It’s immediately clear, the moment you take your seat, that The Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet is going to be far from conventional. The modestly sized stage of the Public Theater’s Newman auditorium is littered with projection screens, flat screen TVs, and wheeled furniture. Garbled BBC radio transmissions are just barely audible, and the largest of the projection screens, upstage center, displays an image of an empty theater set. The image skips from time to time, and is occasionally crossed by a ghostly image of a passing subway train.
I’d like to critique the performances, but that would be difficult to do. I’d like to say, in effect, that Ari Fliakos is a very engaging Claudius, brooding and dripping with malice, speaking with a deep, oily voice; that Kate Valk’s portrayal of both Gertrude and Ophelia are over the top; that Scott Shepherd’s Hamlet is mediocre. Their performances, however, are not their own. Projected behind the actors, and on TV screens surrounding the stage which the actors often look directly at in order to better reference and mimic, is the 1964 Richard Burton Broadway production of Hamlet, which was filmed from a great many angles to be shown in limited release across the country. The actors do an admirable job of imitating the film, even making jerky movements to represent the ill-preserved film’s tendency to skip about, or mouthing the words and letting the film speak for them when the film’s sound drops out or becomes tinny. However, even during this production’s infinitely more interesting second act, during which the projected film finally takes a back seat, one's impression of the actor’s performance is marred by the knowledge that he’s merely aping another actor.
The audio/visual component is not completely without interest, of course. The film is edited, at times, to remove certain elements from the background projection—certain characters, for example—which allows the company to more easily select what the audience is watching, which is to say, to make sure they’re watching the stage actor at a particular moment, not the screen. The illusion of camera movement is achieved through the use of easily moveable setpieces, the most prominent of which is a long table connected to a chair, all of which is set on wheels. A pan left is represented by the actors and the table moving slowly to the right; a cut between camera angles is represented by more abrupt movement. Script cuts—and the script is heavily cut down—are often achieved by the actor calling “Fast forward” or “Skip this.” This sort of meta-theater is prevalent in this production, with actors— particularly Scott Shepherd—breaking the fourth wall to comment on the film, for example telling the audience, “We’d better skip this Ophelia bit, then,” because Ms. Valk is currently playing Gertrude.
Another humorous element is the filling in of degraded or lost portions of the 1964 film by replacing them with scenes from the excellent Kenneth Branagh and the much maligned Ethan Hawke adaptations. Other liberties are far more confusing. At points, Casey Spooner’s Laertes sings monologues like rock ballads into a cordless microphone, or Scott Shepherd’s Hamlet speaks directly into a mic on a stand, or Roy Faudree’s Polonius speaks while seated on a scooter. It’s unclear what any of this has to do with either Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Richard Burton’s production of it.
The production becomes more easily enjoyable once one accepts that The Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet isn’t really about producing Shakespeare at all. It’s more experimental; the program states that the aim is to reconstruct a “hypothetical theater piece” based on the fragments of the 1964 film. But…to what end? While experimental theater is often laudable, just because it’s not hard science doesn’t mean the experiment shouldn’t have all the proper parts. What is the purpose? The hypothesis? The conclusion? It’s clear this isn’t a reconstruction of the 1964 production, as the actors go through pains to mimic the quirks of deteriorated film. If the aim, then, is to simply reproduce film onstage, then why was the film, as per the program’s technical note, “reedited […] so that the lines of verse, which are spoken freely in the 1964 production, are delivered according to the original poetic meter.” Isn’t that antithetical to the purpose? And still the question of why? To the performance's detriment, it seems company members don't know, themselves.