Brook’s ‘Hamlet’ speaks straight to the soul


In his book “The Shifting Point,” Peter Brook writes that when he begins work on a play, he starts with “a deep, formless hunch which is like a smell, a color, a shadow.”

Adrian Lester as Hamlet in Peter Brook’s adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most magnificent works.

Before the lights went down at Setagaya Public Theater last week, the audience buzzed in anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect but suspecting this would be “high art.” After all, this was not just any play, but an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” by Brook, a towering presence in the postwar theater world, and his Paris-based company, CICT.

The London-born maestro had chosen to pare down the play by almost half in order to stage his own “deep formless hunch” about one of the Bard’s most magnificent works. A world authority on Shakespeare, Brook’s production of “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” came to Japan with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975 and is the stuff of legend.

From the moment the curtain rose on “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” the audience’s anticipation of something special — perhaps legendary — was rewarded. The man who became the RSC’s youngest-ever director, at age 21 in 1946, had set the stage for this production low down with no barrier or distance between it and the audience. The effect was to draw everyone present, players and audience, together into the event.

And so this story of a boy’s growing-up began with Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Scott Handy) breathing the question “Who is there?” on glimpsing the murdered king’s ghost. From that moment on, Brook’s “Hamlet,” relying for props mainly on a big red carpet and a stool — and with virtuoso musician Toshiyuki Tuchitori contributing hauntingly on ancient Oriental string and percussion instruments — was to be a profoundly different production.

By shaving off excess explanation and extra stage effects, Brook has cut the cast of the original by more than half, to only eight, with some actors doubling up on their roles. By extracting the very essence of “Hamlet”, he has succeeded in staging the tragedy in just two hours 20 minutes, less than half the length of some productions.

In his book, Brook explains his approach to Shakespeare, saying: “[He] doesn’t belong to the past. If his material is valid, it is valid now . . . [he] is a piece of coal that is inert. I could write books and deliver public lectures about where coal comes from — but I’m really interested in coal on a cold evening, when I need to be warm and I put it on the fire and it becomes itself. Then it relives its virtue.” Certainly, in this production, he strips “Hamlet” to its core, and in doing so lays bare Shakespeare’s universality. So we have a Hamlet speaking modern English, whose emotions are expressed in ways that truly resonate with our times. This story is not particular to medieval Denmark: We are drawn into a human drama that could be taking place anywhere at any time.

In the same way, some scenes remind us as much of daily news in Japan as events in a fictional castle called Elsinore. At one point, Hamlet (Adrian Lester) says in his own defense to Laertes (Rohan Siva): “I was not normal when I killed your father by accident. It was not me; the insane Hamlet made the tragedy, so I cannot make any comment about the matter.” Echoes of the recent nightmarish killings in an Osaka primary school, where the man arrested tried to avoid responsibility by claiming lunacy. Similarly, the mother-complex tragedy that unfolds on stage carries an uncanny similarity to the recent case of a young man from Hokkaido who, after the mother he idolized died, ended up stabbing an unknown girl in Tokyo — while wearing a cap shaped like a lesser panda that his mother had bought him.

Brook’s other characters might almost be ones we know in daily life. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, played by the British actress Natasha Parry, seems not so much a Queen of Denmark as an ordinary middle-aged woman who has found a lover, after having all but given up hope of having one in her life again, and is now reveling in her rekindled emotions. Her new husband Claudius, too, played here with great authority by Jeffery Kissoon, comes across as a self-doubting man, not just an ambitious beast. In the pits of his remorse, he prays to God. Indeed Brook has — to follow his own metaphor — lit the fire of Shakespeare’s coal in front of us, posing that universal human proposition: “To be or not to be.” There are times when Lester shoots such questions to the audience directly, seeming to say: “This is not a drama: This is your problem and you’re already in the story without knowing it.”

Brook’s Hamlet is full of such vital energies and is nobody’s melancholic sissy. Even when confronted with the reality of death, in the shape of Yorick’s skull, he fixes his eyes firmly on it and can even make jokes.

Every day, though not perhaps in so graphic a way, people confront this “To be or not to be” proposition as they wrestle with internal, unrelenting anxieties that are a condition of human life. So too, we see clearly, this mystery of life was writ large in the life of the confused young Hamlet.

In this superbly crafted and excellently acted production, we are reminded that the meaning of theater is more than an escape to a transient fantasy land. For creating such a real, living adaptation that so masterfully fulfills his “formless hunch,” we applaud Brook, who includes his audience right till the end, when Horatio poses the question “Who is there?” as the very last words of the play — directed straight out at the audience as all the others on stage lie dead.