Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there's a bracing revival of Harold Pinter's chilling No Man's Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play "unknowable"), it's the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall's original production of No Man's Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author's direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he's met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst's sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion--with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter's most mesmerizing monologues--is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man's Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past--a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It's also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as "clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning.... I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on in No Man's Land. But I'm not sure I want to know."
The writer's fear is a theme of another revival in London's season as well--Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters--Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza's Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC's epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida's joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer's return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer's gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT's Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie's accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: "The last thing you need after a hard day's gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we're all subjects among objects is finding out you're a subject among no as many objects now you've got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail."
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)--which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a "barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have 'who Harold Pinter was' explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals." This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play's title)--a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A "prolapsed Catholic," as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and "fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy," washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. "I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion." An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke--who wrote his play well before September 11--offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there's a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to "irreverent allusions to copulation...causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue ("Don't quibble, Sybil") and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of "bickering as sex pursued by other means"). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York's roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway's famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins' Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter's revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward's in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood's current Barrymore, is John's granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain's own theatrical royalty--including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers's birth. In the West End, there is the RNT's pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols's irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it's a season of healing and faith in the theater.
"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
This disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of "new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of culture.
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert, also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in 1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them, live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher, assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin (Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo, contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as a tragedy.
It's also the first Chekhov play to be performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark" productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three Sisters (Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry Orchard (Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported) Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen (most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on it.
But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play about the theater that is calling such attention to the theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center, when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.) Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions, flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.
Streep is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone), with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.
There are also the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.
In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned, affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman, known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost Famous and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final, immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and restraint.
The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant, seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.
While The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer) has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback, Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)
Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44 (he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard, among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with simplicity and truth.
"I would like life to flash by in moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and productions over the past century have not always been greeted with praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production, as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave (brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and talent--and return to the theater.
When, halfway through Hamlet, the prince proclaims that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," the players listen. As have generation after generation of theater artists returning to the play, and the character, to seek a reflection of their own age. "Hamlet is played everywhere, all the time," writes theater visionary Peter Brook. "As a tramp, as a peasant, as a woman, as a hobo, as a business man, as a movie star, as a clown, even as a marionette. It's inexhaustible, limitless. Every decade offers us a new interpretation."
Take the past decade, for example, during which there has been a veritable parade of distinctive Danish princes across the English-speaking stage: In London, there was the sensitive Daniel Day Lewis at the Royal National Theatre (1989); the dark and dazzling Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida (1995); the nightshirted Mark Rylance at the Globe (2000); in New York, the erudite Kevin Kline (1990) and the stalwart Liev Schreiber (1999), both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On film, there was the intense Mel Gibson (1990) and the charismatic Kenneth Branagh (1996). To name only a select few.
But there is something special about the recent "rash of Hamlets," as acclaimed British actor Simon Russell Beale calls the three princes in this, the "true millennium" year. Something arresting. He's referring to Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, with Adrian Lester, now playing at Brook's celebrated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris but due to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. He's also referring to his own Hamlet, directed by John Caird, currently at the Royal National Theatre in London but also set to sail to the United States this spring. And then there is the film Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, recently playing on both London and American screens. Three startling productions, that provide us with the rare opportunity to rediscover the play and the prince anew. And each one accomplishes this in a markedly different way.
"It is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him," writes Brook, theater director and theorist. Brook is a master at making us forget the classics and experience them anew. He's been reimagining them his entire career, with his innovative A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as with the operas Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen and Don Giovanni. In the case of Hamlet, it's a play he's been exploring for almost half a century, beginning with his traditional rendering in 1953 with Paul Scofield; next, with a deconstructed "Theater of Cruelty" version during the sixties in collaboration with Charles Marowitz; and decades later, in 1995, with Qui est là? ("Who is there?"), a theater étude, named after the opening line of Hamlet, at his International Center for Theatrical Creation in Paris. Brook explored how the play might have been approached by a number of noted theater theorists, including Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meierhold, Artaud and Gordon Craig. "It was really about the mystery of the theater, and where theater comes from," explains Bruce Myers, one of the permanent members of Brook's multinational troupe.
