Peter Brook’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet” is a radically edited, radically multiracial version of the Shakespeare original. Brook, who scored a great hit 20 years ago with a streamlined version of Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” has now pared the Bard’s most celebrated tragedy down to one act and 2-1/2 hours. He has eliminated more than a third of the original text and two-thirds of the roles, dispensed with scenery and made do with very sober costuming. Finely acted, the result (in English with French surtitles) confirms Brook’s ability to conjure powerful illusion with deliberately modest means.
Within the spartan, in-the-round setting of the Bouffes du Nord — no raised stage, no seats in what used to be the auditorium and no fresh paint anywhere for decades — Hamlet’s tragedy is played out on a large square of orange cloth, dotted with cushions serving as props and occasionally as seating for actors resting from their scenes. The absence of scenery and indeed ordinary chairs means that much of this Hamlet is played crouching or lying down. Seated behind a barrage of gongs and drums and blowing into a variety of pipes and conch shells, meanwhile, Toshi Tsuchitori provides warbling and tinkling atmospheric music throughout.
Out go the drafty battlements and guards: Brook launches into his Hamlet some 120 lines in, with an immediate confrontation between Horatio and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Marcellus, Horatio’s friend in the original play, has been cut out, as has the farewell of Laertes (a weakness that reduces Laertes to a walk-on and makes him difficult to identify when he does appear). “To be or not to be” comes after Polonius’ murder, where Brook thought it made more sense.
Dreadlocked Adrian Lester, one of Britain’s leading black actors, provides a Hamlet of tremendous intellectual speed and sensual presence, to which Scott Handy’s Horatio proves an attentive and sensitive foil. Lester’s Hamlet is often grumpy, too, arriving in one early scene growling like a dog and literally foaming at the mouth (an over-the-top trick).
A weakness of Lester’s performance is the lack of feeling he expresses for Ophelia. His prince appears to derive some dull pleasure from humiliating her, without seeming to love or desire her. While exceedingly pretty, the statuesque Shantala Shivalingappa never gives the impression that she cares much about her boorish fiance, either, and is not much more lyrical when insane. It takes Gertrude’s “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,” delivered in true RSC style, with aristocratic and matronly resonance by Natasha Parry (formidable throughout), to get the tear ducts prickling.
Never particularly haunted or haunting as the ghost, Jeffrey Kissoon does not deliver depths of guilt and torment as Hamlet’s stepfather, either. Bruce Myers is a splendidly irritating Polonius, never excessively batty and never played cheaply for laughs; he holds a rug in front of himself to indicate he is behind the fateful arras.
Three cushions, propped up, serve to represent the freshly dug grave, and Yorick’s obviously plastic skull is propped on a staff to bow and converse with Hamlet — all characteristically clever pieces of Brook minimalism, of which this production is full.