Who’s There? Peter Brook’s Hamlet Leads the Way

Notes toward enjoying Peter Brook’s misunderstood new version of Hamlet , currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music:

It is a landmark production of the most hackneyed great play in history precisely because it compels us to see it with utterly fresh eyes. The fine Polish critic Jan Kott–an influence on Brook’s early work–wrote memorably about Hamlet that he’s become like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. “We know she is smiling even before we have seen the picture,” Kott wrote. “Mona Lisa’s smile has been separated from the picture, as it were.”

So Hamlet through the ages has been produced a thousand different ways, and analyzed and quoted a million more, until the mythologized Hamlet has been separated from the play. We know what to expect in advance, like Mona Lisa’s smile.

Peter Brook’s aim is to see behind the smile. It has always been the goal of all his work. He looks for the inner truth of a piece–the myth beneath the surface, an illuminating essence of things. His 90-minute version of Carmen (entitled The Tragedy of Carmen ) was a distillation of a fat popular opera. His two-and-a-half-hour version of Hamlet (entitled The Tragedy of Hamlet ) is a distillation of a vast, unruly great drama–an eternal enigma.

Yet his experimental intention has been surprisingly misunderstood and has even caused offense–as if by cutting Hamlet , Mr. Brook were sacrilegiously defacing an ancient monument. God save the theater from purists. They would bore us to death with their pedantry.

All modern productions of Hamlet –including those with “full” texts–have been cut. Historically, Shakespeare’s plays weren’t sacred. They’ve always been messed with! (The Restoration “improved” them; Garrick, who invented Bard worship for tourists in Stratford, cheerfully gutted the texts in the 18th century.) The truth is that a full version of Hamlet would run for six hours on a good day (and evening). To cut or not to cut isn’t the question.

Then why the fuss? With Shakespeare movies, practically anything goes–and we seem to be open to it. Has there ever been a more thrilling Lear than Kurosawa’s Ran ? Is there a more contemporary Hamlet than Ethan Hawke’s hip son of the murdered C.E.O. of Denmark Corporation in Michael Almereyda’s movie version?

Yet theater is still treated as a temple, and Hamlet its deity. “It is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him,” Mr. Brook wrote in an irreverent essay entitled “Forget Shakespeare.” The familiar Shakespeare baggage is heavy; the experience too dutiful. It’s a waste of time going to see the new adaptation in Brooklyn unless we’re open to the possibility of making a fresh start. If we expect to see the princely Hamlet of broody, poetic melancholy–”the Gloomy Dane”–we’re sunk.

What does Shakespeare have in common with Mel Brooks?

Both love broad knockabout comedy. The Brook adaptation is actually the first Hamlet I’ve seen that made me laugh. A handsome young kid, who’s charming and bright and blessed, pretends to be nuts. There’s method in it, but in the hands of an actor as greatly gifted as Adrian Lester, Hamlet’s tragedy can actually balance on the dangerous edge of comedy, broad or dark.

At the performance I attended, a child, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, happily got the giggles during the gravedigger’s scene. Accessibility is the name of Brook’s game–without the usual vulgarities and dumbing down. The Shakespeare production that appeals to both child and adult is the ideal.

I invariably dread the gravedigger’s scene. Desperate clowning is never a pretty sight. But here we have a refined hint of Riverdance introducing us to the inspired looniness of an Irish gravedigger dancing on graves–and the audience is convulsed with laughter. Three upright cushions represent the grave; a bamboo pole is a shovel. With two bamboo sticks for swords and two skulls as gleaming white as a toothpaste ad, they’re all the props that are needed in a theater that ignites our imagination. But the gravedigger’s scene cuts much deeper than comedy, of course. Hamlet buries Yorick’s skull, now stuck on the top of the bamboo pole like a jester’s death head. In a moment of awesome simplicity and feeling, a skeleton seems to be dying before our eyes.

This isn’t Mr. Brook’s first Hamlet . He directed his first for his parents when he was 7 or 8 years old on a toy theater with puppets. He called it ” Hamlet by P. Brook and W. Shakespeare.” I know what you’re thinking. Why puppets? He has almost never used them since. At the start of his career, he directed a traditional Hamlet with Paul Scofield in 1953. His first experimental version came with his “Theatre of Cruelty” season for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960′s. If memory isn’t playing tricks on me, I recall a large lady struggling mightily to give birth to someone called Hamlet.

In 1995, he returned to the play at his base in Paris to explore how it might have been done by such contrasting theater theorists as Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud, Meyerhold and Gordon Craig. (It was called Who Is There ?) Then came the current, elemental production with eight actors, one musician, a blood-orange carpet, a low table or two and several cushions.

The carpet is the “empty space,” or bare stage. When Peter Brook left England in the early 1970′s, having directed the now-mythical A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stratford, he began his center of theater research in the old carpet district of Paris. On the troupe’s journey through the Sahara and Central West Africa, which I joined, the little shows that were improvised in an invented language along the way were known as “Carpet Shows.” They rolled out a carpet in a village square and tried to make it a magic one. Hamlet is a sophisticated version of the Carpet Show.

When the Player King recites to Polonius “The Murder of Gonzago” in an intensely emotional language that no one knows, the speech itself comes from Mr. Brook’s earliest experiment in language and sound, invented by the poet Ted Hughes. ” Eleleu! Eleleu! Ausfakeloskai! Xoodedom! ” Ah, yes, I remember it well. Hughes’ invented language, which is meant to touch the deepest emotional chord, as music can, was created from Latin and ancient Greek as well as a 2,000-year-old dead forgotten language called Avesta. They learnt how to speak it from diagrams.

All is never as simple, then, as it seems. I was raised on Hamlet at the worst possible place, school. (“What ails Hamlet? Discuss in no more than 300 words. Use pencil only.”) Yet the achievement of the Brook production resides in its apparent, naked simplicity. The international troupe itself isn’t virtuoso or starry, though Mr. Lester’s quicksilver Hamlet naturally takes the eye. No one is at all declamatory, least of all “poetic.” The language comes naturally and freshly off the tongue. They are consummate actors, dignified and complete, going about their business like the itinerant actors in Hamlet .

But the production isn’t a compilation, a kind of edited highlights or best moments, as its critics would somehow have us believe. To the contrary, it liberates the play from even its own clichés–”Neither a borrower nor a lender be”–and at the same time it respects the language. It avoids a narrowly political interpretation, as well as the boring, the Oedipal and the merely neurotic.

This is a Hamlet about a young man who must learn to kill. Imagine that! It defies the imagination. It’s a great story, of course. But suppose you learned that your beloved father had been killed by your uncle. Suppose your mother married the uncle soon afterward. And suppose that your father’s ghost told you of the murder and swore you to take vengeance. What would you do? How would you do it?

Could you?

In the space I have left, I must tell you that when Hamlet stands with his sword over the King, who’s knelt in his prayer of penance, I actually thought, “Do it!”

I lost sight of the original story. I wanted Hamlet to kill Claudius before his time, Christian conscience or no.

Peter Brook’s new production makes clear how much, and how terribly, Hamlet’s life is stolen from him. Perhaps it is his preordained destiny or fate, a ritual played for us. The tragedy of this pleasant, educated young man with a glorious future begins when he kills in his loathing of a wormy, unjust world.

At the close, in a beautiful scene of rebirth and mystery, the dead rise with the dawn. Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes and now Hamlet–all killed, the dead newly risen.

“Who’s there?” go the haunting last words, echoing the same urgent words to the ghost of the father that open the play. “Who’s there?”

God? Some meaning, some state of grace in the chaos.

Who are we?

Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet runs through Sunday, May 6, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.