Bergman's cinematic `Hamlet' on stage. Highly original version of tragedy

The First New York International Festival of the Arts opened last weekend with a cornucopia of performances by companies from around the world. Standing slightly outside the festival's focus on 20th-century work, but every inch its artistic equal, was the American premi`ere of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's production of Shakespeare's ``Hamlet.'' Mr. Bergman made his North American stage debut last year at the Los Angeles Festival with a production of Strindberg's ``Miss Julie,'' which turned out to be an almost perfect marriage between Sweden's most famous dramatist and its foremost director. That production - performed in Swedish (with no supertitles) by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden - conveyed the work's claustrophobic theatrical power through largely visual means.

Now, in his audacious and original staging of ``Hamlet'' presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (also performed in Swedish with no translation), Bergman brings to Shakespeare's text the same dazzlingly choreographed attention to surface detail - movement, gesture, lighting - that characterized ``Miss Julie'' and distinguished his films. The creator of more than 40 movies, including ``Wild Strawberries,'' ``Autumn Sonata,'' and ``Scenes From a Marriage,'' Bergman abandoned his film career six years ago, after completing the masterly ``Fanny and Alexander,'' for a full-time return to the theater.

As with his production of ``Miss Julie,'' in which the characters' economic differences, as well as Strindberg's misogynous biases, disappeared into the play's psychological fabric, Bergman refocuses the power plays of ``Hamlet'' into a series of uneasy relationships between men and women. And the director conveys them in the most theatrical - and sometimes startlingly visual - terms. The result is the kind of intimate drama that the director created on film - a highly original ``Hamlet,'' seething with neurotic and sexual energy, a kind of intense retelling that sacrifices none of the play's original sense of tragedy.

At the center of this production is the director's decision to emphasize Hamlet's role as the play's moral center. And in the electrifying lead performance by Peter Stormare, Hamlet is, for all his Angst-filled poses and dark glasses, no hamstrung clich'e but Denmark's only ballast between the debauched Claudius and the fascistic Fortinbras. The character of Hamlet is at the core of this production - done in a mix of modern and traditional dress - in which Shakespeare's political landscape has been redrawn by Bergman in the most personal terms.

Bergman achieves his effects with techniques that are wonderfully cinematic. He uses, not a sweeping melding of quick-cut scenes, but a focusing on the simplest and most telling details: the flash of a knife blade, a pair of red shoes, the ominous snipping of shears, having the decadent court masked, a soft circle of light enveloping Hamlet and his father's ghost.

It is this examination of character by an exploration of the play's spatial territory as well as its textual turf that makes this production so successful, even to a non-Swedish-speaking audience (though a prior re-reading of the text will be helpful to most playgoers).

Bergman has rejigged many of the play's extended soliloquies: Claudius prays to heaven while fondling a whore; Hamlet delivers his ``To be, or not to be'' speech to the Player King, making it a highly personal musing (for the director) on the nature of theatrical reality. Bergman has also made Ophelia an omnipresent silent witness - much like the children in ``Fanny and Alexander'' - to the play's long list of horrifying and brutal events.

But it is Bergman's painstaking choreography of the actors' movements that, with the exception of a few extended speeches when an English translation would have been helpful, reveals character in a wholly graphic way. This ``Hamlet'' becomes a savage sexual ballet: B"orje Ahlstedt's burly Claudius and Gunnel Lindblom's lustful Gertrude first appear in a graphic coupling accompanied by the polite applause of the court. Pernilla "Ostergren's sturdy Ophelia and Pierre Wilkner's lissome Laertes are almost incestuous in their sibling affection.

But it is Stormare's Hamlet that most captures the sexual and political tensions of this Danish court. From his attention-grabbing entrance - he's dressed in a black leather coat and dragging a black chair, which he slams down at dead center before proceeding to turn his back on the debauched, ruby-clothed King and Queen - Stormare's Hamlet is the play's fierce focal point. Whether he is lolling sweetly in the trusted Horatio's arms, sobbing in his mother's lap, or whipsawing Ophelia with a kind of frightening exuberance in the famous ``Get thee to a nunnery'' speech, Stormare is never less than commanding.

Only in the final scene, the arrival of the rival Fortinbras, does the production falter. Bergman's portrayal of the Norwegian forces as jack-booted fascists puts an interesting spin on the Danish court's ``carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,'' but the machine-gun fire, the ear-splitting rock music, the blinding spotlights - and yes, the television cameras and microphones of the obligatory press conference scene - have been done before by any number of directors, including Britain's Michael Bogdanov and such iconoclastic Americans as Peter Sellars and Mark Lamos. It was a less-than-original finish to an otherwise wholly original production.

Bergman's ``Hamlet'' plays through tomorrow.

Hilary DeVries covers regional theater for the Monitor.

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