The Tragedy of Hamlet

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Justin Hayford

Last week on National Public Radio I heard a film historian decrying the fact that in America film has a lower cultural value than theater. At first glance the truth of his statement seems unassailable. Live theater, even when produced with all the inhuman slickness of a Hollywood blockbuster, is generally thought to be more cultivated and edifying than a mere moviejust as literature is assumed to be better than television.

But if you want an accurate assessment of the value we ascribe to an art form, look at the way we treat its classics. Producers wouldn’t dare cut Gone With the Wind down to two and a half hours or edit out all the incidental characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If a few minutes have to come out of a movie so that it will fit into a block of television time, a stern disclaimer shows up before frame one.

Yet when it comes to Shakespeare, you’d be hard-pressed to find a production today that presents the text entirely as he wrote it. Certainly legitimate quibbles exist over the accuracy of certain passages. But those quibbles pale beside the kind of wholesale rewriting that’s become commonplace: characters disappear, dance sequences are added, and scenes are condensed, rearranged, or lopped off entirely. And such productions are routinely presented without any acknowledgment that substantial changes have been made. Essentially you can do anything you want to Shakespeare’s plays and still pass them off as Shakespeareaudiences and critics will rarely object on anything other than aesthetic grounds.

From this perspective, theater has the lowest cultural value of any art form in America. Imagine the uproar if the Lyric Opera edited La boheme down to 90 minutes. Or if Nickelodeon executives decided Fred and Ethel should no longer live next door to Lucy and Ricky.

Most of the time I shrug off the flagrant retooling of Shakespeare as an inescapable by-product of cultural dumbing down. And given the choice between two hours of ill-conceived, poorly executed Shakespeare and four hours of ill-conceived, poorly executed Shakespeare, I’ll take the former. But when Peter Brook, one of the world’s most influential and thoughtful interpreters of Shakespeare, slices The Tragedy of Hamlet to nearly half its size and still calls it The Tragedy of Hamlet, a shrug won’t suffice.

Brook has been a seminal modernizing force in Western drama for decades. Working with London’s Royal Shakespeare Company from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s and then with his own International Centre for Theatre Creations in Paris, he’s helped pioneer a radically essentialist theater freed from the massive, overarticulated stage design that had become obligatory by the middle of the century. Brook builds his productions up from nothingfrom the “empty space” described in his influential 1968 book of that name. You’ll never see a painted sunset in one of his productions; instead you’ll see an actor on a blank stage staring so intently at an imaginary sunset that its every hue becomes vivid.

In The Tragedy of Hamlet Brook exploits his trademark style to masterful effect. The huge stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is completely empty save for an expansive orange carpet, a few pillows, and a small kiosk upstage full of Eastern acoustic instruments. As the house lights dim, musician Toshi Tsuchitori takes his place with these instruments while Adrian Lester, the actor portraying Hamlet, wanders unceremoniously in and takes a seat far upstageyou might think he was an incidental character or a stagehand. With this simple, unpretentious gesture, Brook obliterates the towering wall that separates the audience from most acknowledged masterpieces. This Hamlet grows naturally out of daily life, claiming no more right to the space than all the regular folks who’ve gathered to watch it.

Then Tsuchitori begins to play something that sounds like a rain stick. Another man cautiously makes his way onstageand it’s instantly apparent that something is terribly amiss. At center stage he stops and listens for perhaps a full minute, as though waiting for some dreadful sound. Without the aid of any scenic backdrops, light cues, or special effects, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater completely disappears and Elsinore rises fully realizedand all because a man stands quietly and listens.

The man center stage is Hamlet’s faithful friend Horatio, about to receive a visitation that will lead to the complete ruin of the Danish court. The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears to him, walks silently across the stage, and exits. No spooky music. No fog machine. Horatio is instantly overwhelmed, and not only because he’s seeing an apparition. He knows the world must be out of joint if the spirit of the departed king is wandering the earth. When he tells Hamlet about the vision, the young prince, already reeling from his mother’s speedy marriage to her deceased husband’s brother, Claudius, is equally overcome. When the ghost appears to him as well, commanding him to commit a vengeful murder, it seems as though the very earth will crack and swallow Hamlet whole.

This simple, straightforward opening is about as thrilling a piece of theater as you’re likely ever to see, because the actors believe what’s happening with every bit of their imaginations. Moreover, they understand the implications of this vision to their characters. And most important, they’re able to express the momentousness of this event through 400-year-old verse.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend these first 20 minutes thinking you’ve never seen Hamlet before. Nor have I ever felt such immediacy watching Shakespeare. But then, this isn’t really Hamlet: it’s a condensed, reconstituted version. Horatio’s compatriots Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus, who also see the ghost, have been edited out. Hamlet’s “too too sullied flesh” soliloquy has been moved upit’s now his opening monologueand Ophelia’s arguments with her brother Laertes and her father, Polonius, over Hamlet’s character have been eliminated altogether, expediting the ghost’s return.

For the rest of the show’s intermissionless two and a half hours, Brook works similar magic with the sections of Hamlet he’s decided to include. But the liberties he takes are monumental. Only 12 of the play’s 25 characters are left, and Laertes doesn’t appear until almost the end, making his contempt for Hamlet spring from nowhere. Scenes have been greatly edited and rearranged; Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy has been moved to a convenient location late in the evening. Brook has even invented a line that transforms a scene. As Hamlet prepares to run a sword through Claudius’s breast in the play’s final moments, the king resigns himself to his fate with the words “This must be so”a far cry from Shakespeare’s Claudius, who clings to life shouting, “O, yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt.”

In a program note, Brook explains that he’s attempting to pare Hamlet down to its essentials, and in this he achieves a stunning success. The story he tells is clear, full, and profoundly movingeven with a lightweight Polonius and wooden Ophelia who can hardly make sense of the simplest dramatic impulse. Given the overall density of nearly every moment, it feels as though nothing were missing from this Hamlet.

Best of all, Brook has given the world an awe-inspiring Hamlet in Lester, an actor of unrivaled flexibility and intelligence. Of the dozen or so performers I’ve seen tackle the role, none has read the play a tenth so carefully. Lester’s Hamlet is driven by unpredictable, unstable motivations. After receiving the charge from his father’s ghost, he is within the space of two minutes exhilarated, despondent, wrathful, terrified, calculating, and paralyzed. And each perfectly etched shift is utterly credible.

Lester doesn’t end with such minutely detailed work either. He also crafts a towering more general portrait of a man immobilized before a morally ambiguous world. Hamlet, who cannot understand or tolerate ethical compromise, is driven nearly mad trying to find one moment of nobility in the people around him. He comes to see the world as a place where nothing good can be sustained, where no transgression can be rectified. Lester understands that the question to ask about Hamlet is not “Why doesn’t Hamlet take action?” but “Why on earth would Hamlet do anything?”

The production’s thrills leave a miserable aftertaste, however. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that one of the world’s greatest directors took the easy way out rather than grappling with the messy, demanding Hamlet Shakespeare left us. The real challenge is not to prune away the inessentials but to find a way to make every tiny fragment work. It’s especially difficult to swallow this production given Brook’s hyperbolic reverence for Shakespeare’s texts. In Evoking Shakespeare, published three years ago, he extols the playwright’s virtues in no uncertain terms, concluding with the assertion that “each line in Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infiniteif we can split it open.”

And there’s the rub. Brook leaves so much of Hamlet unexplored, so much energy untapped. Given the extraordinary power he finds in the material he’s chosen to include, I can’t help but ache to see the whole play brought fully to life. To be denied that rare chance is heartbreaking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Victor-MAXPP.