The Tragedy of Hamlet. Directed by Peter Brook at the Mercer Arena, Seattle, 6th-19th April, 2001.
Joseph Tate
University of Washington

Tate, Joseph. "Review of The Tragedy of Hamlet." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 18.1-9 <URL:

Adapted and directed by Peter Brook; artistic collaboration by Marie-Hélène Estienne; costumes and sets by Chloé Obolensky; lighting by Philippe Vialatte; music by Toshi Tsuchitori; technical director, Philippe Mulon; stage manager, Jean-Paul Ouvrard. Presented by the Seattle Center in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre, and The Empty Space Theatre. Co-produced by C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Wiener Festwochen, and Festival d'Automne à Paris. At the Mercer Arena, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle, Washington. With: Adrian Lester (Hamlet), Scott Handy (Horatio), Jeffery Kissoon (Claudius and the Ghost), Bruce Myers (Polonius and the Gravedigger), Natasha Parry (Gertrude), Naseeruddin Shah (Rosencrantz and First Player), Shantala Shivalingappa (Ophelia) and Rohan Siva (Guildenstern, Second Player and Laertes).

  1. Originally built in 1927 for ice shows and horse events, the Mercer Arena in Seattle, Washington was an unlikely candidate to host the North American debut of Peter Brook's Hamlet from April 6th to the 19th. The unremarkable, empty, warehouse-like space, typically illuminated by metal halide lighting (the same used for aquariums and gas station awnings), measures 80' by 200' by 40' high, holds nearly 6000 people at maximum capacity and on any given day hosts events ranging from high school basketball tournaments and university commencements to opera and rock bands.

  2. Although the web site advertises that "The slightly smaller setting can provide a more intimate view of your favorite performers," for Brook's production, an even more intimate temporary theatre was erected at one end of the concrete-floored arena. The structure was an intimidating, two-storied black curtained cube that housed what one Seattle reviewer called "steep banks of tightly spaced, straight-backed seats with no armrests" (Berson). More specifically, 800 folding metal chairs were arranged on three sides of a ground-level staging area demarcated by a large bright orange rug adorned sparsely with pillows and other characteristically minimalist objets trouvés. Entering the arena to find this towering dark mass was mildly disconcerting. After being led single-file across what felt like a policed airport runway, spectators were then, depending on their seats, either directed up a set of precarious make-shift stairs or around one side to the ground-floor entrance.

  3. I begin with a description of the theatre as, in all its eccentricities, it provides an appropriate metaphor for the Seattle incarnation of Brook's production: dated, contained and dark. The production was surprisingly traditional given Brook's reputation for ground-breaking work. It was a familiar Hamlet with occasionally novel yet brilliantly subtle emphases likely derived from Brook's 1995 French-language adaptation of Hamlet, Qui Est Là? or Who's There?. Brook's extensive and much critiqued editorial work in this production shifted the placement of some key scenes and distilled the textually problematic play into an uninterrupted, tightly constrained stream of 2 hours and 30 minutes with predictable, if lamented, excisions: any hint of Fortinbras was removed, both Reynaldo and Osric were absent and the role of Laertes was significantly reduced. Slicing the play down to manageable size is nothing new, and it is especially in keeping with Brook's longstanding practice of "pruning-away" (Counsell 147) what he sees as a play's inessential elements. The inessentials in this Hamlet were any elements that failed to foreground what Ernst Jones called Hamlet's "tortured conscience" (57).

  4. I evoke the psychoanalytic ghost of Jones for a reason: Brook's Hamlet is a newer, more lithe version of the psychological roller-coaster ride audiences have ridden before. From the moment Adrian Lester's Hamlet entered the staging area, I could not shake Olivier's famous dictum from 1948: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Lester's Hamlet, however, was defined more by moments of clever precision and endearingly humorous detachment than the iron grip of a questionable madness. Throughout, I agreed with Polonius's prognosis that there was method to his madness. Admittedly, what made Lester's Hamlet so likeable to me discomfited other reviewers. As Ben Brantley, a New York Times reviewer, noted, Lester "is often enchanting but seldom emotionally Gripping. When this Hamlet feigns madness he exudes a distancing superiority that implicitly asks, 'Can you believe these bozos are falling for this?'" (Brantley). Lester's Hamlet even led one Seattle reviewer to call the production "dull" (Fetzer). However, far from being dull, Brook's version was quickly paced and distinct in focus.

