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HAMLET ON WRY

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Suddenly, "Hamlet" is sprouting up everywhere in Brooklyn.

For those who missed Peter Brook’s re-imagining of arguably Shakespeare’s most profound psychological tragedy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month, here’s a little secret: you were the lucky ones. Brook - whose inarguable and incalculable influence on modern theater is as much to be praised as it is to be denigrated - parsed the play down to what he called its "essentials," lopping off whole speeches, editing out several characters and even rearranging the order of scenes.

What was left Brook called "The Tragedy of Hamlet." And that it was: rather than illuminate a work that can be interpreted in manifold ways, Brook’s "Hamlet" actually did the opposite, closing off any possible entry into this deeply complex character, enacted with often frivolous abandon by Adrian Lester.

But there is hope for "Hamlet" lovers: coming to BAM (possibly as atonement for the Brook debacle?) for only five performances May 30-June 2 is the Royal National Theatre production of "Hamlet." Whether this current version is a "Hamlet" that does justice to Shakespeare’s immortal words remains to be seen, but advance word from the road is heartening.

Portraying Hamlet for the first time in his storied stage career is British actor Simon Russell Beale, whom BAM audiences may remember as a most disturbing Iago in the Royal National Theatre’s 1998 "Othello." Speaking on the phone from Phoenix, one of this production’s several American stops, Beale has nothing but praise for the audiences who’ve seen the play.

"It’s been absolutely fantastic throughout America," Beale says, "very good audiences who have picked up on the humor in the play." Beale points this out because this staging of the work doesn’t, in the actor’s opinion, grovel to get its audiences to laugh.

"Hamlet’s humor is very ironic and wry, unlike the usual broad humor we see," he explains. "I’ve never thought of dumbing down for an audience - there are no gags in ’Hamlet’ - but it is a difficult balance because you want to tell the story as straightforwardly as you can without sacrificing the complexity."

Portraying this least graspable of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is a new experience for Beale. "I was in the Kenneth Branagh film [the four-hour 1996 version of nearly the entire text] playing a very small part, but I’ve never done him before," Beale admits. "I knew that there were things I didn’t want to do, and I was actually scared of dealing with the madness aspect of his character. I didn’t want to just casually sexually assault my mother. But the gentleness of him really took me by surprise he can be arrogant, vicious and cruel, but he’s essentially a noble soul, surely a ’sweet prince’."

Beale’s Hamlet is as different from Brook’s as he is from, say, Laurence Olivier’s classic portrayal, the actor notes. "Mine is a little bit softer Hamlet, quite romantic actually," he says, then after a well-placed pause, continues: "And I’m not romantic-looking at all." (Nonetheless Beale’s performance did lead to his recent Olivier Award nomination.)

This version of "Hamlet," Beale says, looks at everyone sympathetically (except poor, unfortunate Fortinbras who, like in the Brook edition, is completely cut out). "My director [John Caird] said to me that he wanted to give everybody the benefit of the doubt," Beale reveals. "The play is about people who are destroyed by betrayals. I love the idea that Ophelia and Hamlet could have a great relationship, for example, but the little betrayals make that impossible. He is definitely the loneliest character I’ve ever played."

When Beale performed his scene-stealing Iago in Brooklyn, it was in the BAM Harvey Theatre (then called the Majestic), which left a profound effect on him. "I love that small space. It is absolutely wonderful," he exclaims. "And I’m very much interested to see what the big space [the Opera House] is like."

Just as BAM’s audiences are very much interested to see what Beale’s Hamlet is like.

 

The Royal National Theatre production of "Hamlet" runs May 30 through June 2 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave.). All performances are at 7:30 pm except June 2 at 2 pm. Tickets are $75, $50 and $25. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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