The Wooster Group
Royal Lyceum Theatre
New York’s The Wooster Group has always delighted in setting itself seemingly insuperable and, it has to be said, usually pointless impediments to the production of plays on stage.
For their 2013 transatlantic jaunt, director Elizabeth LeCompte and her team have chosen a task that presents remarkable challenges.
On stage, they seek to replicate Sir John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, which had a starry cast led by Richard Burton in the title role with Hume Cronin and Eileen Herlie in support.
This was filmed in black and white using 17 cameras and techniques called “Theatrofim” and “Electronovision”.
Not only does this 21st Century cast follow every word and move, seen on screen behind them, but thanks to the whim of Scott Shepherd, who inspired the idea and plays a Hamlet older than his stepfather, they go several steps further.
Because Shepherd doesn’t like some of the verse speaking, he has re-edited the film, ensuring that there are stops at the ends of lines and nowhere else.
This inevitable leads to physical jumps on screen and these are also followed, which does at least add a dose of much-needed comedy to proceedings. So does the use of the fast forward, once again mimicked on stage.
Identifying the risk that some viewers might fancy ignoring The Wooster Group and watching Richard Burton, he has been faded out for the vast majority of the 2¾ hours, leaving us watching a space or, amusingly, two jousting squares brandishing swords in the duel.
That is not the last of the artificial introductions. Since there are some gaps in the 1964 film, Shepherd and co have borrowed clips from other movies so we are treated to “guest” appearances from such later Shakespearean screen stars as Bill Murray, Charlton Heston, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench.
There is no doubting the technical brilliance of this production. The actors and supporting team have devoted large chunks of their lives to this project and deliver to perfection.
Even then, there is a further problem that even as good an actress as Kate Valk cannot overcome. If you double as Gertrude and Ophelia, at times it is necessary to be in two places at once and this risks either generating comedy or, in one case, farce as the lady skips off stage and back on from the other side adjusting her costume.
One hopes that this creation has given the company great satisfaction, as it will do little for many of those observing from the far side of the fourth wall. There is only so long that one can be wowed by this kind of attention seeking performance art and the novelty wears off long before the interval, let alone the end.
This experiment doesn’t add anything to our understanding or appreciation of the play either, with almost all of the comedy and much of the drama leeched out as surely as the star of the film.