The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #88: The Tragedy of Hamlet (2002)

88. Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, 2002.

There are too many Hamlets, and I’ve had my surfeit.

This blog’s at a trickle. There’s too much Shakespeare, and I don’t care anymore. When will someone make a glorious Troilus and Cressida?

Peter Brook—famous for bare-bones staging—is perhaps not the most auspicious director to drag me back into this mess. This made-for-TV film is set on a theatrical stage, but is not filmed before a live audience. The setting of when the story takes place seems amorphous. Despite the European references, the geographical setting is vaguely somewhere between East and West. There are few props. There is no yelling. The theory is to remove as many impediments as possible between actors and each other and audience.

In this case, the audience is separated by a screen.

The quietness of this Hamlet is its strength. The acting pulls one in. Adrian Lester manages to convey the Danish prince with some novelty without becoming irritating. Natasha Perry is an adequate Gertrude.

Jeffrey Kissoon is an ideal Claudius, and for a jaded reviewer like me, perhaps that is enough to excite me. Kissoon made a strong Julius Caesar in the 2012 BBC film, but Claudius is a more difficult part, at least if Claudius is more than a two-faced villain. Kissoon plays Claudius with a toughness that belies how little room there is between guiding the court and kingdom through good leadership and not giving in to his conscience. I am not sure I’ve even seen a smarter Claudius.

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Oh, yes, Kissoon also plays the ghost of King Hamlet as well, with an imperious urgency and toughness as well.

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The casting of this adaptation is not color-blind, but is multiracial and international in interesting ways. Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes—plus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are Indian. Gertrude is very white and British.

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Hamlet and his father and uncle are black. The players are Asian. The lead player (Yoshi Oida) delivers his Priam’s daughter oration in Japanese. I am not sure that this production has anything to say about the meeting of these cultures. These choices increase racial representation and defamiliarize a too familiar play, which are not bad reasons, I think.

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The cuts to the text are aggressive. This quiet Hamlet chugs along.

Perhaps I need to continue digging into Brook.

John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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