nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 26, 2007
If you need to see evidence that deconstruction can, in fact, erase virtually all meaning from a work of art, look no further than The Wooster Group's Hamlet. This latest performance from the long-running experimental theatre troupe left me entirely cold: it reduces a play that's been interpreted every which way in its 400-year history to a hollow shell. Now, I have no idea why anyone would want to see that done to Hamlet; this piece feels, as too many auteur-crafted takes on the classics do, like a battle between a contemporary artist and a master (or in this case, several masters: not just Shakespeare, but also director John Gielgud and actor Richard Burton, whose 1964 production of Hamlet figures prominently here), the unstated but underlying theme being that said contemporary artist can prove that she's smarter and cleverer than her predecessors by dismantling the thing they artfully and earnestly put together.
The program note says, "Richard Burton's Hamlet, a 1964 Broadway production, was recorded in live performance...and edited into a film.... Our Hamlet attempts to reverse the process, reconstructing a hypothetical theatre piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film, like an archaeologist inferring a temple from a collection of ruins." Having seen the production (or reconstruction, if you like), I still have no idea what this means. Hamlet is not a hypothetical theatre piece, but a text that scholars and artists have already reconstructed, perhaps not definitively but certainly with a high degree of consensus. Nor does the actual edited film (actual as opposed to the further edited version shown on stage here, much modified by Reid Farrington and his crew) feel at all "fragmentary": a quick search on the Internet indicates that you can buy an mp3 download of the Burton production online for $7.49 and a DVD of the film from Amazon.com for about $20. The point being: unlike a collection of ruins, the evidence of both Shakespeare's play in general and the Burton/'64 production in particular is extensive and widely available.
So, as I said, I don't understand what The Wooster Group thinks it's doing here. In a previous piece, Poor Theater, they applied a similar kind of deconstruction to two theatre pieces, one by Grotowski and one by William Forsyth, and their show was all about their process of breaking down, reassembling, and then learning from doing these things. This Hamlet is not so interesting or generous; it's just a laborious re-enactment of a production of a famous play that, apparently, we are not meant to think much of.
Here's what it's like: Scott Shepherd, the enormously hard-working actor who takes the role of Hamlet here, saunters on stage as the house lights dim and begins communicating with an unseen video operator, who begins rolling the footage of the Burton film, displayed on a large screen at the rear of the stage plus a couple of small TV monitors in corners. Shepherd-as-Hamlet is on stage almost throughout the entire play, performing his own role as well as participating in others' performances, moving furniture around the stage, and sometimes calling out to the video operator to "fast-forward here" (so we can skip over some of the boring stuff and get to the next well-known section).
Other actors take the rest of the roles. The staging is meant to mirror the look of the film (which we almost always see, right behind the actors): when there's a shift in POV, everybody on stage scrambles to a new position to reflect it; when there's a closeup, the affected actor(s) run downstage so they'll appear "larger"; when the film is herky-jerky or otherwise poorly edited, the live actors mimic the sudden un-naturalistic movement. This concept, which feels mildly amusing the first few times we see it, becomes tiresome very quickly. Unfortunately, it's practically the only item in The Wooster Group's very shallow bag of tricks.
The set by Ruud Van Den Akker is a reasonable facsimile of the original, reduced in size to make room on stage for the many TV monitors and other tech-y equipment. Costumes (by Claudia Hill) mirror the originals, except when they don't: Shepherd's Hamlet is all in black, like Burton's, but he's wearing a long tunic instead of a shirt: why? Osric is in bright gold pants.
Performances drift in and out of an overwrought rhythm that may reflect Gielgud's production (but we can't tell, because (a) the film's sound is almost never heard, and (b) a "technical note" informs us that "We have digitally reedited the Burton film so that the lines of verse which were spoken freely in the 1964 production, are delivered according to the original poetic meter").
Kate Valk plays Ophelia and Gertrude, allowing for comic opportunities to race in and out of each costume and wig in a couple of key scenes. Valk plays both roles for laughs, it seems to me, not attempting to make either of these women into someone real or interesting. Ari Fliakos as Claudius seems mostly to just be going through the motions of his role, while Bill Raymond's Polonius and Casey Spooner's Laertes feel much more like typical interpretations of those characters. Shepherd works so hard as Hamlet and the production's anchor that it's hard not to admire what he does, but I can't say that his performance contributed anything new to my understanding of this endlessly fascinating character...and I'm pretty sure this is the first time that I've ever seen a Hamlet performed by a professional actor where that's been the case.
Indeed, the whole production just fell flat for me: at nearly three hours in length, it's often tedious and sometimes annoying, but this Hamlet is never illuminating. I was interested, mostly, in what was absent: most obviously, the characterizations of great deceased actors like Richard Burton and Hume Cronyn (who played Polonius in the '64 show/film), hints of which we fleetingly and tantalizingly observe throughout the evening; but also, an overriding perspective on the material and its extraordinary themes—a reason to sit through a familiar drama other than to watch director Elizabeth LeCompte play gimmicky games with her actors and her audience. Programmatic explanations notwithstanding, I never found that reason, and left the theatre severely disappointed as a result.