PRINT April 2001


Peter Brook’s Tragedy of Hamlet

STAGING ONE SHAKESPEARE PLAY every five years or so, Peter Brook sees the Bard’s abundant oeuvre as a fitting vehicle to deliver the news of the world. Even when the director turns to other material, we are never far from Stratford. Lost in the prince’s famous tribulations—The Tragedy of Hamlet makes its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 24 following its premiere in Paris this winter—one cannot help but flash back to Brook’s 1985 production of Mahabharata, particularly the lines “What is madness? It is a forgotten path.”

Forgotten or not, it is this path that Hamlet, as prodigiously interpreted by Adrian Lester, follows. Yet it’s far from a marked-out route: Brook has severely pruned Shakespeare’s play, eliminating more than half the text, reordering the scenes, and reducing the number of actors to eight. Thus deprived of familiar landmarks, Brook’s Hamlet must agree to recognize the truth beneath the changing features of illusion, say, in the image of the ghost that presents itself to him to demand vengeance or in the scene of actors reconstructing the king’s slaying, at Hamlet’s request, in order to confuse the murderer. For all that, illusion (even if it is omnipresent) is itself a deception in the play. Whether the visit is a dream or real, the specter doesn’t lie about its history. Feigned or endured, Hamlet’s madness is the only possible counter to the machinations of Claudius, the prince’s fratricidal uncle and incestuous stepfather. Brook’s stroke of genius is found here: He has the same actor, the impressive Jeffrey Kissoon, play both the ghost and Claudius. Of course, the manipulation of illusion in the service of truth is a double-edged sword, but does Hamlet have a choice?

All of Hamlet’s actions seem carried out under duress, as though he were but a specter of himself, of his misapprehensions regarding the world, power, love, and filial links severed by crime. That is why Brook’s Tragedy of Hamlet is first of all a mise-en-scène of bodies, their circulation, disgust, and hatred. For this, a simple, orange carpet suffices to establish the ring in which the protagonists will confront each other—in the disorder of their passions, in the complexity of the traps they set, in the ardor of youth that measures itself against the avidity of the ancients.

What characterizes the whole Hamlet/Adrian Lester game is rapidity: He takes his enemies quickly, despite the languor and heaviness of an oppressive pain. “Hamlet no longer trusts anyone,” Lester observes. “He puts Horatio to the test, and Horatio fails. He puts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the test, and they fail. Finally, it's Ophelia who fails. So, for him, the only thing that is true and honest in this deceptive world is our common mortality. The skeleton of Yorick the buffoon is real. After all the lies, the only thing left is this skeleton. Peter Brook is interested in this truth, this honesty.” At the center of a complex set of triangulated relations linking most of the figures in the work (his mother, Ophelia, his father, his uncle, earth, and death/God), Hamlet leaps from point to point. Lester says, “He looks at his mother and his father. Then he looks at death and his father. Then, his uncle and Ophelia. And so on and so forth, endlessly, until the end of the play.”

Hence the velocity with which Hamlet, as played by Lester, jumps between registers. Before his enemies, he rants and raves; the next instant, alone, he wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve and regains a clear phrasing, a reflection of an inflexible logic, a steely determination—that is, until the senses become confused and reason begins to vacillate. “I like the times when Hamlet doesn’t exactly know the extent of his madness,” the actor remarks. “After killing Polonius, he wonders whether he pretended to be crazy or not. If I answer the question definitively, I close the door on what Shakespeare wanted left unanswered.”

A parallel might be drawn between the speed that characterizes Lester’s portrayal of Hamlet and the way Brook imagines Shakespeare writing: “We have every reason to believe that he wrote fast,” the seventy-five-year-old director notes in his book Evoking Shakespeare. “There’s no record of drafts of Shakespeare’s plays being found, nor of manuscripts that were not used. Everything suggests the opposite—that the most extraordinary of his plays were written in the heat of the moment, with a burning passion to put down exactly what he was imagining.” Brook’s observation justifies the radical adaptation to which the play is subjected: It is as if he wanted to reach the bone of the play, its skeleton, its truth, while remaining faithful to the intrinsic quality in the writing of Hamlet, famously described by Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary as “like a sponge. Unless it is produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs all the problems of our time. It is the strangest play ever written, in its gaps, its imperfections.” This unfinished aspect not only authorizes Brook's treatment of the play; it constitutes the nerve center of Shakespeare’s writing, a path abandoned in the name of style and order inherent to all narration, so distant from the feeling of living—fragmentary, complex, and elusive.

Fabienne Arvers writes on theater for Les Inrockuptibles.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.