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international: the wooster group


ghosts of hamlets past

tony macgregor experiences the wooster group magic


The Wooster Group, Hamlet The Wooster Group, Hamlet
photo Paula Court
GROWING OUT OF THE CREATIVE AND POLITICAL FERMENT OF THE DOWNTOWN NEW YORK ART SCENE IN THE EARLY 1970S, THE WOOSTER GROUP HAS REMAINED ‘A THEATRE COLLECTIVE’ LONG AFTER AUSTRALIAN GROUPS BORN OF THE SAME IMPULSES SIMPLY GAVE UP THE STRUGGLE AND FADED AWAY (THE AUSTRALIAN PERFORMING GROUP BEING THE MOST OBVIOUS PARALLEL). INDEED, IN THE CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN CONTEXT, THE IDEA OF A ‘COLLECTIVE’ SEEMS ALMOST OUTRÉ, SUGGESTING A PROJECT BOTH NAÏVE AND IDEOLOGICALLY OVER-DETERMINED. BY CONTRAST, THE WOOSTER GROUP HAS MAINTAINED A SENSE OF INTELLECTUAL PLAY AND ENGAGEMENT WHICH READS AS FRESH, VIGOROUS AND UNAFRAID—AND AS RELEVANT TODAY, IN THEIR PRODUCTION OF HAMLET, AS IT WAS WHEN I FIRST SAW THEM IN 1986. FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS THEY HAVE SUSTAINED AN EXPLORATION OF THE POSSIBLE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PERFORMER, TEXT AND MEDIA TO CREATE AN EXTRAORDINARY BODY OF WORK WHICH HAS BEEN CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING AND RIGOROUS.

The Wooster Group’s longevity seems even more remarkable when you consider the company has had only one director—Elizabeth LeCompte—working with a core group of powerful personalities (including Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk, and formerly Ron Vawter and Spalding Gray) and a shifting roster of associates. Taking into account all the mundane problems of maintaining a theatre company, such as ever increasing salaries and production costs and the fickleness of critical fashions, as well as the potentially explosive combination of creative personalities, it’s easy to imagination that either exhaustion or implosion would have put paid to the company a decade ago.

However, the Wooster Group appears to have found a strategy which has allowed a visionary director and a company of strong-willed performers to work together for what for many has been an artistic lifetime—even as one of the core members of the group (Dafoe) has built a career as a mainstream, if minor, Hollywood star. And unlike her contemporaries (Twyla Tharp say, or Arianne Mnouchkine), LeCompte remains relatively in the background: she is clearly a formidable character, but seems content to let the performers be the public face of the company. (Mnouchkine’s shock of grey hair and steely gaze I recall from her watchful presence before and after performances by Theatre du Soleil, but despite interviewing LeCompte in the late 80s, and having had the privilege of seeing the company perform on at least six occasions since then, I cannot for the life of me remember her face!)

The Wooster Group oeuvre includes “nineteen theatre pieces, four dances, three radio plays, five video/film works, and the first eight monologues of Spalding Gray” (www.thewoostergroup.org), and will soon include an opera when they take on Cavalli’s La Didone, via a collision with “Mario Brava’s 1965 cult movie Terrore nello spazio.” The collision of a classic or overburdened theatre text and an obscure ‘cult’ film is a typical starting point for a Wooster Group production. The violent encounter of mediums, performance styles and histories produces the rich multi-modal performance language which defines the company’s style, a hectic, always surprising collaging of personal and public histories, pop cultural references, performance techniques and media.

newly mediated old hamlet

The Wooster’s Hamlet is no exception—but in this case, the cinema text in question is a version of the theatrical text: a rarely seen 1964 film version of a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring and directed by Richard Burton. A single performance was recorded ‘live’ by 17 cameras and edited into a film that was shown for only two days in 2000 movie houses across the US. It was the first and only example of what the producers conceived as a new form—“Theatrofilm”, made possible through “the miracle of Electronovision.”

The Wooster Group have taken this forgotten ‘theatrofilm’ of Hamlet, and edited it to emphasise the meter of the verse. As a consequence, the whole film loses the illusion of visual seamlessness that editing usually seeks to engender, and the scenes seem held together by jump cuts, with weird elisions between shots. Figures stutter and jump, and frequently vanish altogether, or appear only as ghostly after images, present only as versifying voices.

With this ‘detourned’ film as their text, the Wooster Group then set about a kind of crazed reverse engineering process: “our Hamlet attempts...reconstructing a hypothetical theatre piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film, like an archaeologist inferring an improbable temple from a collection of ruins. Channelling the ghost of the legendary 1964 performance, we descend into a kind of madness, intentionally replacing its own spirit with the spirit of another.”

