The Greatest Experimental Work Of All?

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.


One Response to The Greatest Experimental Work Of All?

  1. Oh Michael, like the Ghost in Hamlet, I fear you’ve been sent by the devil to torture me. Just when I vowed to quit the play cold turkey — I am under so much time pressure from other projects and the universe is begging me to move on — you’ve delivered me back into its clutches at all hours of the night…

    Background: I was in a production of the first quarto of Hamlet in July of 06, playing Gertrude and the Ghost. Was so gripped by it that I searched for a way to remount it. Meanwhile, I studied the play – after the first run I knew I had only scratched the surface. Took a class dedicated solely to it taught by a wonderful woman named Annie Occhiogrosso who has studied it for 30+ years and lost not an ounce of passion for it. Finally got accepted into the Brick’s Pretentious Festival this June. Was able to reassemble the entire team and rehearse for 6 weeks, beginning where we left off a year earlier, for a mere four-day run. (We’re the “of it” link in your “four/different/productions/of it.”) Wrote a blog during that time dedicated to dissecting it, to which I posted 64 entries in 2 ½ months ( Ended the one-year journey through it bereft and lonely at its loss, knowing it probably doesn’t have another life.

    And now, like a voice from deep within me, you wanna know why. Keeping in mind that there have been centuries and piles and piles of smarter words than mine dedicated to this question, I’ll take a relatively off-the-cuff stab… Maybe because the play is all about deceit? Levels of complicit lies we tell? To others and, perhaps most importantly, to ourselves? Beginning with our inability to face up to the fact that we’re going to die and to act accordingly towards our fellow humans? About how hard it is to muster sincerity and honesty in our dealings with each other, even knowing we’re mortal? Even with the people we share our most profound life experiences with? Even with family? And this makes everyone ultimately lonely, whether they know it or not? And these things just become more nagging as we age, but only in proportion to the degree in which we’re capable of living an examined life in the first place.

    As to why it is on the minds of so many different theatre artists all the time right now… I went to a reading recently by my friend Josh Furst ( He’s got a novel coming out in a month. Afterwards, the audience was clearly moved. I told him how comforting it was to hear his words, which were powerful, complex, gripping inquiries into his characters’ souls. He knew of my post-Hamlet blues and how hard it was to explain them to anyone. He said, “Yeah, it’s a strange mood in the country these days. Not much into introspection.”

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