I’ve been re-reading Peter Brook’s collection of essays, The Shifting Point, which is just chock full of stimulating wisdom, and recently came across something that really stuck in my head: in his essay, “The Theatre of Cruelty,” he called Hamlet “the greatest experimental work of all.”
Wow. Bold statement. But, it got me thinking…
Hamlet has been on my mind a lot lately, and it seems I’m not alone. 2007 has already seen four different productions of it (at least, that I know of), with who knows how many more to follow between now and year’s end. What is it about this play that still compels us after 400 years?
I’ll admit, I’ve been a Hamlet junkie for a long time. When one of my all-time favorite actors, Laurence Olivier, called it the greatest play ever written, I jumped on it and have been kind of obsessed ever since. After I performed a scene from it in my college acting class I got a taste of what Olivier meant when he said that the title role, once you’ve played it, is one that gets under your skin and haunts you forever.
There seems to be no limit to how one can approach this behemoth of a play. No matter how many times one sees it, it continues to reveal new shades of meaning and subtlety, especially depending on where one is in their own life. Hamlet means something different to me now (i.e. a man tries to soothe the pain of his father’s death, among other things) than it did when I first saw it 25 years ago (i.e. the Mount Everest of acting). Clearly, that has something to do with who I was then and who I am now.
But, I think it also has to do with how each individual artist approaches it. Hamlet means something different to Olivier, Brook, Kenneth Branagh, Franco Zeffirelli, Mel Gibson, Ingmar Bergman, Ethan Hawke, Adrian Lester, and the countless others who have either played or directed it over the years. The centuries have shown that it can withstand a multitude of interpretations and justify most of them in some way.
What are your thoughts on Brook’s comment? Is Hamlet the greatest experimental work of all? I’m thinking it’s definitely one of them. And, why do artists and audiences keep coming back to this work? Why is it on the mind of so many different theatre artists all the time right now? I’d love hear your thoughts on this – especially if you’re someone who’s ever tackled this beast and lived to tell the tale.