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.
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.
Against this, Brook gives some scenes, especially Hamlet’s encounters with Ophelia and Horatio, a slow, intense gravity that lets the ripe language resonate to the full. And he’s cast a Hamlet, Adrian Lester, who can command nearly the full range of the character’s qualities, by turns dashing and coldly sardonic, tremulous and fierce, austerely calm and goofily discombobulated. It’s a pity not to see Lester play the whole role—what can any Hamlet do when the director’s replaced “How all occasions do inform against me” with “To be or not to be?” Except for Shantala Shivalingappa, a demure but staunch Ophelia, his colleagues are dismally below him in ability. But the real problem is that Brook has uprooted Hamlet from the organic world Shakespeare grew around him, and hasn’t supplied any other meaningful space for this newly shrunken prince.
The latest adaptation of Tom Sawyer seems to have sworn some Hippocratic oath of Broadway musicals: “First do no harm.” You know all Mark Twain-ish moral torments have been wiped out the minute you see Heidi Ettinger’s charmingly curved storybook set, disfigured by a polished-wood lump of hilltop straight from the playground of a middle-income housing project. Twain’s 1840s Missouri town is now peaceably integrated, too, and the general goodwill is topped by a romance between Judge Thatcher and Aunt Polly. Amid this sugaring, the familiar episodes—whitewash, graveyard, trial, cave, funeral—are played out, lazily but not unappealingly. The young actors, especially Jim Poulos (Huck) and Kirsten Bell (Becky), have energy and charm. Their elders, given little of note to say or do, make up as strong an acting roster as any musical ever wasted: Tom Aldredge, Jane Connell, John Dossett, Tommy Hollis, John Christopher Jones, Richard Poe, and Linda Purl. Don Schlitz’s pleasant, Nashvillean songs tend to match good music with weak lyrics or vice versa; I wish the show had given them a rawer, more “country” sound. Still, a fair number of striking moments pierce the anodyne surface, and the overall good spirit, rarely ringing false, is easy to take. The theater’s for excitement, but nice people make pleasant company.
42nd Street is Tom Sawyer‘s dark urban antithesis—or would be if there were anything dark about it. In fact, some of Gower Champion’s somber touches from the 1980 original have been quietly removed, and three added songs, staged by Randy Skinner, make the show giddier and more Hollywoodish than ever. One of them, “Keep Young and Beautiful,” an epic of female flesh complete with overhead mirror for the Busby Berkeleyan formation writhing, is the show’s high point as spectacle. The story, such as it was, gets a little lost in the inundation of glitz, and co-author Mark Bramble’s main directorial instruction seems to be, “Yell those gag lines louder.” Still, the company’s talented and likable; some of the dancing leads—Kate Levering, Michael Arnold, and the brilliantly acrobatic David Elder—are true dazzlers. You don’t have to be a tourist to enjoy it: 42nd Street is the working definition of musical comedy currently being parodied in The Producers.