A Peter Brook production—whether it is the nine-hour epic The Mahabharata; a depiction of the dysfunction of the human brain, The Man Who; or a stripped-down adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen—is always an event to be reckoned with. Now, in his 75th year, this famous master of the theatre has mounted yet another iconoclastic work, his own streamlined version of Hamlet. It opened last fall at Brook’s own Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, quickly sold out its entire run and is now on a world tour. Brook’s signature style—the transparency, the simple staging and uncluttered setting, the impeccable color sense, the essential beauty of mise en scène—are all there. Possibly no other director in the Western world has had the nerve—or the confidence and daring—to so boldly contest commonly held theatrical views. His is an undaunted search for new meanings, for greater insights, for what lies beyond the naked eye. Never satisfied, striving to find a more refined aesthetic to express the mysteries of the human spirit, Brook is unfazed by challenges or criticisms that his unorthodox endeavors may provoke—and that extends even to pruning Shakespeare. Plainly, Peter Brook goes his own way.
Brook offered these views on his Tragedy of Hamlet in an interview conducted in Paris in December.
How did this adaptation of Hamlet come about? This is not your first effort with Hamlet, is it?
We did a play called Qui Est La?—Who Is There?, the very first line of Hamlet—that was made up of fragments of Hamlet. In doing these fragments, I got the taste for developing a concentrated version of Hamlet. A long time ago, when I was sitting in the audience of The Man Who, I looked at the set of one table and a few chairs on a very small stage. I thought, “How curious—that’s all one needs to do Hamlet.” A couple of years later, looking for raw material for a project about the influences of pioneer theatre directors, we took some scenes [from Hamlet] just for the purpose of having extracts. In doing these excerpts, I saw something fresh and strong come to the surface, just because of this pruning. And I thought that one day it would be interesting to study the play and make it into a complete concentrated form. Then I met Adrian Lester, and I asked him if he would like to be in an English version of Qui Est La? But rather than working on this, we did a condensed Hamlet.
Why did you choose Adrian Lester to play Hamlet?
I saw him play the part of Rosalind in As You Like It, and I thought he was marvelous. He is extraordinarily versatile. He came out of the Royal Academy as the most promising student and went on to do both As You Like It and Company with Sam Mendes. He has extraordinary range. He sings, he moves beautifully, he dances and he is an adorable person. I thought he was a natural for our work.
What do you say to those who find all these changes in Hamlet are something of a shock, that your vision doesn’t fit their conception?
I would say that it is good news if it’s a shock. That’s part of the aim. The reason for doing Hamlet is for people to receive it as a new experience. The first thing was to break the disastrous habit that exists with a play like Hamlet—the fact that people come to the play humming the tune, as they say on Broadway, before they enter the theatre. I’ve seen it many, many times and one can’t help listening to the words heard in one’s mind, and comparing the production before us with thousands of other versions. The first thing I had to do was cut through the enormous superstructure of prejudices and do away with the various conceptions of Hamlet. If this production broke through expectations, that is already good news.
You changed the order of the play, putting the “To be or not to be” speech in a different place, for example, and you changed the ending. Why?
Of course it is all for a very precise reason—to make you see a new play. When you see a play by Pinter, for example, the critic asks, “Why is this line there? What is the meaning of this?” It will be good for the audience—and, above all, a critical audience—to look at this Hamlet and to try to understand, from one’s own direct experience, what the order of the lines is telling us; or what, in fact, it does not tell us.
You also cut out Fortinbras. Are you not interested in any of the political aspects of the play?
I deny that that exists. In the ’60s, there was a reaction against a complacent bourgeois theatre, and the aim was to rediscover political implications in Shakespeare that had been forgotten for centuries. The idea that if you take Fortinbras out of Hamlet you lose the political dimension is just a throwback to the ’60s. If you look at the play very coolly, there is nothing in the whole story of Hamlet that links his tragedy to political questions. There is a court, and in a court, naturally, there are court plots, and there is a king who is suspicious of a potential rival. But that does not make it a political play. Coriolanus is a political play, because the protagonist is involved in choices that are political.
Why then did Shakespeare create Fortinbras?
No one can answer that. In pruning the play, I took out the Fortinbras character because to me it was not relevant to the central tragedy. Shakespeare was endlessly pragmatic, and was working for a living theatre. He did many things for the needs and taste of the times. One of the Elizabethan conventions was plot and subplot. There are plays like Lear, in which the subplot is totally integrated and is inseparable from the main plot. In Hamlet, Fortinbras is somebody you don’t see. You are told at the beginning that Hamlet’s father had a quarrel with Fortinbras’s father. It is not dramatized; it’s just told. In an Elizabethan setting, in a Shakespeare play, someone always puts the whole country back in order. The implication of the Fortinbras story is to make you feel that life goes on, which is what Shakespeare always wanted at the end of his plays. Here you have a country in a state of confusion and chaos and a strong young fellow [Fortinbras] comes into view and is put into power to straighten things up only to become a dictator. To end the play on someone not even close to the action during the whole of the play is not exactly relevant today. Instead Horatio ends our play and carries the whole meaning of the play and the future with him.
