New York theatre company The Wooster Group re-imagines Shakespeare's classic tragedy for the 21st century
There were two sorts of people who saw the first half of the Wooster Group's Hamlet: theatre aesthetes and and the unwary. Only one sort of person saw the second half.
I'm being unfair.
From prior acquaintance with The Wooster Group, I was expecting Hamlet to be pretty tough going; and its Edinburgh setting – one of umpteen shows in a week, two and a half times the usual hour-long-running-time, and inevitably viewed with a bit of a hangover – is indeed far from ideal.
It's often proposed that the problem with "experimental theatre" for non-aficionados is that they don't know how to watch it. The Wooster Group tackle this problem head-on by having Scott Shepherd (best known here for his epic performance in the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz) explain exactly what they're doing at the outset.
They've taken the filmed performance of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway Hamlet (directed by John Gielgud), which was screened across cinemas in America in a kind of proto-NT Live way, and are essentially attempting to copy that performance – live – as it plays projected onto a large screen in the background.
To complicate this already strange undertaking, Shepherd explains that he's edited the soundtrack of the film, removing any pauses which the actors inserted into the middle of lines and has put them at the end of the lines, effectively reintroducing Shakespeare's original end-stops. Of course, thanks to cutting and pasting from the film's soundtrack, the images from these mid-line pauses are also transferred to the point where the line stops, causing strange, jerky, back-and-forth moments in both the film and consequently the copied performance.
On top of this, the Wooster Group sometimes blot out the actors from the version of the film being projected behind them to make it a less distracting backdrop. As such, the backdrop 1964 stage version of Elsinore's throne rooms and ramparts eerily flickers with ghostly half-deleted images and movements.
What's interesting about all this foregrounded experimentation is how much it seems to become the very fabric of an actual production of Hamlet – at least for the first hour and a half up to the interval. What I mean is, these means of telling the story, plucking out and establishing themes, don't feel any more or less tricksy than authentic Elizabethan costumes or setting the thing in Nazi Germany (for example).
What we have here is a version of Hamlet that seems especially obsessed with ghosts and with father figures. In this respect, it feels almost like the perfect American production. The attention paid to the video, to Richard Burton, figured here as a kind of unreachable proto-Hamlet means that Scott Shepherd is always grappling with this other father figure on the stage even as his Hamlet grapples with the mystery of his own ghostly father.
That Americans have alighted on a Broadway performance by a great British actor, in a play by the single writer most likely to be designated the father of the English language, only adds to this sense. This is the motor that drives their take on the play.
This falters slightly by the second half where we have become accustomed to this dimension and lacking a real emotional connection, or further intellectual stimuli, disengage. But nonetheless, by this stage, we have already witnessed an incredibly astute, intelligent take on one of the most central, canonical texts in theatre. The Wooster Group's Hamlet, seven or so years since its inception, still feels like the most modern response to the play yet envisioned, and something I'm incredibly glad to have seen.
- Andrew Haydon