Peter Brook adapted two Shakespeare plays for the screen, and both are very interesting experiments. The 1971 ‘King Lear’ with Paul Scofield is perhaps the best known, but this version of ‘Hamlet’ is my favourite of the two.
Pared down to two and a quarter hours, with a third of the text removed and other passages moved around, characters cut, and with a multi-ethnic cast (black Hamlet and Ghost/Claudius, Indian Laertes/Ophelia, Oriental Player King, white Polonius/Horatio), this is a minimal production, sparsely staged, but with weight on the words without distraction.
Adrian Lester plays the Dane, and he is every inch the bleakly indecisive student. This was an early role for him but he ranks with the best of interpreters of this greatest of Shakespeare leads. Natasha Parry (Brook’s wife) makes a stately Gertrude, but without the artifice or middle-aged lust other actresses have given her. She is a tragic by-product of the dark court of Denmark.
Scott Handy is Horatio, and his verse-speaking is excellent, as befits a regular cast member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last seen in the TV series ‘Hunted’ and ‘The Village’ he is the blank canvas on to which Hamlet can project his angst and dissatisfaction; he is the devoted friend who will not question even the madness that seems to afflict the Prince, causing his cruelest actions and thoughts.
This is not a starter Hamlet for those new to the play; rather one for those who are familiar with the piece and open to see it tweaked and explored for a new audience.