Edinburgh International Festival: Hamlet, Wooster Group

Hamlet, perhaps the greatest Shakespearian play for any actor to tackle. With a history of being played by some of the finest actors to ever walk our stages, it is often seen as the highest point for which an actor can aim – the role of roles. Richard Burton took to Broadway in John Gielgud’s production of Hamlet in 1964, and for the first time in the history of theatre, it was recorded live using 17 cameras, edited and then shown in some 2,000 cinemas across America. It was called ‘Theatrofilm’, and the result is a film showing a black and white stage, with exaggerated and melodramatic acting. It acts as a memory of this production, stored on film for generations to come.

The Wooster Group meanwhile, in its version, of Hamlet uses Gielgud’s production to not preserve a memory but to bring it to life once more. Having edited the footage, the company proceeds to reconfigure the footage so the Shakespearean verse runs without pause. This naturally causes gaps and stuttering footage as chunks are removed and replaced again. This edited film is at times fast forwarded, or reconfigured to speed up the action, and is then played in its entirety on the stage. The Wooster Group then performs Gielgud’s Hamlet in front of the footage, taking the roles but also stuttering and jerking as the footage does. The company takes its mimicking one step further as it proceeds to move about the stage mid-verse depending upon the camera angle that is portraying the action on the filmed version. The stage too, a series of screens and platforms move in turn, creates a disorientating but somewhat filmic quality.

It is a lot to take in, and the first act of Hamlet slogs by as we attempt to adjust to this playing style. It is remarkably clever and wonderfully creative, which is to be expected from Elizabeth LeCompte’s direction and the continual innovation of The Wooster Group, but it is also devoid of emotion and character connection. As the show veers towards its climatic finale, however, all sense of the disorientating first act is dispelled and we get caught up by this momentous study of style and form. As one audience member noted, The Wooster Group forfeits the play in order to use it as an experiment in theatrical form. It is a piece of work that can easily be studied and analysed, much like LeCompte and her team have done in their studying of Burton’s portrayal of Hamlet. It peels back layer upon layer as the live acting is placed in front of the film. It is, like a series of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the performance. The affect is quite mesmerising and disorientating and distracting, but becomes the perfect reflection of how digital is taking over our lives. It explores how the multiple layers of time, image, reflections and digital technology can be composed simultaneously, much like the digital counter-lives we all lead in the virtual space of the Internet.

Scott Shepherd, last seen in the UK for the epic GATZ by Elevator Repair Service leads the cast as Hamlet, and his performance is commanding and engrossing. His ability to twitch and repeat his actions to match the film behind him is tantalising to watch. Equally, Katey Valk’s Gertrude and Ophelia (who I’ve only just realised upon looking at the programme cast list are played by the same person) are breathtaking. Her madness in Ophelia, mimicking that of the 1964 production) is like none other I have seen. It is fractured and fragmented, like a shadow that drifts across the stage just catching the eye, whilst her Gertrude rocks between stone-like-sculpture and emotional wreck.

As a whole The Wooster Group’s Hamlet feels and looks like a transient film, celluloid that holds images but requires light to be seen. It is like a ghost, and at times with the sound fractured and giving feedback, the performance feels like it is stuck in time, a moving historical piece. But all the good works of art of our time have this sense of purpose and, you hope, will be remembered and replayed in our minds; this version of Hamlet is captivating.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre.