Why? Perhaps the idea was to challenge our habit to think of Hamlet as the product of European culture? Or, maybe, the director wanted to underscore that the issues and dilemmas this play is about are the universal ones? The number of actors was reduced to a bare minimum (3 actors are playing 2 parts each). My guess is that this was an attempt to avoid distracting the audience with the new faces and to force us to focus on the gist of the play instead. One could also think of more prosaic (costs cutting?) or of deeper interpretations. Either way, less is more.
When we see her for the first time, her hair is accurately braided, and she accurately describes Hamlet’s odd behaviour to her father.
Next, she meets Hamlet and her hair is unbound. Just as her hair, her mind could be easily swayed; just as her hair, her thoughts were somewhat disordered.
Then, her lips got covered with bright red lipstick (missing in the filmed version). It would be used by Hamlet to show the woman’s nature, by smudging it all over Ophelia’s face.
After this, Ophelia has made her mind, and her hair got tied in a neat bun (in the filmed version, then remained unbound); and, like her hairdo, her words have got very polished, well thought through.
Finally, her hair got unbound again. This was expected since she went mad.
There are only two characters who have deserved white: Polonius and Ophelia. Why not Horatio, who was a loyal friend of Hamlet and did not do anything remotely reprehensible? Perhaps because he is the only main character who stays alive, and who knows what will happen after the curtain is down?
With the exception of Horatio, grey characters are quite uninteresting: the gravedigger, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, … let us ignore them.
Now for the black characters. Predictably, Claudius wears black. He is not alone: the dead king, Laertes and Hamlet wear black, too. Neither is intrinsically evil, but their common trait is the thrust for the revenge. While the revenge is justified for all of them, it does not make the things better. Perhaps it is better to choose one’s actions not by the rightful motifs, but by the best outcomes for those who are still alive.
And finally, the only character who deserved a true colour. It is Gertrude, played by Brook’s real-life wife, Natasha Parry – her dress was purple. But of course! Unlike the other characters, she is both virtuous and reprehensible. Virtuous because she is very fond of her son, and wishes the very best for him. When Hamlet commits a murder in front of her, she would not even make a reproach, she would just say “What did you do, my son?” Reprehensible because she is very much attracted to her husband’s murderer, and, by marrying him, she has enforced his claim to the throne. At the same time, she agrees with Hamlet that her new husband is a lesser man than the deceased king. This is a contradiction. But is not such contradiction makes her so real? When she sees the play that restages the murder of her husband, a horrible thought occurs to her. Should not she decide what side to take? She does not, she still loves both her new husband and her son. Her attempt to reconcile the unreconcilable, her inconsistency, her unconditional love gives her an extra dimension, thus she merits a colour.
- Yorick’s scene has disappeared.
- Ophelia’s lipstick scene has disappeared.
- Ophelia’s white shawl turned red.
- Gertruda’s dress turned black by the end of the play.
- The choreography of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes was made more cinema-like.
I am at loss to explain these changes. Perhaps the original version was too clinical? Or maybe they were requested by the film producers? Or maybe it just means that one should watch the plays in the theatre because the on-screen experience is no substitute for the real theatre!
- Peter Brook’s “Tragedy of Hamlet” is available on DVD (see IMDB and Amazon) and on Youtube:
- How to kill without tainting your mind? Watch Peter Brook speaking about his Hamlet's dilemma:
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the original one. This story is found in the folk literature of Iceland, Ireland and Denmark. It was first put into literary form by the Danish historian Saxo in the 13th century. There were two Hamlet plays, an English one and a French one, that predate Shakespeare’s version.
- Read a negative review by the Chicago Tribune.
- Read positive reviews by Guardian, Blogging The Dane, NY Observer and His Hour Upon the Stage.