« Hamlet » as Starting Point


« For Peter Brook, Hamlet as starting point » – January 16, 1996 – ©New York Times, by Alan Riding

PARIS, Jan. 15— For Peter Brook, theater is much like an expedition into the unknown; a text may serve as a map but does not define the objective. The director must decide how to use the map and what route to take. Yet even then, only by trial and error, by probing one road and then another, does the destination come into sight.

Faithful to this approach, time and again, the Paris-based British director has taken existing works — most recently, Shakespeare’s « Tempest, » Oliver Sacks’s « Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, » Bizet’s « Carmen » and Debussy’s « Pelleas et Melisande » — and subjected them to months of research, rehearsals and experimentation before deciding how they should be presented.

Now, for « Qui Est La?, » or « Who’s There?, » his latest « theatrical research, » as he calls many of his works, Mr. Brook has taken « Hamlet » and chosen to look at the tragedy through the eyes of five of this century’s most prominent dramatic theorists: Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Gordon Craig, Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud.

« Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Craig were the three great pioneers who at the start of this century created the point of view of the director in theater, » Mr. Brook said in an interview. « Brecht and Artaud were in a sense their successors. They were all visionaries, but Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Brecht were also very practical. Their contradictory views are like spotlights illuminating the stage from different sides. »

In this case, then, concerned even less than usual with the text as « map, » Mr. Brook has focused on the adventure of the « expedition, » on how directors turn the silent word on the page into a living experience before an audience. He has named the work after the first line in « Hamlet, » but only about 25 percent of the original play survives. Put differently, « Qui Est La?, » which runs through Jan. 31, is about theater and not literature.

« I have long wanted to find a way of dramatizing the search and struggle within rehearsals, » the 70-year-old director said. « The problem is that if you actually put a rehearsal onstage, it’s very boring because rehearsals are a process that can take weeks and months for something that eventually only lasts for two hours. If one is making theater, the issues have to be immediately visible to the audience, so one needs a carrier. »

In this stylized « rehearsal, » then, seven actors take on a dozen roles from « Hamlet, » but they also play the parts of the five theorists who variously make suggestions and discuss their notions of theater. Since the theorists are not identified onstage and at times the actors speak their lines while seemingly performing « Hamlet, » the result is something of a jigsaw puzzle.

The staging is simple, with no effort to disguise the peeling red walls of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, the Paris home of Mr. Brook’s International Center for Theatrical Creations. A square white carpet represents the stage, a few black chairs are the decor, satin and woven cloths are slipped over everyday dress to create costumes and the actors wear no shoes.

The international cast further distances the play from the familiar. Two Africans, Bakary Sangare and Sotigui Kouyate, play Hamlet and the Ghost, even re-enacting their meeting in the Bambara language of West Africa. Mr. Kouyate also plays Claudius, while Yoshi Oida, a Japanese actor in the Noh tradition, is Guildenstern. Two Germans, a Briton and an Italian complete the cast. The performance is in French, but an English-language version is being discussed.

Although Mr. Brook has cut the entire final act of « Hamlet, » he has kept enough crucial scenes to make it comprehensible. « The English and Germans who have come know the play inside out, » he said. « With the French, it’s quite the opposite. They have heard of it all their lives and perhaps have seen it, but for many it is a first meeting with the play. That’s why it’s important for our fragments to give an overall reflection. »

In places, Mr. Brook has rearranged the text. In the re-enactment of the death of Hamlet’s father, he also has the young Prince dramatically seize Claudius’s hand to pour poison into the Player King’s ear. Along with Hamlet and Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia emerge as well-defined characters, while the death of Polonius, Hamlet’s « To be or not to be » speech and the gravedigger’s scene are fairly true to Shakespeare’s play.

What Mr. Brook is most eager to illustrate, however, is how the rehearsal process gives life to a play. He said that unlike a movie director, who is often alone in deciding what appears on the screen, a theater director participates with the cast in the « collective rediscovery » of a play. And in this case, along with his actors, he has the five dramatic theorists to serve as guides.

Stanislavsky, whose method of naturalistic acting is still widely used, and Meyerhold, another Russian whom Mr. Brook considers a genius, both worked at the Moscow Art Theater early in this century. Craig, a Briton who directed « Hamlet » at the Art Theater in 1912, focused on dramatic theory. A generation later, Artaud, a French playwright who tried to steer away from the rational, developed what he called « Theater of Cruelty. » Brecht, a man of strong leftist views, became the dominant German playwright and director of the postwar era.

When « Qui Est La? » begins, three of them are on stage. Craig starts by offering an almost metaphysical vision of theater as an atom that takes on life. He is promptly interrupted by Stanislavsky, who, insisting that theater is figurative and not abstract art, brings chairs onto the stage and demonstrates how actors must relate to one another. Meyerhold then chips in to remind them that an audience is present.

« Once we recognize the audience, we have to perform in a way that isn’t a mirror but an enormous magnifying glass, » Mr. Brook said, paraphrasing Meyerhold. « Everyone knows the audience has come to see something that is not imitating everyday life. It isn’t that a fourth wall of a room has been removed. The stage has become a platform, like a boxing ring. »

So now the play can begin. Bernardo, a soldier played by David Bennent, a young German actor, runs in, calling « Qui est la? » No, not that way, Stanislavsky tells him. He tries again and is again sent back with a reprimand. At the third attempt, he gets it right. « Who’s there? » he whispers with fear in his voice. At last the stage is set for the Ghost’s first appearance.

From then on, the play is peppered with commentaries and instructions from the guest « directors. » A ghost? What is strange about a ghost, Craig asks through one actor, adding acidly that in the 20th century, « we want nothing that we cannot fully understand. » And when Hamlet orders the crazed Ophelia to a convent, she responds in Artaud’s words: « When I live, I am not truly alive. But when I act, I feel I exist. »

In the end, of course, « Qui Est La? » has only one director, but it nonetheless reflects Mr. Brook’s vision of theater as an arena where questions are more interesting than answers. « I don’t believe a director is there to give his personal interpretation of a work, » he said. « We weren’t even asking these unknown voices to tell us how to do it, but simply to accompany us. »

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