As we walked out of our building on Water Street in DUMBO, we saw a shiny, brand-spanking-new Mercedes faltering at the intersection. We knew it was lost because shiny new Mercedes aren't indigenous to DUMBO, so it only meant one thing. The owner of the car was going where we were that night, St Ann's Warehouse. That's the thing about The Wooster Group. They have a very loyal and dedicated following and the great thing is that people will even follow them –gasp!– over the river.
The Wooster Group's foray into Shakespeare is certainly not your mother's Hamlet, well not my mother's, anyway. And it is certainly not like any Hamlet I have seen before and that's a good thing. The Wooster Group describes it as an "archeaological excursion into America's cultural past". What that means is they were highly drawn to the 1964 Richard Burton Hamlet which was filmed with 17 cameras at differing angles, the actors in rehearsal clothes. The footage was then edited into a film and shown at 200 theaters around the country for a period of 2 days only. The film was then supposed to be destroyed, but Burton's widow kept a copy. All in all, an alluring concept, and very well done.
The Wooster Group takes this film as the platform for their own Hamlet. Well, not a platform but a basis, an imitation and homage. The film is projected as the backdrop to the play, and the players stay impeccably true to its parent, imitating their stage directions, gestures and movements. This sounds simple enough, but this imitation is true to the angles that the 17 different camera create on the film version, meaning that the angles and views change constantly. The Group deals with this by moving themselves and also the props and furniture (which luckily for them was minimal) in accordance with the camera angles, stage front being the screen.
If this doesn't sound complicated enough, the Group also skips through some of the footage (although not much; the play is a bum-aching 3 hours long) and the film also has a few blips, all of which are faithfully translated by the players on the stage. But the film and play are also sped up and slowed down so that the speech is in tune with the original iambic pentameter; the meter in which most of Shakespeare's plays are written, the meter of English poetry. This would normally be fine, but this requires the jerkiness of changing the film to be in accordance with the meter and then the players also. Confused yet?
The film is also toyed with a little – characters are erased from the screen to compound the ghost-on-ghost theme of the play and also this particular production of it. You find yourself testing them as you watch their jerky hand movements and stage jumps that are always a meticulous mirror of what is going on in the backdrop of the film behind them. I have to say that whether or not their production was successful, their execution of their intent was flawless. And their intent was a massive feat.
Was the acting good? Certainly. Hamlet himself was powerful, troubled and arresting. What was particularly effective was some of the later scenes in Act IV, when Hamlet's demise is being discussed but he is not actually part of the scene. LeCompte uses Hamlet to move the props on the stage, wheeling the furniture around, present but not quite there. Hamlet is also the controller of the footage – he pauses it, skips through it, controls it and owns the story and quite literally this stage. Gertrude and Ophelia were both played by Kate Valk, which heightened the contrast between the innocent young girl and incestuous mother in a very interesting manner. The film's graininess and poor quality lends itself very well to being a symbol of the flickering ghost, a constant reminder of Hamlet's father, ever present. It's all really rather clever: the use of a transient ghost of a film being used as symbolism for the ghost on the stage. Do I sound sarcastic? Well, maybe just a little bit.
The Wooster Group's intention was fulfilled technically extremely well. Did it lend me any further understand or emotion connected to the underlying meaning of the play? Not at all. But I don't think it intended to.