Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry in Hamlet(Photo: Pascal Victor)
Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry in Hamlet
(Photo: Pascal Victor)
Whenever I see a script with which a director has taken liberties, I think of James M. Cain's reply when he was asked about his feelings towards what Hollywood had done to his books. "Hollywood hasn't done anything to my books," he retorted. "There they are, up on the shelf."

To an important degree, it's impossible for a director feeling suddenly experimental to do anything irreparable to a play like William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Many stagers have had their way with it, of course; Peter Brook, who's been distilling classics for some time now, is only one of the latest. (Brook has staged Hamlet twice before, once in a traditional production for the Royal Shakespeare Company.) Come to think of it, why should Brook--or any director, for that matter--hesitate about fiddling with the Bard's text? After all, when Shakespeare quilled this manuscript, he was only (as was so often the case with him) passing along his version of an established story.

Brook's redaction, which has just finished a short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is Brook-like; that is to say, it features some of his by now almost traditional notions about spare stage appointments. But it is also very much of the moment. In stripping away characters and plot points (most notably, the complicated and threatening military situation at Elsinore), Brook has turned Shakespeare's classic tragedy into that oh-so-trendy contemporary theater piece: a dysfunctional family drama. Yes, Hamlet has always been about a family in extremis--two families, actually, with Polonius' apparently motherless ménage being the second. But, as Shakespeare set it out, the royal family operated in the midst of a busy court where pomp and circumstance were the order of the day, month, and year.

That's not the way Brook sees it. The "lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, sailors, messengers, and other attendants" that my fairly standard text calls for are simply clutter, to Brook's current way of thinking; they add nothing to the play's essential dynamics. The only figures crucial to bring onto the square red carpet that the director designates as his all-purpose playing area are Hamlet, the elder Hamlet's ghost, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the traveling players, and the grave digger--all of them portrayed by eight actors. As Ethel Barrymore remarked at the end of her vehicle Sunday, "That's all there is, there isn't anymore."

Brook's approach does yield a fresh insight that makes Shakespeare's work eminently worth seeing. You'd think it impossible to put Hamlet any more in the middle of things than he already is, given that the role is sometimes called the longest and greatest in dramatic literature. But, in this back-to-basics version of the play, there are fewer blokes around to distract attention from him. For instance: In the opening scenes, when the ghost of Hamlet's late father is demanding attention, Horatio, Marcellus, Bernardo, and Francisco are usually present and trembling. Brook, however, uses only Horatio for Hamlet to play against.

And so it goes throughout. As Brook edits things, Hamlet is utterly in charge of the proceedings--all the more so because the role is acted masterfully by Adrian Lester. A nimble and forceful performer whose first Shakespeare outing here was as Rosalind in As You Like It, Lester gives the Denmark prince an uncommon authority. He and Brook have evidently concluded that Hamlet is not, as he is often depicted, uncertain, tentative, or slow to take action. Nor is he mad. Quite the contrary: He's determined to sniff out what he knows to be rotten in his homeland, and will do so in whatever way he deems practical. If feigning madness is the way to go, then mad he will be. He will gull Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he will frighten Ophelia. When they leave him, he'll immediately snap right out of it.

Lester's Hamlet is angry at his mother and his new stepfather but, more importantly, he's angry at himself. And so, when soliloquizing, he will interrupt a thought to berate himself. He's also extraordinarily funny--well, Shakespeare wrote him that way--and Lester has the quick wit needed to talk rings around his intellectual inferiors in the inbred Danish enclave. There's a spontaneity to the lean, lanky Lester; when he does a cartwheel to show how exuberance occasionally overtakes Hamlet, the athletic turn seems thoroughly spur-of-the-moment.

There is, it should be mentioned, a drawback to the interpretation on which Lester and Brook have conspired. If Hamlet is not mentally imbalanced in the least, then he is fully responsible for the results of his actions. Therefore, when he explains to Laertes that he wasn't himself in dealing so peremptorily with the ill-fated Ophelia, he can only be dissembling. Furthermore, a sane Hamlet means that the tragedy unfolded is not that of a young man overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control, but that of a young man whose revenge-seeking is ultimately not effective enough. This Hamlet seems not to be suffering from a tragic flaw, but a strategic one.

The company of Peter Brook's Hamlet(Photo: Pascal Victor)
The company of Peter Brook's Hamlet
(Photo: Pascal Victor)
Also, while it's the rare play that doesn't benefit from some cutting, the hacking away of what Brook (with artistic collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne) apparently considers fustian is excessive. While it isn't damaging to shift Hamlet's soliloquies, it doesn't necessarily seem helpful to cut them off in mid-flight, as has been done to the "To be or not to be" aria. Trims have also left Claudius (Jeffery Kissoon), Gertrude (Natasha Parry), and Ophelia (Shantala Shivalingappa) bereft of delineating poetry. Polonius, despite having his famously grandiose advice "To thine own self be true" ripped away, remains as colorful and bumbling as ever, which is a testament to Bruce Myers' wily and uncommonly energetic performance. When Polonius is stabbed behind the arras, however, and Gertrude isn't troubled, that's Parry's fault. She makes Gertrude curiously detached from her surroundings; it's as if Hamlet has merely swatted a pesky fly in her presence. By the way, Scott Handy is an especially kind and considerate Horatio, who actually is given more to do than he normally gets.

The simple costumes with a generic, period feel to them are by Chloe Obolensky, who also provided (as the program notes) the "set elements." There aren't many of those--a few pillows, a few hassocks on wheels. The lighting is Philippe Vialatte's. And the turbulent music, played on various drums and odd wind instruments at many significant moments, is by Toshi Tsuchitori.

In our age of speed and expedience, Brook's interpretation seems to have something in common with online instant messaging. For good or ill, it is the theatrical equivalent of typing "2 b or not 2 b?"