There is an argument that runs rampant throughout both academic and professional theatre concerning the “right” way to produce Shakespeare’s work. Many feel that his words need to be given a new, more contemporary context in order to be shared with a new generation of theatre-goers. Others vehemently defend the text as a precise roadmap to a respectful production. The Wooster Group’s Hamlet courageously thrusts this same paradox back into the limelight with their truly unique homage to Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway production.
Obviously, deciding on a definitive method of playing a piece of dramatic literature that is over 400 years old is a difficult task at best. However, Burton’s production is widely regarded as one of the greatest Hamlet performances of all time. The Wooster Group clearly chose the iconic production for this same reason. As the actors mimic the 17-camera footage playing on multiple screens in the industrial-looking space, much is revealed about the incredible style of the 1964 production and, more importantly, the incredible text of Hamlet itself.
Reid Farrington and Andrew Schnieder edit the film footage into a powerful and engaging multimedia presentation which not only has the simple fast-forward and rewind maneuverability of an old VCR, but also the eerie ability to make figures disappear from one moment to the next. This creates the sense of a supernatural visitation of Burton’s production into the post-modern set design of Ruud van den Akker. However, the most important impact of the highly-edited celluloid is that, through jump-cuts, cross-fades and other adroit editing techniques, the majority of the spoken Shakespearean text is taken back to the original line breaks and scansion. The result is nothing short of an aural revelation. Though first-time Hamlet viewers would definitely have a tough time finding the various layers in this particular production, those who know the play moderately will find the music underneath the text to be surprisingly illuminated despite the erratic physical language of the performance.
In a way, as the actors move their bodies to mimic the jerky editing and ever-changing camera angles, the movement direction (Natalie Thomas) frees up the actors’ bodies, lending themselves more readily to John Gielgud’s original 1964 staging. Scott Shepherd is especially successful at letting Richard Burton’s performance inform his own portrayal of Hamlet. Though looking nothing like Burton physically, Shepherd seems to let the ghost of the classic production flow through him naturally and with complete respect. Ari Fliakos also connects deeply with four separate characters in Claudius, Marcellus, Hamlet’s Ghost and the Gravedigger. Fliakos moves swiftly between each physicality, vocal timbre and costume, making it easy for one to go the entire length of the play without knowing the identity of the individual performer. Kate Valk also shifts between Ophelia and Gertrude so seamlessly, that the quality of her performance is almost overshadowed by her chameleonic ability. Roy Faudree, Casey Spooner, Judson Williams and Daniel Pettrow all do a fine job of supporting the production elements by playing the rest of the prominent roles while shifting pieces of the set and representational costuming (Claudia Hill). The cast’s work does wonders in re-creating much of the ambiance of the 1964 production.
Wooster Group’s Hamlet isn’t without a few confusing choices, however. Just as many of the editing choices serve to push the text into the foreground; some of those same decisions detract from a few moments that warrant little change. There are also a few short songs (sung live by Casey Spooner as Laertes) that do little for the integrity of the overall production. The songs fit well stylistically with the fantastic scoring by Matt Tierney (with contribution by Dan Dobson, John Collins and Jim Dawson), but seem out of context with Burton’s production. There are also some clips of other contemporary films (Branagh’s Hamlet, as well as a monologue by Bill Murray as Polonius from the 2000 version) which, though enjoyable, obscure the ethereal presence of the classic Broadway production that is woven throughout.
Overall, the experience is a special one and, at times, a visceral journey that moves beyond the intellectual stimulus of its own post-modern tone. Elizabeth LeCompte does an incredible job as the director of an extraordinarily ambitious production, keeping both technical and creative elements moving in sync towards the play’s inevitable conclusion. There will undoubtedly be those who will claim that this highly-auteured production should not even take on the namesake of its title character. However, upon further inspection, Wooster Group’s Hamlet keeps its focus distinctly on the text, creating a “white noise” of sorts with multimedia and movement that aims to shed light on some of Shakespeare’s greatest phrases.
If you are in the Los Angeles area, feel confident in purchasing a ticket for this truly unique production. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, the play isn’t for audiences seeking a quick theatre fix. However, for those interested in something that pushes theatrical boundaries respectfully and courageously, look no further. And, because a theatre experience begins when you enter the door, REDCAT (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) is the perfect location to view this production, housing a comfortable performance space and fascinating installation art in its lobby. It is a memorable night at the theatre and a completely innovative look at one of the most iconic characters in dramatic literature.