But Horatio says at the end of the play, “Who is there?”, which is the first line at the beginning of the play. One wonders what that means.
How can one define anything as simple as that line? “Who is there?” is a question. How you take that question is your business.
Okay. What was your reason for cutting out Laertes at the beginning of the play, only to bring him in near the end?
Laertes is a key figure, not in the scene where Polonius gives him advice, but in contrast to Hamlet. Here we have Hamlet, an enormously talented young man, who is not neurotic at all, but is full of energy and passion and observation and self—doubt like every human being should be. He does not rush like a madman to revenge. Instead he asks himself, “What is the meaning of all this?” Set against him is Laertes, who asks no questions: “Father killed; I kill the killer.” This demonstrates the present—day image of the cycle of revenge and violence. Laertes enters into a sordid plot and has to die knowing that he has been used. This contrast between the two characters changes the whole view that Hamlet is incapable, that he is weak, that there is something wrong with him. In fact, Hamlet is a strong, humorous, poetic, intelligent man who is trying to put his life together. Laertes is the opposite. Hamlet is the example of one who could be called a true human being. This contrast is more important than the miserable Fortinbras, who represents the good soldier needed to set the country right.
You have written with a certain disdain about people who would modernize or change Shakespeare. How do you reconcile those views with your own production?
Nothing is more disastrous today than to have false gods. And in theatre, even the text is a false god. I have written a thousand times that my goal is to try to penetrate what is behind the text, what the author was truly trying to say.
As I have said, the only way to discover Shakespeare was to forget him. Our rediscovery was the adaptation. It did not consist of adding on modern gimmicks. The first production of Hamlet in modern dress happened 50 years ago in England. Everyone was amazed. But today when one does external modernizing—fascist uniforms in the Roman plays, or playing Shakespeare in jeans and bringing motor bikes on stage—this amounts to a new cliché. Modernizing, as I see it, means making something from the past live in the present—representing. And representing demands different things in different plays. Representing A Midsummer Night’s Dream required the particular invention that went with it. It didn’t require touching one word of the text, because of all the plays of Shakespeare, the Dream is the most Mozartian, in the sense that there is perfect marriage at every moment between form and content. But actually, Shakespeare was not like Racine, who looked for that perfect union of form and content. Shakespeare’s theatre was like Dickens and Dostoyevsky, in which the form is loose and rich and in which passionate rhythms flow. Nobody has ever thought of Dostoyevsky as an example of exquisite formal structure; Dickens certainly not, because he wrote for serial publication. Dream, however, is perfect in form and content. But not Hamlet. It is not like The Marriage of Figaro, a work of absolute perfection in which every detail comes together.
So if anyone today does a cut version of Figaro, they will do less well than if they did it exactly how it stands—the form and content are one and the same thing. On the other hand, Bizet, a beautiful composer, wrote Carmen according to the needs of the Opera Comique. He took the story from Merimee, which was beautifully structured. But the Opera Comique needed a chorus, and a children’s chorus, and processions with even a horse on stage. So they put a horse on stage. All that superstructure had nothing to do with the beautiful form that was hidden and came from the original story.
Modernizing Hamlet is not bringing in gimmicks; it is digging deeply into the text to find the level where one touches the fibers that have been buried through the years, and have led people to think that the text is sacrosanct.
You wrote in one of your lectures about the metaphysical aspects of Shakespeare. Can you elaborate on that?
Shakespeare carried inside him at every moment an interrogation about every aspect of life. Shakespeare was questioning everything. The question might be: What is the level of passion in a human being? Is it better to be without passion? How far should one follow its lead, or resist it? Or the question might be: Is there a heaven or a hell, and are there invisible forces that have names like devils or spirits? Do these devils and spirits cover up something infinitely more mysterious and unknown? These questions appear in the whole of Shakespeare. One cannot approach Shakespeare without realizing that he was living through an interrogation that can only be called metaphysical. One tends to forget that Shakespeare was not only a writer, but a human being; and as a person Shakespeare carried inside him everything he wrote, so that all strands of meaning and feeling are there. If one denies the metaphysical, one is cutting out some essential part of Shakespeare.
How is this manifest on stage?
That depends entirely on the person watching it, and how he or she is feeling. It is not for me to claim anything; it is for the people who see it to respond.
