Reduced Spring Classics

Is there a more intelligent and passionately committed director at work today than Peter Brook? And is there a more evasive and frustrating trickster in all world theater? Like the character of Hamlet, Brook's artistic character is a riddle with no solution. But Hamlet's character, being embodied in a poetic work, will stay until literacy itself is gone; Brook's, being as evanescent as all stage direction is by definition, will disappear, leaving behind only memories and partial records for historians to squabble over. What arcane mission drove him, they will probably ask, to turn out dietetic versions of other people's masterpieces? A striving for purity, an urge to shock, a resentment of the text's primacy, or just simple egomania? To which Time will give the same silent answer it gives to Hamlet's nagging questions.

Brook's stated intention is "to prune away the inessential" in Hamlet and find "a myth" at the play's heart. This means he begins with a fundamental misunderstanding, since Hamlet is a work of poetry, and contains nothing inessential. Granted, we're uncertain of its exact contents—this most complex of poetic texts poses notorious textual problems. We don't even know how much of the play Shakespeare actually wrote. What we do know, from the patchwork of editions that have melded over the centuries into a standard text with variants, is that Hamlet is an intricate and highly individual work, conforming less to a standard pattern than almost any other serious work in Western drama before Pirandello. Among plays that offer its degree of dramatic excitement, there's literally nothing like it.

To dig out the "myth" underlying Hamlet would be all too easy, since it's that of Orestes: the son's vengeance on his adulterous mother and her partner in crime, his father's murderer. But Shakespeare's Hamlet, a notoriously ineffectual avenger, was created to rebuke the myth. A philosophy student who wishes he could melt into dew and disappear, he has real doubts about living, let alone taking revenge, plus emotional ties to his mother that confuse him further. The Ghost warns him—though not in Brook's version—to leave her alone, but he can't help focusing on her, which links him to Oedipus as well as to Orestes.

Adrian Lester as Hamlet, with friend: Alas, poor Shakespeare!
photo: P. Victor
Adrian Lester as Hamlet, with friend: Alas, poor Shakespeare!


Adapted by Peter Brook from William Shakespeare's play
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Adapted by Ken Ludwig from Mark Twain's novel, music and lyrics by Don Schlitz
Minskoff Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street

42nd Street
By Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on Bradford Ropes's novel, songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren
Ford Center
Broadway and 42nd Street

And Hamlet himself is only the key piece at the center of Shakespeare's elaborate structure, in which almost every other piece is held up to him for comparison at some point. Young Fortinbras, the unthinking warrior whose uncle sits on the throne of neighboring Norway, is the hero of a framing story; everything Hamlet isn't, he'll profit from Hamlet's confusion. Claudius, the drama's antagonist, is explicitly equated with Hamlet: the plague of doubt runs in the family. (Claudius's dirty politics—make peace with Poland, then let the Norwegians invade—are echoed by Hamlet's lethal trick on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Most daringly, Shakespeare made Hamlet's love the center of Hamlet's subplot: Ophelia, too, doubts and hesitates, and is dominated by two parental figures. Once she's dead, Laertes catapults up into the main plot—another antagonist and still another parallel to Hamlet—to his own cost, since his poisonous trick, like Claudius's, backfires.

Laertes, dying, famously uses the same image that Polonius, in one of the many scenes Brook deletes, has previously applied to Hamlet's letters to Ophelia. Cutting Hamlet is a ticklish task because the play's substance is embedded in its twisting use of "words, words, words." Almost every significant line in the first half, like Polonius's "springes to catch woodcocks," turns up in an altered context later. The strings of linked images embroidered through the text are startlingly un-lofty. Rotting flesh and the parasites that feed on it recur most frequently. Identity is the central question: What are humans, that they should live like this and then turn into worm-food? Brook's version begins and ends with the play's opening line, "Who's there?," directed at the audience. But Shakespeare gives the line a context: It's addressed—improperly—by the guard coming on watch to the one he's relieving, who immediately rebukes him. The play concludes, not with the same abstract question, but with a grosser military misunderstanding: a royal cannon salute in memory of the un-soldierly and un-royal Hamlet.

Brook is oblivious to the play's overarching irony, just as he is to the way it lives in language. As with his previous diminution of Carmen, he's taken a work that had acquired mythic status only through its individuality and tried to turn it, reductively, into a generalization. The process worked better with Carmen, which needed to shed the excess weight acquired in a century of opera-house Schlamperei. But Hamlet's tradition, shredded over recent decades, is worm-food itself; the work no longer needs anything but sustained clarity to make it live again. Even in terms of boiling it down to its essence, Brook's focus seems uncertain. On a nearly bare square of glaring orange carpet, he runs through a set of excerpts that only dimly convey any overriding purpose. Some seem chosen to keep Hamlet's point of view central, some purely to give actors their standard showpieces. Nor is Brook, whose comic sense has always been fairly lame, above a self-conscious jokiness that deflects viewers from both play and myth. His smarmiest joke—sticking "the morn in russet mantle clad" at the very end—nearly destroys everything that precedes it.

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