Also see Jonathan's recent reviews of Art and Saturday Night Fever
Last night I witnessed the fusion of two of the most profound forces on theater; Peter Brook's adaptation/direction of Hamlet. There is no denying that William Shakespeare's masterpiece, Hamlet, is one of the greatest works ever written. Nor can I think of any director, nay any individual outside of Shakespeare, who has had more of an impact on theater than Peter Brook. Widely regarded as the Zen Master of theater, Peter Brook is famous for successfully utilizing the experimental philosophies of Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, and Antonin Artaud in a manner which not only achieved critical and scholarly success, but managed to be accessible to a widespread audience as well. His 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was highly influential in taking Shakespeare out of the dusty regions of 'classical' theater and into fresh, modern sensibilities. His classic book, The Empty Space, revolutionized theatrical philosophy and is still regarded as a Bible for dramatic theory, and you would be hard pressed to find a theater on any level that has not been influenced by him in some manner. Thus, his production of Hamlet is one of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the season. Having its American Premiere take place in Seattle is quite the local coup, and brought together four of Seattle's professional theaters, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre and The Empty Space Theatre to join forces in presenting Hamlet at the Mercer Arena in Seattle Center.
And what is on stage is most definitely a Peter Brook's production, bearing many of the hallmarks that have become synonymous with his works. The show is presented in a space which is not technically a theater, the Mercer Arena. Although it is temporarily housing the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet while their space gets a major makeover, the Mercer Arena is used more for concerts and sporting events than as a house for the arts. (This does present a serious problem in regards to comfort, as the minimally padded folding chairs are crammed too closely together for one to sit comfortably for the two and a half-hour running time.) The cast of eight is multiracial and international. The set is practically nonexistent, consisting of a few cushions and carpets. The lighting is stark and maintained at the same level throughout the show. There is little to no 'fourth wall' in the show's presentation, giving the audience, which surrounds the playing space on three sides, an intimate feel of the goings on (indeed: the $10 rush patrons are seated on cushions mere inches from the actors, resulting in an occasional beaning by an errant paper ball, a carpet or bouncing skull). Most importantly, the script has been paired down and adapted by Peter Brooks to within an inch of its life. When produced in its entirety, an event that rarely happens, Hamlet runs between four and a half to five hours in length and contains a minimum of twenty characters. Peter Brooks has distilled the epic play down to what he feels is its essential state: eight actors playing thirteen characters over an intermissionless two and a half hours. He has further tweaked the play to suit his own devises by heavily restructuring it. Lines are reassigned amongst the characters and soliloquies, including the most famous monologue of all times (hint: it starts with "to be or not to be") have been shuffled throughout the show.
Overall, Peter Brooks has done an incredible job in adapting Hamlet and his distillation of the show has streamlined it and made it more accessible and understandable. The play now focuses solely on Hamlet and his desire for revenge, which has its pluses and minuses. While removing extraneous characters and situations may make it more palatable for modern audiences and may serve to tighten some of the rambling aspects of the show, key elements are lost and a prior association with the show is almost essential to completely understand the goings on. My biggest complaint is that by completely removing all traces of the political tensions between Norway and Denmark, the underlying aura of paranoia and nervousness has been obliterated. As a result, some actions and reactions lose their dramatic thrust and in turn become confusing. (Case in point: without the backdrop of a war to justify hasty decisions, the fact that Hamlet was not crowned king after his father's death is a puzzling mystery). It also serves to render Hamlet solely a revenge drama (my chief objection to the Mel Gibson film adaptation) the effect of which is akin to only playing the trumpet part of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: it may sound exciting, but the overall piece lacks depth compared to what was written. Also, I feel that the play was distilled a bit too far, especially in regards to the Polonius/Laertes/Ophelia throughline. By narrowing the focus so intently on Hamlet's revenge of his father's murder, his relationship with Ophelia never gelled, the parallel story of Laertes' quest for vengeance got glossed over, and one got the feeling that both characters would have been removed if they did not provide a necessary role in the denouement of the play.
But this is admittedly highly critical picking of nits by one who has spent a great deal of time studying and immersed in Shakespeare's works and has his own hardened views as to how they should be performed. Overall, there is no arguing that this is an incredible piece of theater. The direction is seamless and so organic that it is impossible to tell what moments came from the director and what was inspired by the actors. Toshi Tsuchitori was incredible as the one-man music library, providing underscoring and sound effects which never overwhelmed the action and added subtle commentary to the proceedings. The majority of the actors were adept making the language and the events fresh and modern in sensibility, while retaining the heightened language that is Shakespearean verse. Scott Handy (Horatio), Jeffery Kissoon (Claudius/The Ghost), Natasha Parry (Gertrude), Maseeruddin Shah (Rosencrantz/First Player) and Rohan Siva (Guildenstern/Second Player/Laertes) provided solid support and excellent performances. Bruce Myers was the standout of the secondary character actors, and he was equally adept at portraying the subtle comedy of Polonius (making me wish Peter Brooks had let him retain the famous 'advice' speech) as he was playing the broad comedy of the pole-vaulting Grave Digger.
Of course, the majority of the play, especially in this paired down version, is centered around the titular character, Hamlet, and the show is nothing without an actor who can pull off one of the most demanding roles ever written. Here, Hamlet truly shines and provides the one element of the production that is worth the price of admission; indeed, I would venture to say that it would be cheap at twice the price. Adrian Lester, who may be familiar from his appearances in the films Primary Colors and Love's Labour's Lost, or for his acclaimed stage performances in Company (Olivier Award Winner), Sweeney Todd, As You Like It and Six Degrees of Separation in London, is simply astounding as Hamlet and gives what may have been the finest performance I have ever seen on stage. His Hamlet is feral, calculating, conflicted, funny, intelligent, passionate, and above all real. There is no whining or wallowing in self pity, nor is he colored with any shade of madness save the ones he chooses to apply to fool his enemies. Adrian's performance is so incredibly grounded and honest that it felt like the first time I had ever seen the part performed. Personally, I would not at all be surprised if Adrian Lester became one of the top actors of this millennium and his performance is not to be missed.
Hamlet runs through April 19th before continuing on to New York, Chicago, Vienna, Tokyo, Kyoto and hopefully London. Tickets range from $65 - $75, but thirty $20 tickets are available on a first-come, first-served, day of the show basis. $10 pillow seats, $20 rush tickets and $20 standby tickets are available a half-hour before the show. For more information visit www.hamletinseattle.org