The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1048  Monday, 7 May 2001

From:           Karen Peterson-Kranz <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 6 May 2001 05:26:39 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Peter Brook's Hamlet

Well, since no one smarter than me has stepped forward to comment on
Brook's new production of *Hamlet*, I will (cautiously!) proceed to do
so.  The production has now completed a run in New York and will next
move to Chicago, then on to Japan before returning to London in late
summer.  I look forward to comments from those who see it as it makes
its rounds.

I saw the play in Seattle on April 11th.  The production was housed in
the Seattle Center's Mercer Arena.  This is a very large space.  Within,
however, a theatre within a theatre of sorts had been constructed with
scaffolding and risers.  The end effect was rather like a stretched
version of Stratford's Other Place, centering on a brilliant square of
orange carpet with a few scattered cushions, which provide all the
settings for the performance.

In some ways, the physical scaling-down of the Arena reflects what Brook
has done with the text.  Most of the reviews that I have seen have
emphasize how Brook has brought the performance time down to just under
two and a half hours, with no interval.  The conflict with Norway is
gone, as are Fortinbras, Osric and a host of other characters.  This is
less earthshaking than some reviews have made it out to be -- the NRT's
current Hamlet also cuts the political subplot.  More significant is
Brook's re-ordering of scenes and re-assigning of speeches, much of
which derives from his 1995 theoretical exploration of *Hamlet*, "Qui
Est La?"

In my opinion, undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of the production is
Adrian Lester.  Although Lester is in his early 30s, his Hamlet is a
decidedly young man, who grows up fast in the course of the play.  This
youthfulness is reiterated by the supple physicality of Lester's
performance as well as by some directorial choices.  For example, Hamlet
embraces the ghost of his father, bringing to the movement a spontaneity
and exuberance that are able to co-exist with grief and anger.  That
moment tells us much about this particular incarnation of Hamlet.

Speaking, Lester does brilliantly with the verse.  He brings out the
poetry of the language effortlessly and without any sense of
artificiality.  This can be said of the entire cast, in fact, who
rehearsed for three months together before the production's Paris

One consequence of Brook's cuts and re-ordering is that Horatio finds
himself with much more to do.  It is Horatio who cries "who's there?" at
the beginning, and Horatio who, alone in the darkness, asks the same
question at the end.  Scott Handy's Horatio has almost a child-like
vulnerability at times, which perhaps (like Taymor's device of the young
Lucius watching the horrors of *Titus*) was intended to increase the
audience's awareness of and sympathy with the characters.  I found this
vulnerability less than entirely successful; when Hamlet praises Horatio
for his steadfast friendship and support, I wondered if he was speaking
ironically.  Yet there is no doubt that this Horatio loves this Hamlet:
Handy's voice, expressions and body express an initial adolescent
hero-worship (nuanced with homoerotic attraction) that gradually
matures, along with the characters, into a deeper love and respect by
the end.

Natasha Parry is a breathtakingly sensual, mature and intelligent
Gertrude.  Jeffery Kissoon, who doubles as the Ghost and Claudius, is
perhaps better as the Ghost; as Claudius, he does not seem a match in
either intellect or deviousness for Lester's Hamlet.  Bruce Myers
doubles as Polonius and the Grave Digger.  His Polonius is conceived
(and costumed) to suggest the stereotypical postcolonial Indian
bureaucrat, with mixed results.  He serves well as a straight man for
Hamlet, but there is little or no dangerous edge beneath the fussing and

Shantala Shivalingappa is a dancer, trained both in ballet and in
classical Indian dance.  Her Ophelia is, like Lester's Hamlet, very
young.  Much of Ophelia's mad scene is cut, and many of her lines
replaced with dance movement.  In this scene, musician Toshi Tsuchitori
moves from the shadows from where he has performed and joins Ophelia in
the center.  It is very effective.

The character of Laertes is all but cut.  He appears only at Ophelia's
burial.  Someone who didn't know the play would be confused.  Also
potentially confusing is the doubling of the actors playing Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern with the First and Second Players.  When the arrival of
the players is announced, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go offstage, and
almost immediately reappear as the Players, with minimal costume
change.  Again, someone who didn't know the play would be confused.
Naseeruddin Shah, who plays Rosencrantz, the First Player AND Laertes,
deserves high praise, however.  Brook has the the Player King deliver
the Hecuba and Priam speech first in Orghast, the language invented by
poet Ted Hughes, and then in ancient Greek.  The effect of having the
speech delivered first in a language that no one will understand, and
then in a language that only a few may understand, is to draw our
attention first to the musicality of the speech and then to Hamlet's
response.  Lester, in this moment of intense concentration, creates a
stillness which nevertheless embodies the actions yet to come.

If a full-text production of *Hamlet* is akin to grand opera, Peter
Brook's production is chamber music.  Several critics have noted that
this is *Peter Brook's Hamlet* -- not Shakespeare's *Hamlet*.  In some
ways this is true.  It is still a production well worth seeing.

Karen Peterson
University of Wales, Lampeter

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