The Wooster Group’s Hamlet

Director Elizabeth LeCompte and company brilliantly deconstruct Shakespeare’s masterpiece, as filtered through Richard Burton’s 1964 production.

Judson Williams and Scott Shepherd
in The Wooster Group's Hamlet
(© Paula Court)
Judson Williams and Scott Shepherd
in The Wooster Group’s Hamlet
(© Paula Court)

Theater lovers who know the work of the Wooster Group might have expected that when Elizabeth LeCompte and troupe did something as surprising as tackle Hamlet, there’d be a whole lotta deconstructin’ goin’ on. The speculator would be right, although no one might have anticipated one of the most revitalized interpretations to be unfurled in recent years and what, furthermore, is likely to remain unparalleled for some time to come. Just say that the result on view at the Public Theater lands somewhere on the more ecstatic side of brilliant.

Describing exactly how this Hamlet operates, however, is no easy task. There’s even the risk that a bare description will either puzzle or put off a potential audience — or, worse, do both. Prompted by group member Scott Shepherd, who for some while has been longing to play the melancholy Dane, director LeCompte began looking at filmed and videotaped productions. She became especially intrigued by the 1964 Broadway mounting that starred Richard Burton and was directed by John Gielgud. More to the point, she began thinking about the complicated process of taping a production and what the reverse process might look like. That is, she began to focus on how a Shakespeare ensemble would appear were they to try replicating a recorded version — including cuts, close-ups, the entire multi-camera rigmarole.

The result is that her cast — including veteran Wooster group member Kate Valk as both Gertrude and Ophelia — perform on a simple set that designer Ruud van den Akker has closely modeled on the Ben Edwards set which had one raised area and the deliberate look of a rehearsal hall. Placed prominently upstage is a large screen on which is projected the 1964 film that captures Burton’s sonorous and impassioned performance as well as Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude, Alfred Drake’s Claudius, Hume Cronyn’s Polonius, and Linda Marsh’s Ophelia. (FYI: This reviewer saw that highly-publicized production.)

As the filmed version proceeds, the energized ensemble mimic as accurately and fleetly as they can the gestures and the movements of their grainy predecessors. This requires them constantly to rearrange themselves according to the perspective from which the cameras shot the earlier players. Consequently, while speaking the lines — and sometimes suggesting the film be fast-forwarded — they often have to behave as if jerked around on marionette strings. Some sequences they speak familiar lines rapidly and with minimal expression, while at other stretches they give themselves over to more traditional emoting. This is particularly true of Shepherd and of Ari Fliakos during Claudius’ prayer scene.

This rough summary of LeCompte’s approach doesn’t come close to suggesting the effects she achieves. Though the actors regularly imitate rather than reimagine their roles, their performances — as might be surmised — don’t undermine the play. They have the opposite effect. They reinforce attention on them, make Shakespeare’s lines pop in a manner they may not have before. Watching and listening to the chisel-featured Shepherd delivering the four famous soliloquies while craggy-faced Burton mouths them behind him, somehow makes them resonate anew. (I thought I heard the occasional fragment of Burton’s voice, but that might have been an illusion.)

The 13 ensemble members in their half-costume- half-rehearsal-togs wardrobe appear to be having a high old time both playing the Bard’s classic and playing the replica game LeCompte sets in motion — with cameras whirring and partitions on casters gliding. Valk as Gertrude in an Eileen Herlie wig speaks her lines trippingly, but as Ophelia seems to be tripping over those lines. (She’s probably having a joke on Linda Marsh’s less than stellar Ophelia try.) Fliakos, who looks enough like Alfred Drake to be a close relative, is strong. So is Bill Raymond as Polonius, although he doesn’t go for the humor that Cronyn brought to the part. Indeed, the whole gang — running around the stage to catch up with the edited Burton-Gielgud model — is a collective whiz.

LeCompte slots a much larger implication as well into this unique and hypnotic undertaking. Using Hamlet — arguably the most famous play in the world — in this way, she issues an important statement about theater. What she’s getting at is the special quality that theater possesses because no performance of a play can be an exact replica of any other. That goes even if the attempt is made to repeat a previous performance. Every revival of this (or any other) play is a recreation. At the same time, it’s something completely, thrillingly new-made. Using Hamlet, LeCompte is celebrating theater in its totality. Theater-goers are strongly encouraged to join the celebration.

Featured In This Story