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?”