From this journey, Brook arrives today at The Tragedy of Hamlet, the name he gives his challenging new chamber play. (It's performed in English to preserve the poetry, as Brook explains in recent interviews.) Still, if you've cut your theatrical teeth on the traditional Hamlet, you too will be wondering "Who's there?" along with Horatio, who now speaks the opening line of Brook's boldly deconstructed version. The regular retinue of more than twenty-five characters in the court of Elsinore has been radically reduced by Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, to thirteen, played by a tight troupe of eight actors. Gone are Fortinbras, Marcellus, Osric, among others; gone, the opening sentinels' scene; gone, the salutatory Claudius/Gertrude scene; gone, Laertes's leave-taking scene with Polonius's famous fatherly advice (Laertes appears, eventually, to exact his revenge, but almost at the play's end); gone, "The Murder of Gonzago" (in its place is a scene in ancient Greek). And there's not only deconstruction but also reconfiguration.
Where is "To be or not to be"?! (I panicked, but it turns up later in this revised text.) Act V closes with a speech from Act I: "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad..." And the very last words of the play reprise the first: "Who's there?", articulated again by Horatio as the corpses strewn across the stage slowly rise to their feet and face us. Under Brook's direction, this Hamlet, now playing at two hours twenty in contrast to the traditional four, cuts straight to the chase. So pared, so spare, so severe it is, that at first you'll think you're watching Ibsen or Albee. Yet, halfway through, it happens magically, just as Brook intends it to. You're seeing the play. You're rediscovering Hamlet anew.
So "though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Brook's method, of course. All the familiar features are there--the essentially empty stage (save only a floor covering, with a few brightly colored cushions and a table or two), designed by Chloé Obolensky, an exposed, crumbling theater wall, a familiar instrument stand (Toshi Tsuchitori stands off to the side, a range of primitive instruments at his fingertips). No props, save a pair of skulls and a bamboo pole. Bare, spare, elemental, the Brook theatrical vocabulary. "The joy of creating from very little," as Bruce Myers puts it. The result? A pure, clear, crystalline new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.
"We pared it down for the French audiences, for clarity's sake. So that they'd understand it," says Myers, who doubles deftly as Polonius and the gravedigger. "We went straight to the heart of the play." At that heart, of course, is Hamlet himself, and as portrayed by the charismatic young British actor Adrian Lester, he's as vibrant as the orange-colored carpet beneath his swift, slippered feet, upon which he commands center stage. Dressed in black pull-ons and tunic, the lithe, dreadlocked Lester is a supple Hamlet, dazzling in his range from philosophical to physical, from preppy to pantheresque, from petulant to powerful, from witty to weepy to warrior-like. "A notion of character deadens character," said Lester in an interview about the rehearsal process. "So I live in the moment." And it shows. He's poetry in motion, morphing from one body image to another, now mincing in gait and words, now crouching, snarling, feigning madness to Polonius & Co. And no matter what his stance, what his guise, Lester's is the rare Hamlet who is, above all, in control. Of himself and of the play.
Brook's celebrated company of English, Caribbean, Indian and Asian actors clearly underscores the universality of this theatrical event, most notably Jeffrey Kissoon, who doubles as a stately Claudius and Ghost, Natasha Parry as a dignified Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa as a delicate Ophelia. Ultimately, with its multi-national cast, its minimal mise en scène and text, and its metatheatrical stylistics, Brook's could just as soon be called The Ritual of Hamlet--reimagining a myth, restating it, celebrating the ceremony of theater and its power to move, enlighten, startle us from our complacent conceptions.
Lester's is not the only Hamlet to take the stage in this season of revelations. Across the channel, at London's Royal National Theatre, the versatile, award-winning actor Simon Russell Beale has defied casting conventions and claimed the prince for his own. Short and stocky, Beale was acclaimed for his recent Iago as well as for other character roles at the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The readiness is all" for his startling interpretation, which defies the tradition of sleeker, self-obsessed Hamlets in decades past. "'Am I capable of doing it?!' I asked myself," he told me in an interview. "Can I inhabit him?" His recent Evening Standard Award for Best Actor is the answer. "It was a big surprise for me," Beale said, of the role. "He's a sweet prince."
