Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, William Shakespeare penned the words that made him the foremost playwright in English literature, and for 400 years, directors and actors have been re-interpreting those words. Of all Shakespeare’s histories, comedies and tragedies, perhaps none has been so twisted and tweaked as "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."
Audiences have seen Hamlet presented with major changes in setting, time, interpretation of themes, and even the sex of the protagonist himself. So I suppose the play will survive Peter Brook’s production now on stage at the BAM Harvey Theater.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me state right here that in many ways I greatly admired Brook’s production. It was a lively, amusing and deeply human piece. But it was not a play to stir one’s soul.
Under the assumption that there is a leaner, cleaner Hamlet lurking beneath Shakespeare’s expansive work, Brook has reduced scenery to a brightly colored carpet, pillows and a few low stools and tables on invisible wheels; and his cast of characters to eight actors (and one musician) several of whom double up on roles.
The minimalist setting was a most welcome development. It intensified, accelerated and smoothed the way for the action, highlighting both Shakespeare’s magnificent words and Brook’s masterful choreography.
In certain cases, the dual roles worked well, too: Jeffrey Kissoon playing both Claudius and the Ghost is an interesting lesson in contrast and the complexity of the human psyche. However, when Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Naseeruddin Shah and Rohan Siva) abruptly metamorphose into the First and Second Player, it’s somewhat disconcerting. And for anyone in the audience who might be approaching "Hamlet" for the first time, it’s downright confusing.
But, of course, the whole point of this production is that most modern audiences are all too familiar with Hamlet, and as a result, more than a little bored with Shakespeare’s subplots and verbiage. With this in mind, Brook has cut out about one-third of the dialogue and moved or removed major scenes and speeches.
Brook’s "The Tragedy of Hamlet," complete with French surtitles, won great acclaim last winter when it opened at his celebrated Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. But that’s no surprise: as a general rule, surtitles work best when they’re used the least, and Brook’s very visual, pared-down Hamlet certainly reduces the importance of any translation at all. (And let’s not forget that the French regard Jerry Lewis as a great American actor and Edgar Allan Poe as a major figure in American literature.)
This writer, however, sorely missed Polonius’ advice to Laertes, and Fortinbras’ entrance, which restores order to the crumbling state of Denmark at the very end of the play. On a similar note, Laertes’ passionate and dramatic appearance late in the play seems unaccountable and unforeseen. And without the various officers, soldiers and courtiers, the tragedy revolves more around a dysfunctional family than the machinations of powerful individuals.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the production, however, is Adrian Lester’s portrayal of Hamlet himself. Brook says Lester first came to his attention when he saw the actor as Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s all-male production of "As You Like It" when it came to his Bouffes du Nord theater. (The play was also presented by BAM in its 1994 New Wave Festival.)
Brook was impressed with Lester’s extraordinary range, his singing and his movement. Indeed Lester, who played Henry Burton in the film "Primary Colors," is a wonderful actor. But under Brook’s direction, his Hamlet resembles more a petulant child or a defiant adolescent than an anguished adult, or even someone striving to be an adult. His performance is visceral and physical. He bellows, rants, crawls, slaps his face and even turns a cartwheel. Before launching into "To be or not to be," he takes his pulse.
But Lester’s "To be or not to be" sounds more like a youngster trying to decide between Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies than a conflicted prince contemplating life and death.
In fact, I found Claudius’ "O, my offense is rank" by far the most powerful speech in the play, and Kissoon deserves credit for his powerful performances as both Claudius and the Ghost.
Brook’s "The Tragedy of Hamlet" is the fifth production he’s brought to BAM. His longstanding relationship with BAM dates back to the 1970s when BAM presented his Royal Shakespeare Company’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
In 1987, BAM specifically remodeled the Majestic Theater (renamed the BAM Harvey Theater in 1999) to resemble Brook’s Bouffes du Nord theater for his presentation of the nine-hour, three-part Indian epic "The Mahabharata." And in 1988, BAM produced Brook’s adaptation of Chekov’s "The Cherry Orchard." Most recently, in 1995, BAM welcomed to its stage Brook’s "The Man Who," an adaptation of the Oliver Sacks book.
After a career that has spanned half a century, Peter Brook is not a director with whom one wants to take issue. Certainly Shakespeare is no longer with us to defend his work. And having a production by a director of Brook’s stature right here in Brooklyn is definitely a delight. Yet someone must speak up for those lost words, forgotten thoughts and obliterated characters.
Brook has decided that he knows, better than Shakespeare, what Shakespeare meant. Or perhaps he knows best just how much of Shakespeare audiences in the 21st century can enjoy or endure.
As a result, Brook’s "Hamlet" may be the most entertaining one you’ll ever see. But it has no nobility, no universality and no heroism. It’s a "Hamlet" you shouldn’t miss. But it is not a "Hamlet" you’ll never forget.
"The Tragedy of Hamlet" will continue at the BAM Harvey Theater May 5 at 7:30 pm, and May 6 at 3 pm. BAM Harvey Theater is located at 651 Fulton St. This engagement is sold out.