The traditional carpet is in place — a vibrant square of orange carved out of inky darkness — but the magic is decidedly muted in “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” renowned director Peter Brook’s distillation of the Shakespeare play, first seen at the director’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through May 6.
The nontraditional title stems from the director’s severe paring down of Shakespeare’s text — the evening clocks in at 2-1/2 hours, without intermission — but, ironically, it also points to the singular deficiency of the production. While Brook’s typically spare approach delivers the (remaining) text with incisive clarity, and all the play’s comedies and ironies are crisply punctuated, a sense of tragedy is precisely what this staging fails to communicate.
The use of rugs, carpets and pillows in the staging; the Asian percussion and string music of Toshi Tsuchitori; the studied, smooth movement and careful choreography all combine to present Shakespeare’s text as a refined, finely wrought literary ritual rather than the sprawling but potentially agonizing drama we’ve come to expect.
Brook’s cutting of the text is not necessarily the cause: The general dramatic progress of the play, its central players and their emotional relationships remain intact, although every viewer will miss a speech or two, and it would have been nice to see, for instance, what Bruce Myers, the production’s spry, impish comic treasure as both Polonius and the Gravedigger, would have done with Polonius’ most famous speech (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”). The problem is simply that the currents of feeling in the performances are too mellow or muted.
This is clearly somewhat intentional, a concerted effort to avoid bombastic excess and lyrical indulgence for its own sake. Emotional restraint and intellectual focus are the keynotes of the production and of British actor Adrian Lester’s performance in the title role.
His is a stern, quietly smoldering, thoughtful, potently sarcastic Hamlet, a man who is primarily motivated by the urgings of his intelligence. The great soliloquies are not the outpourings of a harassed, tormented soul longing to escape from the agonies of the flesh into the abstract realm of words; they’re carefully reasoned discourses, replete with straightforward visual aids (for “What a piece of work is a man,” he tosses off his shirt).
In accordance with this supremely rational view of a somewhat irrational character, the text has been rearranged so that Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost precedes his first anguished piece of introspection — “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt.” “To be or not to be” is moved further back in the action, after the killing of Polonius, when death is already on the march, not merely haunting Hamlet’s fevered brain.
Lester has a natural, sly charisma and a playful sense of comedy. He speaks the verse with casual ease that shows a strong, focused intelligence at work. But the performance lacks a certain sense of progression; in the last act, at the graveyard, we should discover a character who has at last come to terms with the terrible matters of life and death that have been wreaking havoc on his heart.
Lester’s somewhat overplayed playfulness in this scene — animating the famous skull of Yorick as he converses with it — might be more striking if it were in contrast with something else, but it’s really just an extension of his previous attitudes. Throughout the play, his Hamlet is a man ready with a joke and suspicious of emotional excess.
The other performances are in the same key as Lester’s. Natasha Parry, as Gertrude, is similarly eloquent and thoughtful, and similarly reserved; their emotionally violent encounter, culminating in Polonius’ death, is decidedly unclimactic. Jeffrey Kissoon, who also plays the ghost, delivers Claudius’ prayer speech with a nice ear for the verse, but his is hardly a man being violently gnawed by guilt and self-contempt. It’s telling that the most satisfactory performance is that of Myers in two essentially comic roles, Polonius and the Gravedigger, the latter with a hint of an Irish accent and a pole he uses to vault in and out of the grave, cleverly suggested by a mere trio of pillows.
Brook’s final image is strange and arresting: Fortinbras is among the casualties of the cuts, of course, and after Horatio has eulogized his prince, sending him off with flights of angels, he repeats some verse plucked from the production’s opening scene: “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” All the dead strewn across the stage (Ophelia and Polonius, too) arise and appear to hail the sun; it’s a lovely image, but it fails to touch us the way it could in another staging. The production having communicated to us so little of the anguish of death — or indeed of life — it’s hard to be moved by an image of resurrection.