Dublin Theatre Festival: Hamlet

Scott Shepherd in The Wooster Group's 'HAMLET' as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Paula Court

Scott Shepherd in The Wooster Group's 'HAMLET' as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Paula Court

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it” is a line spoken by Polonius in Act Two, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is one of the most fitting utterances to come to mind in relation to The Wooster Group’s radical reimagining of the infamously dark and deeply pensive revenge-tragedy.  The ‘method’ is clever in theory and complex in practice, and explained to us directly by Scott Shepherd (our Hamlet-to-be) in a kind of preface to the play from his seat centred among the screens, speakers and carefully angled video cameras of Ruud van den Akker’s clinical, metallic, and as yet unrevealing set.  The ‘madness’, it seems, in its strangely hypnotic glory, is manifest in everything that occurs thereafter.

The actors before us give flesh and colour in real time to the on-screen black and white characters of Richard Burton’s historic 1964 Broadway Production of the play directed by John Gielgud.  They do this by way of seamlessly synchronizing their physical movements, vocal tones and even the camera aspects with the footage (or more accurately, ‘Theatrofilm’) that is projected onto a floor-to-ceiling screen at the back wall of the stage.  With reticently filmic performances, the live action quickly takes the form of some kind of loose dress rehearsal, fast-forwarded here and there, and with the actors’ eyes constantly (and often distractingly) seeking guidance (as one might from a script in rehearsal) from the small video monitors set in each corner of the stage on which the film is played.  The film itself (to make matters madder) is deliberately edited without the least bit of concern for technical glitches or irregularities in sound and visuals of any description.  The on-screen figures disappear as quickly as they reappear, often in ghostly semi-transparent forms, with their grainy grey gestures flicking to the ill-timed beat of badly cut fragments of the scene.  All of this is simultaneously realised by director Elizabeth LeCompte in impressively well timed ill-time by the actors in the flesh before us, most notably by Ari Fliakos (Claudius), whose backward flicking of the foot and rapid retakes of hand and head shakes makes for one of the most comical and fascinating performances of synchrony.  The rest of the live cast join in what may be described as a kind of possessed dance of erratic puppetry as they reposition themselves accordingly in speedy shuffles to the left and right throughout the play in the duplication of what is visible on screen.  All the while, the wheel-able furniture on stage (a commode-type hospital chair attached to a long metal table and a double-stepped platform replicating that seen on the screened stage) shifts from side to side at variable angles in an attempt at replicating the seventeen different camera angles from which Burton’s play was originally filmed.  Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this inventive technique is apparently determined by the angle at which you are in view of the stage from the audience, since my side view seemed to disqualified me from appreciating the intended head-on visual synchrony and instead caused a mere disturbance of the already busy and visually-layered scenes.

What is, perhaps, evermore maddening for those who may acquire a classroom-grown appreciation for the regular rhythm of Shakespearean verse, is the deliberate displacement of the pauses to the ends of the lines of verse.  Where punctuation is superfluous, the “words, words, words” as a result gush forward in an outright resistance to the pace of normal vocal communication.  Despite its unsettling effect on the ear, this extremely challenging task is, however, executed pitch-perfectly in unison with the abridged speeches in the film.
The three hour long performance is underscored by a notable soundtrack of eerie and powerful bleeps, echoes, distorted roars and thunderous rumbles by the trio of sound designers (Schloss, Zubair and McElver).  The multiple use of screens- the play’s mutable black and white backdrop screen projecting Burton’s Hamlet, a frosted moveable screen through which shadowy figures can be distinguished, and the three plasma screens mounted on flag-poles on which live and frozen images are displayed- is perhaps the play’s most interesting element.  The idea envisioned by The Wooster Group- that of “reconstructing a hypothetical theatre piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film”- is phenomenal in its own right, but the experience as a spectator boarders on being ever so slightly wearying as a lengthy replication that lacks a live force.

Jennifer Lee holds an MPhil in Theatre and Performance and is currently completing her PhD thesis.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Dublin Theatre Festival: Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Oct 4-6, 2012

Produced by The Wooster Group
In OReilly Theatre

Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
Set design: Ruud van den Akker
Lighting design: Jennifer Tipton & Gabe Maxson
Sound design: Matt Schloss, Omar Zubair & Bobby McElver
Video design: Andrew Schneider & Aron Deyo
Costume design: Claudia Hill

With Ari Fliakos, Koosil-ja, Alessandro Magania, Greg Mehrten, Daniel Pettrow, Scott Shepherd, Casey Spooner and Kate Valk