The Tragedy of Hamlet (Brook, 2002)

Adrian Lester as Hamlet
Adrian Lester as Hamlet

“If you can remove or reduce fear, you take the risk. There’s no reason not to. You have an intuition, if you’re scared, you close up, you repress this impulse. But if you’re less scared, then you release the unexpected gesture, the unexpected intonation, the movement, even the attitude which is not moving in a logical and obvious direction. When the patterns are broken, the risk is no longer a risk, you can swim freely.” — Peter Brook in Brook by Brook.  

Peter Brook has forgotten more about Shakespeare than I’ll ever know, and Adrian Lester is an underrated and underappreciated actor. (I think Lester’s turn as Henry in Primary Colors is one of the great glue performances of the last decade.) I think it is unfortunate, then, that Brook uses the word “scared” to offset and contrast the actor who is able to give unexpected life to words with which we are very familiar. It is unfortunate because the words of Prince Hamlet are familiar to us (so very familiar), and Lester’s recitation of them in Brook’s production is never a surprise. He parses the words for us rather than stating them as thoughts of the character, and while his emotions are internally consistent with the words he is saying (and thus demonstrating a comprehension of Shakespeare’s words often lacking in his peers) he lacks the command to weave a character through them the way that, say, Kenneth Branagh does.


The sets are minimal in Brook's production...
The sets are minimal in Brook’s production…

It would be wrong, though, I think, to lay what fault there is with this production on Lester. At least not all of it. One senses Lester has the talent to play around with this role, but Brooks is trying to do something minimalist and experimental with Hamlet, and the result doesn’t leave his lead much water to swim freely in. I have no objection to new production designs for Shakespearean plays–setting Richard III during World War II or Othello in a contemporary High School–so long as the resetting is purposeful, designed to make explicit a thematic parallel rather than to simply be different.

Here there are two tweaks to traditional staging. The setting is vaguely eastern rather than Scandinavian and the cast is multi-ethnic. The king, queen, and prince of Denmark are dark skinned. Horatio is caucasian. Ophelia and Laertes are Indian. The Player King is Oriental. (He even gives the Hecuba speech in a foreign language.) If there is a purpose to this casting, it was lost on me. I thought, perhaps, that Claudius and Hamlet the elder might be fair and darker skinned to play off Hamlet’s rising suspicion about his own parentage. (Branagh plays up this subtext by casting the physically imposing Brian Blessed as his father and then making up Derek Jacobi’s Claudius to have more family resemblance.)


...and this combined with all the close ups makes the production visually quite static.
…and this combined with all the close ups makes the production visually quite static.

Brook mentioned in an interview about filming The Lord of the Flies that he created a structured spontaneity by retaining control of the master camera but allowing an assistant with a hand-held camera free reign to rove. The resulting synthesis between formal mise-en-scene and discovered footage ought to lend itself well to a stage adaptation, but here we get little unexpected in the way of camera angles either. There is the occasional close-up to stress a speech is an interior monologue or a frame around a non-speaker to emphasize a reaction shot rather than the speech itself, but these are used in pretty conventional ways themselves: to show us that Hamlet thinks Polonius a windbag, that he suspects Claudius is spying on himself and Ophelia. Brooks seems in love with Lester’s face, and it’s not hard to see why. The actor has never looked more strikingly handsome. Close ups magnify emotion, though, and here that fact appears to make Lester even more inclined to be quiet. I’ll confess that I find a manic Hamlet easier to understand and sympathize with than a moody one, but Lester is definitely relying more heavily on the Olivier tradition of the cerebral, intellectual Hamlet. This is psychologically defensible–the barrenness or the  rooms and world is supposed to act as an emblem of the soul that says “How weary, stale flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world.”


Branagh's Hamlet lives in a world of lush color and brisk activity.
Branagh’s Hamlet lives in a world of lush color and brisk activity.

Here once again, Branagh’s Hamlet may be too fresh for me. His use of color creates both the mood of frivolity which disgusts Hamlet and provides a contrast between the world as Hamlet feels it and the world as it is. Peter Saccio once said that Hamlet is a play in which there is always something new and exciting around every corner–pirates, ghosts, troops of players, friends from college. Heck, even the servants (i.e. the gravedigger) are interesting and engaging. Hamlet’s inability to be see or hope for meaning in any of it is a sign of his depression, but one should, I think, normally get the feeling that it is Hamlet, not Shakespeare, who finds the world and all its objects weary, stale, dull and flat. The paucity of affect extends to other characters as well. (The adjective that perhaps best describes the production would be “somber.”) There is little passion or attraction between Hamlet and Ophelia, and he tells her to get to a nunnery with about as much emotion as if he were asking her to make curry for dinner. Here again it is hard to tell whether the fault lies with the actors or whether they are following through on some inscrutable production theme. Certainly if you are going to make Ophelia Indian, it is not inconsistent to make her character more emotionally guarded as well as filially dutiful. But then why make Hamlet so angry at those qualities? If, on the other hand, the casting is supposed to just make us understand that the themes are universal and Hamlet could be played by anyone, why insist on ethnic consistency among familial characters but not amongst the cast overall?

Polonius and Ophelia

For all that, Hamlet is a play with so many profound moments, so much metaphysical pondering, that it is hard to mess up entirely. This production’s great moment, for me, was Hamlet’s “the readiness is all speech.” In it, Lester is able to convey a sense that this is a Hamlet who is not in doubt about the ghost’s nature nor a Hamlet unable to make up his mind, but simply a Hamlet who is not ready to die. In those terms the “problem” of the delay ceases to be much of a problem. Which of us is ready? Just as mob boss Tony Sorprano snaps out of one of his deepest depressions when there is a failed attempt to kill him–“I sure as heck don’t want to die”–so too Hamlet discovers that it is hard not to cling to this stale, weary, flat, and unprofitable world when we see see that our time on it may be shorter than we realized. Lester’s delivery of this speech gives a poignancy to Act V that I normally find missing in most productions of Hamlet. Usually, I see proximity of death created by treachery as providing the emotional push to get Hamlet over the hump of his reservations to one, final, desperate act. Here, finally, I see a Hamlet who spends his time neither running after death nor from it, but standing still and letting it come.

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