I speak to Lilo Baur in her Paris hotel, breakfast delivered to the door, as she generously gives her time to answer questions about Le Tragedie d'Hamlet, Peter Brook's fascinating French production of the Shakespeare classic, which plays for an extremely limited run at the Warwick Arts Centre in June. Lilo's CV is a wonderful cross section of classical and fiercely new writing; she spent ten years working with the Théatre de Complicité, along with productions at the Royal National, the Globe and the Gate Theatre, London . She calls her time at the Globe 'extraordinary -- such a direct relationship with the audience -- and when there was lightning and thunder it had such an effect on the mood of the play'. As for the present production, she seems almost shocked to realise she has been working for a year and a half with Peter Brook's international and internationally renowned company.
'It's so special working with Peter' says Baur. 'He seems to scratch away every "tic" of the actor, removes all the acting that went before, and leaves us telling the story in the most simple way'. Simplicity is certainly needed in such a daunting play with only eight actors playing all the roles. Brook has been ruthless in his cutting of the script, the play reduced to a running time of two and a quarter hours. Baur insists the cuts are vital to the telling of the story, but it leaves a unique problem for characters used to hanging their roles on the words. Baur also stresses the freedom that such cuts allow for the actor to find a reality within themselves, a reality that can be communicated to the audience in a look, a gesture. 'The most difficult thing is just to be there'.
Eight actors for d'Hamlet makes for a lot of doubling, a situation that all of Shakespeare's contemporary performers would have been well rehearsed in. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition; 'Claudius is also the Ghost', the same actor playing Gertrude's new-found love, and her dead husband. 'We tried improvising sensing him in the air or as a presence, you know, with a turn of the head'. It is obvious from Baur that Brook has stamped his unique directing style on every aspect of this innovative production.
Le Tragedie d'Hamlet is a new translation by Jean-Claude Carri ére and Marie Heléne Estienne, which Baur describes as 'very faithful to the play'. 'Certain words are more contemporary, but that seems right when the themes of the play are so contemporary too -- all those questions in life -- When you should feel vengeful? Who do you love? -- All about death, should I act today? -- Readiness is all'. Baur is passionate about the play's strength in communicating to any audience at any time and in any language. The play is 'international' in its resonance; 'after all, when Hamlet looks at the skull of Yorick, we know, everything we come from is dust'.
The international timelessness of Hamlet's appeal has meant that Brook's production has been a huge success in places as far away as Brazil , Poland , Italy , Spain . 'We'll be going to Portugal and Croatia soon' says Baur who obviously relishes the actor's dream of being paid to see the world. Of course, the universality of Hamlet's story of struggle, death and revenge has its own English resonances that are appreciated in different cultures. 'When Hamlet is sent to England, it always gets a laugh in France' Baur giggles, 'and we played the Gravedigger scene in Brazil during the World Cup, so when the English are described as all crazy -- everyone in England is a fool -- it got a huge laugh'. Obviously, it's the way they tell 'em!
Baur is fascinating in her character study of Gertrude. 'She's a woman with desires. Too often people's reactions when you say you're playing Gertrude is to say she's just a bitch. I don't think she's a bitch.' Baur discusses twentieth century Freudian interpretations of Gertrude's relationship with her son, interpretations that have added incestuous undertones to so many recent productions, especially in their powerful confrontation scene. 'She loves Hamlet, of course she loves Hamlet, but as a mother loves her son, not in a sexual way'.
Baur believes that Gertrude's desires betray so much about her enigmatically sexual relationship with her dead husband's brother, the new King of Denmark. 'Claudius and Gertrude's relationship must have happened beforehand. Whether Hamlet's father was away too much at the wars, whatever, Gertrude had a relationship with her brother-in-law while she was still married, for sure'.
Baur stresses that this would not have raised an eyebrow amongst the Elizabethan audience. 'Remarrying for the sake of the kingdom happened quite often in the sixteenth century. If you look at primitive societies today, it still happens. It's no big deal'. For Baur, the timeless setting of the play, in 'simple timeless dress', removes the 'modern morality' that has haunted Gertrude's actions since Victorian times. This is a Gertrude whose passion and desire are harnessed for political expediency. A mother at odds with her distraught son. A mother torn between the one love for Hamlet and another love for the powerful Claudius.
As for Ophelia, Gertrude mourns for the loss of a bride-to-be for Hamlet, but what can she do? Gertrude is as much the victim of circumstance, a pawn in the patriarchal politics of Denmark , as the hapless daughter shocked into madness by the violent death of her father at the hands of the man she loves.
The play is surtitiled for those who are not fully au fait with the French language (shamed sigh of relief from this reviewer), and tells the story in simple terms that relate to life as it is really lived. The strength of Brook's production not only resides in the actors, but also in the translation, the cuts to dialogue and the 'unexpected changes of scene'. Baur adds 'it may be a treasure of British theatre, but it is for everyone at any time. The audience -- they know the struggle. Its is about life. It is life'. If the passion and desire of Baur's relationship with Gertrude translates, as I'm sure it will, into the passion of Brook's dream for Le Tragedie d'Hamlet, I know this will be a production that will transcend language and become a timeless classic in its own right. I can't wait.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003