Hamlet: The Wooster Group @ Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival
The Wooster Group's Hamlet is an experimental, challenging work with an avant garde genesis but a more general appeal through its sense of humour and use of inter-media, part of this Festival's theme of the interface between the arts and technology.
This is not the production of Hamlet one would normally expect. The archive footage of Gielgud's film, and a live recording of the 1964 Broadway performance starring Richard Burton, unreels behind the live performance. The footage is semi-destroyed, figures blurring in and and out like ghosts, the film jumping so that figures and furniture appear to jolt and shift position randomly. The stage actors bring no new psychological understanding or interpretation of the theme. Rather, they mouth (or interchange with) the half-corrupted quality of the film's voices, move furniture back and forth and jerk about, miming the film, further distancing and destroying any emotional meaning.
Scott Shepherd, also shifts role between Hamlet, and the play-within-the play director. As the latter, he introduces the techniques behind the production: the film recorded live from 17 camera angles was a new form called Theatrofilm, made possible through Electronovision. Mischievously, Scott explains how they edited out pauses or put in pauses where they should not be on the film's aural tape and this is graphically illustrated by an editing screen. Throughout the performance, he steps forward, issuing orders to fast forward the film or make humourous comments.
This humour is all in keeping with the practice of the 1960s Fluxus movement which has influenced the director, Elizabeth LeCompte of the Manhattan-based Wooster Group, founded in 1975. Deriving from Dada and its anti-art ethos, Fluxus had adherents such as Joseph Beuys, and Yoko Ono. We are not meant to make total sense of the play. Attention is focused more on chaos, the destruction of tradition and communication.
Extracts from Kenneth Branagh's film are also inserted. And this perhaps is the point: how every theatrical performance, whether stage or screen, inevitably harks back to previous performances. Our understanding is only partial, the social and cultural context of the past is lost, the actors' mannerisms and delivery seem outmoded and ridiculous. All we can do is 'shore up fragments.'
In the same way, we are not meant to make total sense of the play enacted on-stage, but amazingly, the emotional high-spots still shone through: Hamlet confronting his father's ghost, Gertrude, his mother, and Ophelia, (despite the fact that the parts of Gertrude and Ophelia are both played by the same actor, the stunning Kate Valk). Throughout, certain well-known lines emerge clearly out of the blur: all is not lost.
The overarching image is of Hamlet's father's ghost, portrayed as a shadow in the iconic Gielgud film which haunts this production and the only part that speaks to the audience's imagination. Aside from this, the production is all rather tedious: this reviewer wants to be uplifted or moved by theatre and this is patently not what the Wooster Group is about.