While the result may be a kind of madness, it is far from hypothetical. The Wooster Group’s Hamlet is striking not only for its humour (often slapstick) and its purposeful deconstruction of both text and performance language, but because it gives us, in the end, a deeply satisfying and affecting version of a classic play.

by design

The set up is standard Wooster Group scenography—a raised thrust stage framed by the scaffolding of light and sound rigging. A large screen forms the back of the performance area, and on a pair of a parallel bars running vertically, a decent size flat screen monitor can slide up and down. At the front of the stage, a microphone on a stand and, on another arm coming off the mike stand, a small video camera. Scott Shepherd/Hamlet is the man behind the mike, and the camera relays his image to the monitor which travels up and down a little in front of the large main screen, on which we can see the edited ‘theatrofilm.’ All the performers wear head mikes, and their voices (as well as the voices of Burton and company from the sound track of the film/video) are amplified, affected and moved between various loudspeakers to create precise effects. Sound amplification and the use of spot sound effects (footsteps, various cartoon crashes and bangs) played in live evoke both rock and roll and the Foley effects in film post production.

Indeed, the whole set up is a variation of rock concert typologies, suggesting a kind of travelling show—a medieval mummers’ stage for the 21st century.

While the technical set up is complex (in that obvious rock’n’roll way: nothing is hidden away), the ‘props’ and furnishings are basic—a table with legs of the same light industrial pipe as the rigging has large castors which enable it to be wheeled around with ease, so too the large clunky office chair which serves as throne. There is a rack of clothes (behind which Polonius lurks), and not much else. A couple of other chairs are brought on as needs demand. The set and furniture echo the bare stage and minimalist setting of Burton’s Hamlet, played in modern dress upon an almost empty stage.

the live edit

The performance unfolds as Shepherd (real time image displayed on the monitor) directs the operator to fast forward, or go back, to particular scenes in the 1964 film, projected behind him (there is also a monitor hanging above the stage in front of him, on which he watches the film). The actor on stage attempts to mimic the cadences and action of the on-screen Hamlet—striking the same poses, making the same moves, in the stuttering, jerky rhythms of the edited film. In the first half of the performance, this is largely played for laughs—or at any rate it’s very funny, as the whole company jerks and leaps around reciting Shakespearean verse but acting like poorly co-ordinated marionettes. Mostly we hear the ‘live’ performers, but acoustic traces of Burton’s voices also appear, and it’s not clear in these moments if Shepherd is following or leading the performance. Working with the screen image makes for some wonderful stage craft. To compensate for camera pans, Ninja costumed stage hands move the table and chairs: as, say, the camera pans right, and the table ‘disappears’ out of the left hand frame, the stage hands move the table to the left at the same speed. Likewise, when a jump cut will see an onscreen actor seemingly repeat a gesture, the onstage performer does the same. The result is a company possessed by the flickering shadows of Burton et al.

As if this wasn’t enough, Shepherd also screws with the timeline of the narrative, for example directing the video operator to skip the “get thee to a nunnery” scene only to come back to it later, to pick up the threads of Hamlet’s relationship to Ophelia in a series of back to back scenes at a point he feels is more effective. When the Players arrive (and are instructed by Hamlet) a scene from another film version of Hamlet is cut in, with Charlton Heston as the Player King.

real and fake collapsed

By the beginning of the second half, the sense of novelty has worn off, and the St Vitus Dance of possession has become ‘naturalised’ as the physical language of the piece—which, by the way, has never wavered from a straight, intelligent vocal reading of the text itself—and the play begins to work on other levels. As the actors struggle to make the words and actions of others their own (or, rather, are inhabited against their will by the words and actions of others), they are also making visible the ambiguities of identity, agency, authenticity and dissimulation explored in the play, and which Hamlet himself neurotically embodies. There is no Ghost in this version of Hamlet—rather the actor confronts the ghosts of generations of Hamlets, of which the spectral flickering of the ageless Richard Burton captured by “the miracle of Electronovision” is the most (literally, in this instance) luminous.

At the end of the play, the stage is littered with bodies (at the culmination of a breathtaking ‘real’ stage sword fight), and the images on the screen fade into ‘snow’, the video equivalent of white noise, while the thunderous applause of the taped Broadway audience turns into static, which melds with our own applause. It’s an extraordinary collapse of real and fake, of real time and recorded time, of then and now. And the Wooster Group have once again told us a great story, while minutely examining the nature of theatrical gesture, the relationship between live and cinematic performance, and the role of the actor. And all of it with a light touch, an almost casual sense of play.


The Wooster Group, Hamlet, director Elizabeth LeCompte, performers Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, Roy Faudree, Ari Fliakos, Daniel Pettrow, Casey Spooner, Judson Williams, space design Ruud van den Akker, lighting design Jennifer Tipton, Gabe Maxson, sound Geoff Abbas, Joby Emmons, Matt Tierney, video Reid Farrington, costume design Claudia Hill, film directed by Richard Burton; St Anne’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York, Feb 7-March 25; forthcoming Public Theater, NY, October 2007

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 6

© Tony MacGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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