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RIAF: The Wooster Group’s Hamlet

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For the first time, the famed experimental theater group The Wooster Group, based in New York, has come to Sarasota, as part of the Ringling International Arts Festival. Their production—or reproduction—of a Hamlet faithful to a little-seen filmed version of the play starring Richard Burton, back in 1964, is a sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating experience. […]

October 13, 2011


For the first time, the famed experimental theater group The Wooster Group, based in New York, has come to Sarasota, as part of the Ringling International Arts Festival. Their production—or reproduction—of a Hamlet faithful to a little-seen filmed version of the play starring Richard Burton, back in 1964, is a sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating experience. It’s also probably one that the audience for its first performance at the Cook Theatre won’t soon forget.

The idea of this staging (directed by TWG head Elizabeth Lecompte) is to make what Scott Shepherd (impressive in his control of the evening as both Hamlet and our guide to the process) calls a “reversetheatrifilm”—or something like that. A large screen shows us the somewhat faded, hard to distinguish (in other words, ghostly) apparition of the Burton version, while the actors replicate, by gesture, movement, delivery, etc., that performance (itself directed by legendary Hamlet John Gielgud). The voices sometimes overlap, so we occasionally catch those ephemeral moments when Burton was at the height of his Shakespearean fame. The production also imitates the costuming of the original film, which was itself experimental in its use of rehearsal clothes, and in other aspects of the staging.

But where to begin to fully explain The Wooster Group approach? Besides the pervasive video elements, throw in a song or two for Laertes (styled here with purple hair and a rock star-like attitude), the sounds of a heart monitor, a nurse who pushes around a wheelchair-like throne, the computer manipulations often handled by Shepherd himself (a laptop-carrying Hamlet, who frequently stops the dialogue to say things like, “Let’s skip ahead here”)—this Hamlet is certainly stuffed with technological savvy.

But it’s also, mostly, emotionally devoid when it comes to actual involvement in Shakespeare’s original story. (I guess that’s not what it’s all about here.) And I found it hard to see the production’s reediting of the film (to make the verse speeches, spoken freely in the 1964 production, adhere strictly to the line breaks) as anything but annoying overall, as the fast forwards, jumps and cuts often reduce the actors to Tourettes-like tics, with head twitches and jerky steps. Sometimes the audio is speeded up (deliberately) to the point of unintelligibility, rendering voices that sound as if they’re on helium.

Is this Hamlet more intriguing than annoying? You be the judge; it’s performed again Thursday (today), Friday and Saturday. One has to applaud the absolute indefatigability of the cast, at the very least. For tickets go to ringlingartsfestival.org or call 360-7399.