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The Essential Hamlet

Peter Brook kicks off the international tour of his must-see
The Tragedy of Hamlet
in Seattle

By Prospero

Seattle 4/7/2001 | Legendary director Peter Brook's new adaptation of Hamlet—which I caught on opening night in Seattle, the first stop on its international tour—lives up to its advance billing as the must-see event of 2001 for Shakespeare and theater enthusiasts around the world. Be sure to see it if you can when it stops at the most convenient city—Seattle, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Tokyo, Kyoto—for you.

Brook distills Hamlet to its essence, leaving only as many words as can be fully comprehended in a little over two hours traffic onstage, without intermission. This allows his hand-picked crew of 8 world-class actors, led by a dreadlocked Adrian Lester as Hamlet, to concentrate on what a Brook production does best: bringing Shakespeare's characters to life through the language their creator has given them with absolutely breathtaking verisimilitude.

What Brook said in response to a question in a public lecture at Seattle's Town Hall a few days before opening night—that Shakespeare's words are exactly what this character would say if they could express themselves perfectly, using all the resources of language at their disposal, in a perfect improvisation—he made good on in performance. If Hamlet had been born Adrian Lester, this is exactly how he would have said the lines attributed to him by Shakespeare, no doubt about it.

Every word communicating a full awareness of its manifold meaning, replete with nuances responsive to nearly every latent possibility of the text, stroke upon stroke of artfully layered representation: that's the kind of picture Lester painted of Hamlet in phrase and gesture. Yet there was nothing showy or strained about it, just the modesty of a master artist making the difficult look easy—the most natural thing in the world. And the happy few that accompanied Lester in this production—most notably Bruce Myers as Polonius and the Grave Digger, Naseeruddin Shah as Rosencrantz and the First Player, and Brook's wife Natasha Parry as Gertrude—all performed at a similarly stratospheric level of accomplishment—or at the very least, Everest-high.

That's why this production is a must see: when every moment approaches so nearly to perfection, how can a poor critic like me possibly tell all? You just have to witness it yourself. Still, I suppose I can mention a few highlights.

The power of Lester's Hamlet is apparent upon his first entrance, when (thanks to Brook's rearrangement of the text) he delivers his "O that this too too sullied flesh" monologue as an unmotivated, admirably dispassionate assessment of the situation—not the typical adolescent cri de coeur provoked by anger at Claudius's paternalistic advice to move beyond grief, which usually comes before. Or again, after his encounter with the Ghost, when he leaves no doubt of the complete control he's capable of exerting over his performance, even when it descends to a madman's part. Or much later when he brings Yorick back to life, playing a divine puppeteer with his skull.

Then when he jumps in Ophelia's grave with Laertes, he achieves just the right modulation from the magnanimity of his first lines to the raging anger, provoked by Laertes's violence, of his last.

And beyond Lester, who can forget the subtlety of Parry's Gertrude when she finds her conscience?

Or the dangerous intelligence that makes Shah's Rosencrantz a much worthier opponent than we've come to expect, or the compulsive intellectual daffiness of Myers' Polonius? Or the subtle musical accompaniment Toshi Tsuchitori provided throughout, in particular when he came onstage himself to help articulate the anguish that Shantala Shivalingappa's Ophelia was no longer capable of expressing in her madness?

Another promise Brook made in his Town Hall lecture, however, was not quite kept. In response to a young woman's challenge as to why he didn't bring a more unusual, unique play to a town where Shakespeare is performed with great regularity, Brook had answered that not only is Hamlet truly unique, but that it seems to be uniquely responsive to the concerns of the present moment, judging by the number of productions recently mounted on stage and screen, or currently planned. (Indeed, I myself had hoped to host a point of presence for the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr. production in L.A. earlier this year—and still hope to whenever the project is revived.)

What special import this play has for us today, however, still remained obscure by the time these actors' perfect characterizations had run their course, leaving those of us in the audience to wonder—what precisely had Brook hoped the interplay of actor, play, and audience would serve to create in this production of Hamlet?

We can at least be confident that it was not intended to be what Hamlet the original, full-length play tends to communicate: as distilled here, Brook's Hamlet is less about the limits and power of play acting and scene setting in the theater of the world than it has become a rather Greek kind of play—an austere species of ritual reenactment almost—composed of soliloquies and dialogues mainly, with a few colloquies thrown in—but no chorus, and no panoply of minor characters to supply a sense of perspective on the whole.

Brook's Hamlet is Greek indeed in the Hecuba interlude, when for some reason he cuts Shakespeare's partly parodic, partly thematic imitation of the previous generation of dramatic poets, and instead has Shah intone a impassioned speech in ancient Greek—a truly impressive demonstration of Brook's contention that the mere music of a great artist's words, properly performed, can almost serve to convey their meaning, especially after Lester's Hamlet surprises us by proving equally capable of sounding its dactyls and trochees to their depth.

After his numerous cuts, Brook ends up stitching this Hamlet together out of all his soliloquies and lectures concerned, in the main, with the inevitability of death and our difficulty in facing it. Pretty somber stuff—especially at end, when those who have died before (Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz) congregate with those killed in the final scene to follow psychopomp Horatio into a dawn transposed from the beginning of the play—only to encounter the spectral fear that came even before that, in the very first line: "Who's there?" Who indeed?—who will come to greet us in that undiscovered country from whose bourn... That is, I suppose, what we all truly want to know—someday, but probably not today.

In the meantime, while we're privileged to be penned in this anteroom here we call the world, we can't help but miss what's been left out: a few precious if trivial and inconsequential glimpses out of this play's central darkness into the life and light that surrounds and will continue without it—the world of Barnardo and Francisco's watchfulness, Laertes' Paris, the pomp and circumstance of unnamed men at arms and ladies in waiting, and even the readiness of Fortinabras and his large Norwegian army to assume the rule the Danes have lost.

In a way, Lester's is too perfect a portrayal: his Hamlet is too knowing, too fully in command of his faculties to be a proper subject of tragedy. When he says there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, it's not in joking defiance of augury, but a fully reasoned acceptance of it. And when he finally does get his chance to kill the King, both he and Claudius are simply too much at peace with their respective fates (Brook changed or omitted Claudius's final lines here).

Brook's approach falls flatest with Ophelia who, despite the best the remarkably talented Shivalingappa can do with her, will never be more than a rather naive if well-meaning girl, the obedient daughter of Polonius caught up in a situation so far beyond her capacity to deal with that it drives her—quite tragically in a production that knows how to make use of the irony—truly insane.

And in retrospect, that's precisely the problem with Brook's approach here—dramatic irony is not really a part of the picture. Characters are imitated to perfection—we go away feeling we've truly come to know them, in their essence—but the action they're a part of and which goes beyond them in its implications, well, it's pretty much left to shift for itself. For this to be a Tragedy, we need to have the sense that things could easily have—and should have—turned out otherwise, if only fate had been kind, not cruel. Otherwise even a play as great as Hamlet is hardly tragic—just unfortunate and deeply, achingly sad. There's no chance something similar might happen to us.

In conclusion all I can say is—I don't quite know what to make of such a perfectly imperfect adaptation of Hamlet. Could it be Brook's elegiac farewell to the 20th century, and all that has died with its passing? Perhaps. You've never seen these characters so truly delivered. The rest is silence.


Copyright 2001 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for
First posted Tuesday April 10, 2001.




For further details on the Tragedy of Hamlet world tour, see the Hamlet in Seattle website.