The strongest argument in favor of Peter Brook’s “Hamlet,” seen recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, may well be John Caird’s “Hamlet,” now stopping at the same venue for a brief run at the end of a national tour.
Brook’s version pared the text down to a smart, streamlined and thoroughly dry 2-1/2 hours. Caird’s “Hamlet,” for London’s Royal National Theater, is an hour longer but rarely more emotionally engaging. Life is short, even if “Hamlet” isn’t, and I’d rather be unmoved for 2-1/2 hours than 3-1/2 hours, thank you very much.
Caird’s production seems to be taking place in some dusty, disused chamber of a massive cathedral. Paul Pyant’s crepuscular lighting, the most distinguished element of the design, streams in from the wings as from high gothic windows. Choir practice is clearly mandatory here, and takes place at all hours: The sound of Latin chants drones on monotonously throughout the evening, adding to the somber, churchy atmosphere. At one point the hanging candelabras descend and swing like censers.
Designer Tim Hatley also supplied the dark-hued costumes; in this atmosphere, one might easily mistake Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet, a bit on the zaftig side and clad in floor-length black, for a benevolent friar. He’s first seen kneeling in thoughtful, consciously still repose, and in fact the most striking — and touching — aspect of Beale’s Hamlet is his naturally and nobly pacific nature. He has an acid-laced tongue, to be sure, and Beale’s impish line delivery sometimes borders colorfully on tart bitchiness, but this Hamlet’s nature seems profoundly antithetical to bloody action.
Caird points up the character’s reluctance to take revenge for his father’s murder by supplying more than one occasion on which Hamlet sheathes a sword poised to dispatch Claudius. Like Adrian Lester’s Hamlet in the Brook production, Beale’s Hamlet is a meticulously wrought and thoughtful man who scarcely raises his voice above a mild wail. As Hamlet reasons himself out of revenge, and takes us with him, the play becomes an eloquent argument against capital punishment.
But can a Hamlet of such unquestioning gentleness and prosaic human dimensions sustain the philosophical and dramatic weight of this extraordinary play? Possibly, in a production that surrounded Beale’s Hamlet with similarly sensitive actors. But with Brook’s “Hamlet” fresh in the mind, many theatergoers attending this production may find themselves consciously ticking off the extraneous patches in the text. And sadly, the rote playing of much of the rest of the cast (can it be fatigue after a long tour?) makes half the characters seem extraneous, too.
Caird’s interpretation, like Brook’s, is said to focus on the family tragedy of the play, pointing up the humanity of all the characters, but there aren’t many dimensions to Peter McEnery’s dry Claudius or Sara Kestelman’s Gertrude, whose solicitousness for her son’s anguish seems rather perfunctory in the early scenes. A spiritual connection to Hamlet is lacking in Cathryn Bradshaw’s Ophelia, too. Peter Blythe’s priggish Polonius is fairly colorless, but his gravedigger has more flavor.
For all the discrepancies in terms of textual fidelity (though both dispense with Fortinbras), Caird’s and Brook’s productions are, in the end, similarly lacking in affective breadth. Brook’s played like a vaguely Eastern ritual, to which one paid the requisite reverent attention without actually caring one whit whether the principal players lived or died. Caird’s staging also has a ritualistic flavor, albeit a Western European one; watching it is like attending several Catholic masses in a row.