13 JUNE 2003  
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Last night's production of La Tragédie d'Hamlet at the Warwick Arts Centre, part of the wonderful campus of Warwick University , shows how universal and culturally transcendent the power of Shakespeare's narrative can truly be. Peter Brook's production, almost entirely performed in French, brings 'va va voom' to the Bard. A sexy, sensual, tragic delight, devoid of pretension, embracing the trials of a street- and life-wise Prince Hamlet shocked by the unmannerly swift marriage of his widowed mother to her brother-in-law. This Hamlet feigns madness as he manoeuvres through the court of Elsinore, awaiting the moment to revenge his father's murder. Hamlet's playful demeanour shields an intensity of devotion and despair which leads to the inevitable tragic consequences -- the fall of the Danish royal line.

The blackened stage is set with vibrantly colourful minimalism, a vast square of shocking orange carpet interspersed with silk and satin blue, purple and red cushions and golden velvet rugs and throws. Two red rectangular padded stools glide effortlessly on invisible coasters, thrown about the stage or ridden like gleeful fairground rides by actors who sit, lounge or pray as the moment arises.

Upstage left an assortment of percussion instruments and a sitar cluster around a cushion, played at intervals by Antonin Stahly, who also portrays the most heroic and stoic Horatio imaginable. Stahly encapsulated the integrity and love directed towards his friend Hamlet. The final tableau of the play, as Stahly inches to the front of the acting space, herded by the spiritual presences of the ghosts of Elsinore , is a moment of breathtaking simplicity and spine-chilling wonder. Nothing breaks the spell of this magical moment. Noone dares move, the intensity of the silence, the dynamism of the acting force as oppressive as a heavy weight on the chest. What an evening.

The whole is performed by just eight cast members. Each a talent to be reckoned with. Each driving forward the play with an ensemble commitment rarely seen on the British stage. Of course, the evening is notably held by the enigmatic performance of William Nadylam as Hamlet. His dreadlocks cascading around his shoulders, Nadylam portrays the youthful exuberance of the prince dashed by his confrontation with the ghost of his murdered father, played with haunting simplicity by Emile Abossolo-Mbo. Abossolo-Mbo's transformation from ghostly father to conniving and arrogant Uncle Claudius is a wonderful piece of doubling. Of course the brotherly similarity shines between the ghostly and kingly characters, but Claudius is so devious, Old Hamlet so serene, the likeness ends superficially for Hamlet and for us.

Nadylam is confronted by the untimely lust displayed by his mother, Gertrude (Lilo Bauer), for her new husband. Bauer's dignified portrayal of a mother lost in a miasma of passion and maternal concern is measured and sympathetic. No histrionics when her son accuses her of adultery and claims her dead husband is watching over her. A moment of theatrical marvel occurs when Old Hamlet's ghost engulfs Gertrude in an invisible embrace, and as she turns, she looks straight through the tangible apparition, seeing nothing.

The court has other characters for whom Hamlet's behaviour is an enigma. Polonius, aged adviser to the royal household, bumbles through the action, convinced that Hamlet is love-lost over Polonius' daughter, Ophelia (Véronique Sacri). Habib Dembélé dit Guimba, a Malinese actor of extraordinary comic timing, encapsulates the fawning fool, sycophantically agreeing with every royal outrage, and suffering the ultimate punishment for his peeping Tommery as he hides behind the arras. Hamlet displays genuine regret at his death. Obviously hoping to have slain Claudius, Hamlet drags the old corpse from his mother's bedchamber, and with macabre delight waves farewell with the dead man's flailing arms.

Sacri's Ophelia is underplayed and her madness is less noticeable than her obvious grief at the death of her father and the loss of her lover's sanity. Ophelia's suicide is a bitter attempt to escape the inescapable. Her burial is enacted with comic humour from the gravediggers, Guimba and Bruce Myers, with Myers relishing an English yokel ditty as they dig. To be assaulted by the English language after nearly two hours of mellifluous French was as shocking as it was outrageously funny. Hamlet's manipulation of the skull of Yorick into a horrifically amusing ventriloquist's dummy was poignant in its disregard for the dignity of death and its arrogant denial of mortality.

Myers also plays the Player King whose other-worldly performance of 'The Mousetrap' flushes the guilty Claudius from his smug position of authority, and provides the proof Hamlet needs to justify regicide. Along with Rachid Djaïdani's Guildenstern, Myers also plays the doomed university student Rosencrantz, both sent to their deaths at the hands of the 'mad' English. Much is made of this self-directed Shakespearean xenophobia, and it was as appreciated here as it must be throughout Europe .

Djaïdani's Laertes is also a sincere expression of sibling affection and despair. As Ophelia's brother, he is equally justified in seeking revenge for the death of his father and sister. Unfortunately, he colludes in a dastardly plan with the evil Claudius which inevitably backfires on all concerned. It is so hard to play the rollicking finale to Shakespeare's play with the tragic dynamic it deserves. As one by one the Danish court drops poisoned to the stage, a sense of enforced closure can lead to disbelief and misplaced humour. This production handles the scene perfectly.

The stylized use of one black, one red painted bamboo cane for the rapiers, the red bearing the inevitable poison, makes the exchanges between Laertes and Hamlet clear and frightening. Each stands opposed and poised like a praying mantis, the swift strikes clearly adding to the intensity of the moment. Gertrude's death by poisoned goblet is heart-wrenchingly realistic, and Hamlet's own death, valiantly struggling to remain upright as his knees eventually buckle beneath his weight, is unquestionably moving. We had embraced all the characters. Their deaths were a real loss.

Brook's production has returned to Britain for this one week in Warwick . It continues to tour on the continent. The surtitles were useful, but strangely unnecessary, as the emotion in the performances made every glance up to the screen a wasted opportunity to see the artistry of acting at its finest. La Tragédie d'Hamlet is a tour de force. If you come across this production on your continental vacations this summer, I strongly urge you to drop everything and see it.

Kevin Quarmby © 2003