Doing this play in English for a French audience must have presented a problem. How did you work on the language?
The pure sound and texture of the words carry an enormous weight of meaning. Ninety-five percent of the French viewers followed the sound, the movement and the rhythm of the language, even though they don’t speak English. The actor must be sensitive to words and appreciate the taste and sound and imagery of a word, even a simple word. Many modern actors, especially American actors, tend to speak the way that they do in everyday life. What the actor needs to work on all the time is finding the thought behind each word. When you do that, you find that there is a music in thought. When King Lear says, “Never, never, never, never”—if you try to analyze this in metric terms, you can never say it truly. Paul Scofield said it differently every single night. Every single time, it had different music. The music was the thought and feeling, so the beat was not regular. The beat is the human beat that can only be found by the actor discovering more and more deeply the true thought and feeling that comes not just from his own thinking but from the actual texture of the words themselves. In Shakespeare there is such compact thought in each line that if you take the line as a whole, it would actually be beyond the human being to think so elaborately. If you listen to the texture of the work, you can discover the sense of music and link it to meaning. It is the difference between Western music, which is all based on a predictable structure given by bars that the composer has set down, and Eastern music, which is based on an awareness of irregular rhythms: There is no regularity. When the thought and the feeling are right, the music returns; but it isn’t a music that comes from starting with the external structure.
How did you come to select costumes—in mostly gray and black?
I have always had an enormous need to have strong colors in my productions. Either we could have had a gray or black or neutral floor and very colorful figures, or the other way around. In the end, the joy of color is there in this production in the cushions and on the ground. When we started, I said I did not want contemporary clothes—that would have been a cliché. So we started with neither contemporary nor period. That’s a very fine tightrope. This is a tragedy, and we needed simple clothes so it would be impossible to say what period they represent. The actors wear no makeup, no wigs. Adrian Lester’s dreadlocks are his; we wanted his natural self in the part. We tried to make our everyday life a natural link to the part. If someone told Adrian that in playing Hamlet, a Danish prince, he should look less like a black man, that would be appalling.
How does your affiliation with the Gurdjieff teaching influence your art?
I rigorously, 100 percent, avoid ever using anything of the Work [Gurdjieff teaching]. Where the two come together within this field is in the work of Grotowski and Joe Chaikin. There are certain exercises and working principles, such as sitting in a circle, listening, doing exercises with the body, that have a natural relationship to elements in the Gurdjieff Work. But I would never ever use a method, a principle, an idea from the Work as a structure or a formula for the theatre. Obviously, no one can be involved in an inner search without increasing one’s own capacity to respond—it makes you more sensitive; it doesn’t make you better, but it does make you a little more open. I don’t sit down and do a rehearsal thinking Gurdjieff theory. Nothing would be more horrendous than calling the actors together and telling them that we are now going to have a religious experience—we are going to take this play and look for its spirituality. Can you imagine anything more terrible?
But the Gurdjieff Work is in you. Doesn’t something have to come through?
What comes through comes through. There is nothing deliberately conscious that I do to make it so.
What do you consider your most memorable achievements?
I never think about it. I never look back. I have no sense whatsoever of pride or achievements. I work, and at the same time I am very realistic and know that if things go well with the particular work I am doing, it helps to do the next thing. If you have a bad flop in the theatre, it makes it difficult to do the next thing. And if you have a success, it is indeed more pleasant for everyone.
How do you feel about your fame?
I don’t feel it. I don’t take it seriously. I don’t think it has any deep justification. Of course, I am grateful to those who have helped me. I have to earn my living so I can support my family. I have no pension. It’s a practical thing.
You have had the golden touch in your life. How do you feel about that?
I don’t think people can take credit themselves for what happens to them. It is either genetic or life’s circumstances, largely due to help or hindrance coming from other people. From what one is born with, something evolves. And gradually one looks back and sees that one has gone on a certain path. But to take credit for that and say, “I did that,” is something one can never say.
But you did direct this show, and all the other great productions. It’s quite clear that this is a Brook production—it has your signature all over it.
But I can’t take credit for that.
Who else should take credit?
There is no credit to be given. You go to a concert, and there is someone playing a piece of music that you love. It happens to be a marvelous performance. But for the pianist to go away and think that he or she must take credit for it is wrong, because at that moment where does the credit go? To the event, to the music, to the combination of circumstances? To what? One thing I do have regrets about is when an actor who works with me for the first time feels intimidated. My job is to try to dispel that. I can only do the best I can with the group of actors I have, and not make declarations. The Tragedy of Hamlet is presented as best we can so that the interested spectator can find something in it. That’s all. It is all up to what the audience sees. And feels. That’s all.
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