31 Adrian Lester

Hamlet played by Adrian Lester.
Directed by Peter Brook.

Sometimes when I sit down to record my impressions of these productions, I feel as though its my duty to give them good record because often there isn’t another record at least not one as detailed as I attempt. On this occasions, I’m trumped by Michael Billington of The Guardian, whose 2000 review of the original production at the Bouffes du Nord covers all of the main points and offers few things that I could disagree with so if you’re particularly interested I must direct you there. This isn’t a cop out, I don’t think. Just seems silly to repeat the work of a master, especially when he also includes such good historical context.

This is a very sombre Hamlet. Lester delivers much of his dialogue with a bitter lilt right from the off, his apparent madness minutely modulated to the extent that his familiars notice but we can’t always. What few moments of levity Shakespeare has injected are coldly rendered, the fishmonger becoming a genuine attempt by Bruce Myers’s intellectual Polonius to see inside the prince’s skull. Even when the Gravedigger incongruously sings The Belle of Belfast City, the moment is flooded with irony because Myers is doubling the part, effectively digging his own daughter’s grave having just dug his own.

I agree with Billington that the reason we accept the lack of political context is because unlike other productions what we’re seeing is Brook’s adaptation of the text rather than omission for duration's sake. He’s experimenting, offering a kind of improvisational jazz version of Shakespeare, showing how by moving the speeches or scenes about a whole new set motives and reactions can develop. Certainly with its three available texts and various placements for its most famous speech anyway, the play is perhaps the most malleable and indeed Brook shunts it as late as possible making us wait for the release.

One of the dangers with this approach is to demonstrate how well thought through the original structure is. Like Welles, Brook cuts Laertes completely from the first half of the play and the first inkling we have that Ophelia has a sibling is when he comes thundering in later from who knows where like the tragedy equivalent of a deus ex machina, to bring about the hero’s destruction rather than the usual reverse. When he’s confronted with the tragedy of his sister’s condition, I’m not sure we’re empathising with him, no matter how good Rohan Siva’s performance is because we’ve not seen them together earlier.

Yet over and over Brook surprises.  During the first emergence of the players, Hamlet’s idol’s monologue is offered in full. In Japanese. Which means that for once we really are concentrating on the performance, swept up in the breadth of emotion that Hamlet later envies so that when Lester later cries himself at the thought it’s devastating, particularly given the calculating stoicism he expresses elsewhere.  The Mousetrap later becomes unplugged Noh Theatre and though the speech is recognisably Shakespearean, the shadow of Kurasowa is still evident, as Jeffery Kissoon's often quite broad performance as the King finds a natural home.

Billington’s review is also especially helpful in pointing to some of the difference between the original production and the television presentation I’ve just enjoyed. He mentions a two and half hour duration without interval – BBC Four offered up about two hours ten in 2001, which even accepting edits for scenes changes still leaves a bit of room for omission. Is this where Yorrick and much of the rest of the Gravedigger scene, the spirit of which now remain in Hamlet’s utilisation of two skulls to represent the fate of “his excellent good friends”?

He also notes that the version he saw ended on Horatio and the question “Who’s there?” which on tv was also entirely absent, closing instead on the poignant image of the prince dying with his eyes open after whispering his final epitaph, “The rest is silence”. The former does perhaps speaks more the theatrical experience, directed as it often seems to be to the audience as much as the relief guards. The television production makes full use of the close-up and teasing out in this case the strength of Adrian Lester’s central performance that we can see the lights in his eyes extinguish.

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