Peter Brook directs Adrian Lester in an essential Hamlet

Forget Shakespeare. Forget that there ever was such a man. Forget that these plays had an author. . . So just assume, as a trick to help you, that the character . . . really existed. Imagine that Hamlet really existed, imagine that someone followed him secretly wherever he went with a tape recorder, so that the words he spoke were really his own. Where does that lead you? First of all, all temptation to think that ‘Hamlet is like me’ is swept away. Hamlet is only interesting because he is not like anyone else. . . It is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him.
Peter Brook, extract from Forget Shakespeare (1996)

Adrian Lester as Hamlet - Photo: Ivan Lenkic
Adrian Lester as Hamlet - Photo: Ivan Lenkic

Twice in one year has Peter Brook honoured London’s Young Vic with a fêted production from his Paris, France base. This latter is his own adaptation of Hamlet crystallising Shakespeare’s text into two and a half hours without an interval, renaming it The Tragedy of Hamlet with a cast of just eight actors. You will want to know what new interpretation is cast by a director, whose memorable productions go all the way back to 1945, when in his twentieth year he directed Paul Scholfield in King John. You will also learn whether I think thirty year old black British actor, Adrian Lester is exceptional in the role. Adrian Lester was in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Love’s Labour’s Lost but you may have seen him on film as the young, bright party worker in the political satire Primary Colors. 

I remember a letter read to a gathering of theatre professionals in London from Peter Brook written from Paris. Brook was speculating on how Shakespeare would have felt today to see that many of his best lines have become clichés.  I felt incensed at the time, that Brook’s use of the insult word cliché sours and detracts from the originality of Shakespeare’s beautiful verse. I am pleased that so many people know even a little of Shakespeare’s text, I would not want his verse restricted to a few academics. The irony is, however, that Brook’s adaptation; he calls it a pruning away of the inessential, is a simplified play which might please the first time Hamlet playgoer, a little like Charles and Elias Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.  I know I have overstated my case here but I would have thought that the challenge is not to cut Shakespeare but to dramatise the uncut play, so that the audience did not fidget or find passages tedious. 

Adrian Lester IS a great Hamlet. His rendition is natural but expressive and youthful. Lester’s Hamlet is less a prince with governmental responsibilities than a likeable young man overburdened with the responsibility of avenging his father’s murder.  Clad in black knit casual top and trousers, with dreadlocks, he looks like a student, he can jest like a student but to the ghost he is in awe and deferential, kneeling and nodding in obedience. In the “mad” scenes, although he rages a little, we the audience are always sure of Hamlet’s sanity, that his madness is feigned. Lester’s speaking of the lines is so full of lucidity, so very cerebral, I never doubted that he was Hamlet.  

There were some moments of innovation, or innovative to me. Ophelia’s (Shantala Shivalingappa) madness scene starts with her talking to a void stage creating a parallel with Hamlet’s scene in Gertrude’s (Natasha Parry) bedroom when he listens to the ghost his mother cannot see. I loved the light relief of the gravedigger (Bruce Myers) which commences with Hamlet and Horatio (Scott Handy) bobbing up and down in a mummer’s type jig as if they are puppets and ends with Hamlet turning Yorick’s skull on a pole as if the skull is commenting on his words. Laertes (Rohan Siva) almost strangles Hamlet in a violent physical confrontation which contrasts with the elegance of the stylised final fencing bout with its ritualistic, slow extending of the weapons before a lightning hit as blade strikes flesh.  

Brook loses the political, the battlement scenes, all of Fortinbras’s honourable quest and succession. Gone too is Polonius’s (Bruce Myers) advice to Laertes but the greed, ambition and pedantry of the old government administrator is adequately conveyed elsewhere. We do not see Laertes at all until he returns from France so we lose some of the contrast between him and Hamlet as avenging sons. He adds a Japanese percussionist, Tosshi Tsuchitori whose loud drums underline every moment of importance so that if all you could hear was the music you would realise this was a dramatic moment or whose spooky cymbals quiver and tinkle to accompany the ghost. The set is a red-orange carpet with a few cushions and stools and much of the action at floor level.  

Of the supporting cast there were those who I felt did not do justice to Lester’s tour de force. Scott Handy’s wide eyed and serving Horatio pleased and Shantala Shivalingappa made an appealingly child-like Ophelia who was plainly out of her depth as a pawn of her father’s ambition. I saw too little contrast between Jeffery Kissoon’s dual roles as the Ghost and Claudius, as also between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the Player King and Queen (Yoshi Oida and Rohan Siva) whose exit as one, and entrance as the other, are almost simultaneous.  Natasha Parry’s Gertrude was sound but not exceptional.  

I would dearly like to see Adrian Lester play Hamlet again but using the full text of the play and with a magnificent supporting cast. That is the production his performance deserves.  

Production Notes

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Brook



Adrian Lester



Scott Handy

Jeffery Kissoon

Bruce Myers

Natasha Parry

Yoshi Oida

Shantala Shivalingappa

Rohan Siva 


Director: Peter Brook

Artistic Collaboration: Marie Hélène Estienne

Lighting Designer: Philippe Vialatte

Costume Designer: Chloé Obolensky

Music: Toshi Tsuchitori



Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with no interval

Closed at the Young Vic on 8th September 2001



The Young Vic

66 The Cut


London SE1 8LZ

Phone: 020 7928 6363

Rail/Tube: Waterloo


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Young Vic on 24th August 2001