In contrast to the somberness of Tim Hatley's severe steel setting ("Denmark's a prison," and that's what's on the deep, dark Lyttelton stage, dimly lit by church chandeliers and scored by solemn sacred music), Beale's luminous, human Hamlet is a beacon of light. Playing against the grim world he's given, he's radiant with intelligence, clarity, wit and charm. And more: He's gentle, warm, magnanimous, affectionate, playful, light on his stockinged feet (he fairly leaps with joy when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear). Sensitive, sincere, vulnerable, too. "Hamlet's greatest strength is his sense of humor and irony," Beale continues. "And his sense that he isn't competent, that he can't do it [meaning, take revenge]." This Hamlet is full of surprises: His "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia is articulated with tenderness and care; he spends the entire closet scene consoling Gertrude instead of assaulting her, as it is traditionally played. Humane, compassionate, real. A rare, lovable prince, indeed.
Beale is supported by a distinguished RNT cast, featuring a compassionate Gertrude in Sara Kestelman and Denis Quilley, who doubles as a rambunctious Polonius and a delightful gravedigger. Under John Caird's astute direction, there is a rare and heart-stopping moment when both his parents (mother and ghost-father) flank Hamlet, a hand caressing each cheek, and you see straight into the heart of this family tragedy.
And still, there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in (our) philosophy. Michael Almereyda's ingenious film adaptation shows us the infinite possibilities for future Hamlets, still maintaining (though again reducing) the poetry while setting it in a contemporary forest of steel and glass on Park Avenue. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation, and Ethan Hawke, the son of the slain CEO, is called home from college to set it right. Hawke's hip Hamlet, in ski cap and shades, sees his world through a digicam. As he wanders through the Blockbuster Video's action aisles, taping his own "to be or not to be," we catch a vivid glimpse, in his lens, of millennial man hopelessly alienated by technology and a menacing, monolithic corporate culture. The all-star cast is hip, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as a cunning Claudius and Diane Venora as a stunning Gertrude, driving around town in a black stretch limo (Venora once played Hamlet herself at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1980s). Bill Murray's Polonius is droll, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is affecting, Sam Shepard's ghost is beguiling and the ubiquitous Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, drowns sensationally in the Guggenheim Museum pool. It's a slick, spectacular Hamlet, with a proud, vulnerable pop-culture prince at its epicenter.
Comparisons? Similarities are more illuminating. Both stage versions eliminate Fortinbras completely, forsaking the political for the metaphysical world of Hamlet (the film cleverly announces Fortinbras's arrival on CNN). Neither the plays nor the film adopts the Oedipal interpretation so popular in the past century. Above all, none of these three millennial Hamlets is mad. Lester may be unpredictable; Beale may be ironic; Hawke may be angry. But they are all clearheaded, charismatic, capable of action. Hampered by grief, perhaps. Despair. Frustration. But not by inertia. "I want to be sane," declares Beale. "I want to die standing up." A stunning similarity to Adrian Lester's Hamlet, who sinks slowly to his knees but never fully drops, and dies seated, erect. A choice both stage actors mention with pride. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!"
At the end of our interview, Russell Beale remarked with pleasure that the actor Paul Rhys had just been to see his performance; so have Michael Bennington and Ralph Fiennes. "There's a community of Hamlets," he smiled. New ones will join this community, along with Hamlets of the past (Gielgud, Guinness, Olivier, Burton, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi). For, as Brook explains, "we are in front of something which we cannot ever finally understand." The magnificent mystery of Hamlet. And yet, says Brook, "we can always rediscover this play, make it live again, embark anew to seek out its truth."
Meanwhile, Beale's Hamlet is to tour Boston, Phoenix and Minneapolis this spring while Brook/Lester's arrives at BAM. Angela Winkler's Hamlet (from Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus) tours Europe. Sam West's begins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford this summer. And so on. "Who's there?"