Small, wrinkly and internationally venerated, the theatre guru Peter Brook unexpectedly materialised on stage at the Young Vic this week. The septuagenarian Paris-based director was acting as a prologue to his new, world-touring and radically filleted version of Hamlet. This is his first Shakespeare in English since 1978 and features the young British star Adrian Lester playing the Prince in a racially-mixed ensemble of just eight actors.
Brook, sounding slightly frail though sporting the denim jeans of eternal youth, seemed to be delivering an apology. With blue eyes mildly smiling under his halo of white hair, he explained we were to witness the cast's first dress rehearsal after a long trip and concluded: "We ask you, dear friends, your indulgence for all our faults".
One might wonder why the national critics – rarely hailed as dear friends by thespians – had been specially invited to attend this performance instead of the official press night the following evening. I do hope we weren't expected to turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the uncomfortable fact that some of Brooks' company patently aren't sure-footed Shakespearean verse-speakers. Yoshi Oida's Rosencrantz is almost surreally incomprehensible. As the jilted Ophelia, dancer-turned-actress Shantala Shivalingappa has a sweet and noble mien but no truly articulated pain.
It's time to stop expecting awesome work of Brook. He has been built up in past decades – through groundbreaking days at the proto-RSC and exploratory work in Africa and Iran – into the theatre world's equivalent of the Dalai Lama. Now, it would be more reasonable to view him as a veteran experimenter who continues to test out the possibilities of multicultural theatre in search of the bare essentials. Survey his take on Hamlet in this light and it's not disappointing but rather fascinating and exciting – often ingenious in its simplicity, intensely absorbing and ultimately, I'd argue, in tune with our times.
Dressed in plain-cut frocks, tunics and trousers, the cast hover between traditional ethnic costuming, medieval European flavours and hints of contemporary minimalism. The palace of Elsinore is just a mat strewn with cushions and surrounded by darkness. Dyed tangerine, it suggests an emotional hot-spot which is further highlighted by the onstage musician, Toshi Tsuchitori, who creates tension with a few eerie rattles and rumbling drums. So the actors don't need to declaim over-dramatically. Instead, they mostly favour an intimate and very immediate way of talking. Most importantly, Lester is quietly magnetic. His Hamlet – topped by snaky dreadlocks – is psychologically trapped under a dark cloud. Bitterly depressed as well as intelligently wary, he weeps and mutters of his father's death, his mother's remarriage and the nature of grief. Picking up on the remarkably modern, broken sentences of Hamlet's soliloquies, Lester's thoughts appear to be changing tack even as we watch. At the same time, he moves in emotionally-drained slow motion when he encounters The Ghost who clasps his son's head and demands revenge on Claudius (a refreshingly unbombastic Jeffrey Kissoon playing both brothers).
After this Lester grows more glowering and feral. Though a gentle prince when calm, he can be a vicious bully. He pants wildly as he forces an oath of secrecy out of Scott Handy's Horatio – who, incidentally, seems more anxiously devoted than Natasha Parry's Gertrude. Whether Hamlet's madness is an act or not also hangs in the balance as Lester – comically and alarmingly – snarls and prowls around Bruce Myers' Polonius like a lion.
Naturalism and stylisation don't always sit together comfortably in this production yet delightfully quirky moments include Lester's Morris dancing-style jig which perhaps represents his sailing for England and back. If so, that fills in a narrative gap which Shakespeare omitted to dramatise.
Meanwhile, Brook's textual adjustments are mainly intended – as a programme note states – "to prune away the inessential, for beneath the surface lies a myth". What myth Brook is alluding to never becomes apparent. However, Hamlet unexpurgated does feel rambling, almost as if it wants to be a novel. Brook potently condenses Act One's battlement scenes and, at the close, he neatly envisages the bereft Horatio continuing to be haunted with a reprise of the opening line, "Who's there?" The morbidly obsessed soliloquy "To be or not to be" also makes sharp sense transposed to Act Four after Hamlet has slain Polonius and faces possible death abroad.
What gets lost is the grander political dimension. This is markedly different from Brook's early full-text Hamlet where Paul Scofield's idealist Prince was up against realpolitik. Lester is at the heart of a domestic tragedy with no Fortinbras marching on to take the throne. Certainly some will protest at such depoliticisation, yet one might do well to ponder why Fortinbras was axed from the National's recent Hamlet as well.
Today, we are not impressed by oratorical political rulers. People are more interested in complex personal dynamics. And one might suspect Shakespeare felt the same, as the closing state speeches of his tragedies rarely seem inspired. In this staging – as Horatio is allowed to sign off with his unforgettably tender farewell, "Goodnight, sweet prince" – you can't help feeling Brook gets close to the quintessential Hamlet printed in our collective unconscious.
Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), to 8 SeptemberReuse content