The Tragedy of Hamlet / Brook By Brook, Intimate Portrait

Arte Video £19.99

At Christmas in 2000, I had the great good fortune to queue up outside the Theatre Bouffes du Nord in Paris and secure a cushion in front of the audience to witness Adrian Lester starring in Peter Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet.

It was one of those amazing theatrical experiences where discomfort, and the tatty nature of a theatre that has seen far more affluent times, is soon forgotten for the magic on stage. Admittedly, it helps a great deal when the running time is only just over two hours rather than somewhere much closer to four.

One of the benefits of the DVD age is that many landmark theatrical productions have been recorded and are becoming available at manageable prices. In addition to a faithful recording of the Brook Hamlet, this DVD also offers a film profile of the incomparable director by his son, Simon.

This Hamlet is like no other that you have ever seen. Wherever possible, it is pared down in the classic Brook way so that he achieves the essence of the play without great fuss.

This version is little more than half the length of the original and moves scenes around with alacrity. In addition, it loses many of the peripheral characters, as well as some that are more central including Fortinbras, Yorick and the early Laertes, who only makes his initial appearance after his father's death.

Even with so much cut, there is never a feeling of excessive urgency about this production. The acting tends towards the matter-of-fact and gives the production a contemporary veneer, although the geography is somewhere far to the east of Denmark, with Polonius' family Asian and haunting Eastern music from Toshi Tsuchitori.

The set is inevitably almost bare with a square red playing space complemented by the lighting and surrounded by attractively designed screens.

The strength of this film is built upon a marvellous performance by Adrian Lester as a dreadlocked Hamlet who never even approaches madness. He may see his father's ghost and seek revenge but his sanity is rarely in question.

This is not a man to suffer fools gladly, whether his mother Gertrude (underplayed by Natasha Parry), his almost-father the ever threatening Claudius (Jeffery Kissoon) or a rather straight faced Polonius (Bruce Myers). In fact, that is a characteristic of this production as Brook (and fellow adaptor Marie-Helene Estienne) rarely looks for comedy and, indeed, has cut many of the funnier scenes.

What he achieves is a remarkable authenticity that feels completely up-to-date. This is aided by an intimacy that was apparent in the theatre and can be achieved even more dramatically on film with constant use of the close-up.

Time and again, one is brought up short with a new interpretation and understanding of the text and the feeling that every actor has followed the example of the unforgettable Adrian Lester by giving their all to create a new reality on stage.

As well as Hamlet and the veterans referred to above, Scott Handy, more recently seen playing Peter Cook in Edinburgh, is a sympathetic Horatio while the wide-eyed Shantala Shivalingappa and intense Rohan Shiva make a handsome pair of siblings as Ophelia and Laertes.

Brook rarely seeks high action until the very end when Hamlet and Laertes fight to the death in a duel made doubly dramatic by everything that has gone before.

With tremendous acting from a cast drawn from around the world, a new vision of the play and that Brook je ne sais quoi, this film should be a must for the DVD collection. While it may not be the only Hamlet to watch, it would perfectly complement Olivier, Branagh or one of the many other choices available.

The companion piece is a 70 minute view of the life of Peter Brook written and directed by his son, Simon. Despite the suggestion in the cover notes that the offering is a double DVD set, this appears on the same DVD as Hamlet.

Brook by Brook shows the director en famille with wife Natasha Parry, daughter Irina and son Simon, as well as the next generations both up and down. Arguably even more of a family to Peter Brook is the group of actors with whom he has worked for so many years. Again and again, the same faces appear whether they are acting Africa in the 1970s or rehearsing in Paris much more recently.

While much of the biographical material may be familiar, Peter Brook is never one to avoid controversy and it may surprise some when he states boldly that he prefers travelling to the theatre. Indeed, this film chases him around the world to France, England, Japan and the United States and if one includes extracts from his own films, the globe-trotting is immense.

Strangely, the most interesting moments come from different strands of his life. An attempt to discover his own roots along with brother Alexis proves fruitful, a simple actors' training game with an invisible bowl of water enlightening, but most surprising of all is his "Laughing Lady" from Vera Cruz.

This is a pre-Columbian sculpture that apparently "completely changed my idea of what acting is about". She introduced Brook to the idea of an actor as "someone who must empty himself". Depending upon your point of view, she either has a lot to answer for or helped to change and improve the face of world theatre forever.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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