother sticks to a neutral palette free of any regal touches, while the men take to the stage in roughed up boots and layers of gray and black that would be equally at home on a 20-something Berlin artist.
"We had anticipated a much younger, possibly first time audience for this production, given the casting of Jude, so we wanted to make the look of the show as accessible as possible," says Oram. "I love period costume, but the fear was that it might be alienating for a first time audience not used to doublet and hose!"
And one wouldn't want to upstage the show's star itself. "Jude is an incredibly contemporary man, and his take on the play burns with modernity----I wanted nothing to stand in the way of that and the audience."