Théâtre Des Bouffes Du Nord is located in the vicinity of Gare du Nord, which is one of the most deprived areas of the French capital. So was the interior of the theatre: very, very shabby. The walls craved repainting; we sat on the bare wooden benches, and these were remarkably uncomfortable; everything looked old and neglected. There was no stage as such, just a bright red carpet on the floor… Somehow, it was making sense; there are plenty chic theatres in Paris, and reducing “the stuff” to bare minimum was helping to break the barrier between us and the actors. Later, when Hamlet would be addressing to the audience, it would feel as if he were talking to us. The uncompromising redness of the carpet was making sense, too: the aim would be to keep the audience focused, to draw our attention to the stage space as much as possible. Somehow, every tiny detail in this production was making sense, was tuned to perfection.
The casting turned out to be off-beat: Hamlet was an Afro-American, and Ophelia was of Indian background, with a very noticeable traditional nose piercing (it was much more prominent in the theatrical production).
Why? Perhaps the idea was to challenge our habit to think of Hamlet as the product of European culture; and the director wanted to underscore that the issues and dilemmas this play is about are the universal ones. The number of actors was reduced to bare minimum (3 actors are playing 2 parts each). My guess is that this was an attempt to avoid distracting the audience with the new faces, and to force us to focus on the gist of the play instead. One could also think of more prosaic (costs cutting?) or of deeper interpretations. Either way, less is more.
When less is more, every detail, however small, can be noticed. The director used it to perfection with Ophelia’s look…
When we see her for the first time, her hair is accurately braided, and she accurately describes Hamlet’s odd behaviour to her father.
Next, she meets Hamlet and her hair is unbound. Just as her hair, her mind could be easily swayed; just as her hair, her thoughts were somewhat disordered.
Then, her lips got covered with bright red lipstick (missing in the filmed version). It would be used by Hamlet to show the woman’s nature, by smudging it all over Ophelia’s face.
After this, Ophelia has made her mind, and her hair got tied in a neat bun (in the filmed version, then remained unbound); and, like her hairdo, her words have got very polished, well thought through.
Finally, her hair got unbound again. This was expected, since she went mad.
The colours of the scene design were very bright, but the costumes of the characters were not. In fact, the costumes of all characters – except one! – were either white or grey or black. Can you guess the only major character who deserved the full colour? Take your pick. We will revert to it later on.
There are only two characters who have deserved white: Polonius and Ophelia. Why not Horatio, who was a loyal friend of Hamlet and did not do anything remotely reprehensible? Perhaps because he is the only main character who stays alive, and who knows what will happen after the curtain is down?
With the exception of Horatio, grey characters are quite uninteresting: gravedigger, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, … let us ignore them.
Now for the black characters. Predictably, Claudius wears black. He is not alone: the dead king, Laertes and Hamlet wear black, too. Neither is intrinsically evil, but their common trait is the thrust for the revenge. While the revenge is justified for all of them, it does not make the things better. Perhaps it is better to choose one’s actions not by the rightful motifs, but by the best outcomes for those who are still alive.
And finally, the only character who deserved a true colour. It is Gertrude, played by Brook’s real life wife, Natasha Parry – her dress was purple. But of course! Unlike the other characters, she is both virtuous and reprehensible. Virtuous because she is very fond of her son, and wishes the very best for him. When Hamlet commits a murder in front of her, she would not even make a reproach, she would just say “What did you do, my son?” Reprehensible because she is very much attracted to her husband’s murderer, and, by marrying him, she has enforced his claim to the throne. At the same time she agrees with Hamlet that her new husband is a lesser man than the deceased king. This is a contradiction. But is not such contradiction makes her so real? When she sees the play that restages the murder of her husband, a horrible thought occurs to her. Should not she decide what side to take? She does not, she still loves both her new husband and her son. Her attempt to reconcile the unreconcilable, her inconsistency, her unconditional love gives her an extra dimension, thus she merits a colour.
All reviews I have seen point out that this is an abridged version of the play. Some are very unhappy about it, others call it a doubtful choice. I find no reasons to criticise this artistic decision. Not because this is the case of most book-based films, which are not a subject to such criticism. And not because it made the plot confusing; I believe that the storyline of the Brook’s version is perfectly self-consistent. I actually think that Shakespeare would be delighted to see this version. Why? One way to determine the age of something is to look at the rate at which it learns, develops, adapts and changes. Stuffing them with mothballs and keep them exactly as they were hundreds of years ago will lead to an imminent fall into oblivion. It is rethinking, directors’ ability to present Shakespeare’s plays in the way that resonates with the audience of today that keeps these plays timeless.
However, I missed some aspects of the original staging:
- Yorick’s scene has disappeared.
- Ophelia’s lipstick scene has disappeared.
- Ophelia’s white shawl turned red.
- Gertruda’s dress turned black by the end of the play.
- Choreography of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes was made more cinema-like.
I am at loss to explain these changes. Perhaps the original version was too clinical? Or maybe they were requested by the film producers? Or maybe it just means that one should watch the plays in the theatre, because on-screen experience is no substitute for the real theatre!
- Peter Brook’s “Tragedy of Hamlet” is available on DVD (see IMDB and Amazon) and on Youtube:
- How to kill without tainting your mind? Watch Peter Brook speaking about his Hamlet's dilemma:
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the original one. This story is found in the folk literature of Iceland, Ireland and Denmark. It was first put into literary form by the Danish historian Saxo in 13th century. There were two Hamlet plays, an English one and a French one, that predate Shakespeare’s version.
- Read a negative review by Chicago Tribune.
- Read positive reviews by Guardian, Blogging The Dane, NY Observer and His Hour Upon the Stage.