  5. In this production Hamlet's famous indecision was given the spotlight, but Brook also redirected attention to moments of Hamlet's lucidity and thus belied the prince's darker psychological tensions. For example, in Act Three, at the peak of his fury, Hamlet forces his mother to compare "The counterfeit presentment of two brothers" (3.4.55); that is, his father and uncle. Hamlet senior boasts "Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself" (3.4.57)--a comparison young Hamlet has made before, "So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr"(1.2.139-140)--while Claudius is figured as a "mildewed ear" of grain, blighting an otherwise perfect royal landscape. The differences between the brothers are meant to be painfully obvious; witness Hamlet's indignant interrogation of Gertrude:

    Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
    And batten on this moor? Ha? Have you eyes?
    You cannot call it love; for at your age
    The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble,
    And waits upon the judgement; and what judgement
    Would step from this to this? (3.4.67-72)

    Typically, in both stage and film productions, audience members at this moment side with Hamlet, whose clashing descriptions are most often visually evinced by casting choices.

  6. This was not the case in Brook's adaptation. The elder Hamlet and Claudius were played by the same actor, Jeffrey Kissoon, and the only elements used to distinguish the Ghost were a long, dark engulfing robe and a shift down in vocal pitch. The ghost was not "Armed at all points exactly, cap-à-pie" (1.2.200), announced by special effects, or plastered with grisly make-up. The doubling of roles in this way foregrounded the fact that the elder Hamlet and Claudius were brothers, and as brothers they might very well have shared physical characteristics, if not evident personality traits. When we, along with a puzzled, even slightly stoic, Gertrude played by Natasha Parry, were asked to hierarchize our affections, the choice was unclear. Instead, Hamlet's comparison was plagued by his own words from an earlier exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "there is nothing," the prince had claimed, "either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (2.2.250-51). If there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, then how, the production asked, could Claudius be unequivocally evil?

  7. Overall, it felt as if we were not watching the play develop through Hamlet's eyes, but through the eyes of Brook, who has written that, "Hamlet is only interesting because he is not like anyone else, he is unique" (10). While Hamlet's uniqueness may be Brook's intention, the ultimate result was far from unique. Conceived and shaped at Mr. Brook's International Center of Theater Research in Paris, this Hamlet bears many classic Brook hallmarks: an ethnically mixed ensemble; the mood-defining punctuation of Eastern music (composed and performed by Toshi Tsuchitori) and a jaunty emphasis on actorly inventiveness and flexibility (Brantley).

  8. Under Brook's direction, Lester's excellence was unparalleled, something that became both a strength and weakness. As one local reviewer accurately noted, Lester's "carte blanche virtuosity is such that others in the show tend to pale in comparison" (Wiecking). The cast, dressed in varying shades of black and white, never came close to Lester's gymnastic style. Scott Handy's Horatio was straight-backed and overly formal in delivery. Bruce Myers filled the stage with his wide, mischievous smile as Polonius and wowed the audience with a jaunty dance and jauntier attitude as the Gravedigger. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Naseeruddin Shah and Rohan Siva respectively, were boring; and the production's biggest disappointment was Shantala Shivalingappa's Ophelia, who was played stilted and sterile with a radiant white gown to match. Shah's performance as the first player was solemnly powerful; his delivery of the first player's speech in an approximation of ancient Greek was one of the production's most memorable moments. Siva's Laertes, however, was decidedly impotent and provided a poor contrast for Lester's Hamlet.

  9. Despite its shortcomings, this was perhaps the finest production of Hamlet I have seen. Brook's directoral decisions and Lester's inimitable acting gave the character of Hamlet a sincerity that few productions have achieved. Perhaps the most ingenious and affecting moment of the production came during Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull. Lester's hands sophisticatedly animated the inarticulate object, making light of the unusual conversation piece by subtly transforming Yorick into a deadpan comedic sidekick with elementary puppetry. But, as the production so often reminded us, nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so: like the production itself, Yorick in the hands of Brook and Lester was a genuine, but temporary, comic relief that ultimately remained sobering. Brook and Lester breathed unmistakable personality and life into an object whose ending we finally mourned as they relinquished it.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)