The tragedy of Horatio and Hamlet

If any director can rescue Hamlet from the routine and over-familiar it is Peter Brook. Paul Taylor saw his dazzling new production in Paris as it began its world tour and spoke to him about its powerful simplicity
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At a recent London production of Hamlet, the man sitting in front of me received a mobile phone call. "We're just coming up to the gravediggers' scene," he muttered and clicked off. It was as though he'd said, "We're just pulling into Didcot, darling, so you can pop the casserole in now." I didn't entirely object to this incident, since it exposed how often this great tragedy dwindles into a routine and over-familiar journey, with a gifted actor jumping through a series of theatrical hoops like a thoroughbred negotiating the Grand National course. Even in the better productions, you rarely experience, as you should, the sense that Hamlet is as profoundly original a figure as Christ, if rather less virtuous, and that he, too, comes to a shockingly premature end.

At a recent London production of Hamlet, the man sitting in front of me received a mobile phone call. "We're just coming up to the gravediggers' scene," he muttered and clicked off. It was as though he'd said, "We're just pulling into Didcot, darling, so you can pop the casserole in now." I didn't entirely object to this incident, since it exposed how often this great tragedy dwindles into a routine and over-familiar journey, with a gifted actor jumping through a series of theatrical hoops like a thoroughbred negotiating the Grand National course. Even in the better productions, you rarely experience, as you should, the sense that Hamlet is as profoundly original a figure as Christ, if rather less virtuous, and that he, too, comes to a shockingly premature end.

If any director can put us in touch with the living reality of this play and rescue it from the encrusted conventions of masterpiece theatre, it is Peter Brook. His new production, which will soon embark on a world tour, opened last week at the Bouffes du Nord, that wonderful peeling horseshoe-shaped vaudeville house near the Gare du Nord in Paris that is his base. It is only the second Shakespeare he has directed in English since the landmark white-box-and-trapezes Midsummer Night's Dream which he mounted in 1971, shortly before permanently decamping to France to set up his Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale. It is, therefore, an event.

But an event for which, at the first attempt, I was a good hour late, thanks to the current scandal of public transport on both sides of the Channel. It's a hefty tribute to the production that my wife and I, gibbering with frustration and by now on the point of divorce, were almost instantly elevated from the squalling pettiness of our anxieties. Partly, I suspect, this relief can be ascribed to the therapeutic power of colour. Staged with a powerfully focusing simplicity on a rectangle of blood-orange Indian cloth, the production, with its green, yellow and indigo cushions, its geometrical inset rugs and its ethnic-tinged costumes, has the visual charm of some out-of-time collaboration between Rothko and Matisse. Partly, our solace can be be put down to the haunting soundscape created by the lone musician (Toshi Tsuchitori) who does not so much underscore the action as pellucidly irrigate it with noises that range from blunt, muffled bells to the mysterious, ghostly sound (heard at the beginning and the end) of a flock of birds awakening and taking flight.

Mostly, though, the balm that descended on us derived from the elating spiritual transparency of a production which, beguilingly light on its slippered feet, takes nothing for granted but thinks and feels through every moment anew. Played by a multi-ethnic cast of eight actors, this interpretation executes feats of compression and rearrangement that may well offend the wrong kind of purist. It has been very astutely cast. For example, Adrian Lester and Scott Handy must be the only pair of actors on earth whose preparation for playing the Hamlet and Horatio's friendship includes having previously played Rosalind and Orlando - which they did with matchless playfulness and intensity in the celebrated Cheek By Jowl all-male As You Like It. In this Hamlet, the relationship between the hero and the one friend who can pierce his loneliness is given exceptional prominence.

When I talked to Brook the following day, he offered an insight into both his casting priorities as a director and the emphasis given in this account to the development of Horatio. "We try with our actors to have a rich relation between what a person is and what they are playing, so that it's not characterisation behind a lot of disguise but something very personally there". So the rapport that had already developed between these two young men - Lester, bursting with sexy radiance and glamour, yet capable of a searching, introspective stillness; the needier-looking, pale, sensitive Handy hungrily hanging on his every word - here gives the friendship in the tragedy the emotional hinterland it needs to sustain the weight Brook places on it.

For in this version, Horatio is the key player at the opening and close. He alone meets the ghost in the first scene; he alone shoulders the open question of the future at the end, when, instead of bringing on Hamlet's opposite, the military, decisive Fortinbras to mop up the mess in Denmark, Brook concludes by throwing an existential spotlight on Horatio. In a startling departure from tradition, this character closes the play with the famous dawn-noticing lines from initial battlement scene: "But look, the morn in rustle mantle clad ..." And the first fearful words in Shakespeare's play "Who's there?" circle back to become the last, philosophically questioning words in Brook's production. The difference is that, in between, Horatio has lived through the stretching events of the drama.

What is the thinking behind this and other surprising features such as the radical repositioning of the pivotal "To be or not to be" speech? As an interviewee, Brook is remarkable in seeming to concentrate on you the whole of his attention, so that you become acutely conscious of the present tense you are at that second sharing. This is in keeping with his view of dramatic art: "in the theatre, there is only one reality and that is what seems real in the performance, the moment it is happening". Hence the lightning flashes in this Hamlet between levity and gravity. In the seamless, uncluttered world Brook creates, there is no contradiction between bringing on Lester and Handy as comically Riverdancing scene-shifters and then spirit them back into character as the Prince and his sidekick in the graveyard they have just fashioned with cushions.

But this focus on the indissolubly "contemporary" experience of theatre has major implications for the way Brook has handled Hamlet. It accounts for his choice of an Indian actress (the excellent Shantala Shivalingappa) to play Ophelia, since it takes, he argues, a young woman from a modern-day traditional society to make real the idea of going insane under the pressure of paternal interference. In Shivalingappa's unnervingly calm and smiling rendering of the mad scene, Ophelia seems to have graduated to a higher stage of consciousness. It also accounts for the relocated "To be or not to be" speech which now falls much later at a more realistically suicidal juncture, after the closet scene with Natasha Parry's Gertrude and after what Brook rightly takes to be a turning point: Hamlet's murder of Polonius.

For all the hero's bluffing slapstick with the corpse, from this moment, "he's no longer the idealistic person who can condemn the lack of purity in others". Just as he had earlier forced his mother to check his pulse in order to prove his sanity, now Hamlet repeats the gesture on himself. You can hear your own heartbeat in this charged moment. Then, in a breathtaking distillation of the final stretch of the play to a succession of doomed moments (the duel with Laertes pared down to three thrillingly abstract moves), the production lays the supreme focus on Hamlet's passing on of the flame to Horatio, signalled with a piercing simplicity. In refusing to let his friend continue to support his upright dying body, Hamlet paradoxically forces Horatio to stand on his own two feet, Lester dropping to his knees in a, slow, tension-maximising movement. And even then, you sit on the edge of your seat, as the hero dies smiling and persists in appearing to be still alive until, heartbreakingly, his friend solicitously touches him and the head rocks back in a blatant show of death.

The dates for the production's visit to Britain are not yet fixed. But watch out for them: this Hamlet is not to be missed.

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