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Hamlet - The Wooster Group, Richard Burton and the Return of Electronovision

The Wooster Group have always been interested in exploring the ghost in the machine. Ever since the New York-based avant-garde pioneers came stepping out of a 1960s counter-cultural underground high on cut-ups and multi-media, they have consistently redefined what theatre can be in the post-modern age. The Wooster Group's theatre us a theatre of research, in which documentation and research are vital tools, especially if tackling a 'classic' play.

More than a quarter of a century on from their first Edinburgh International appearance, The Wooster Group are prrsenting a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet which was first done in New York in 2007. As you might expect from the company, LeCompte's take on the play is different from any reverent, heritage industry approach to the bard which UK theatre-makers might doff their caps to.

“I hadn't thought to do the play,” LeCompte says, “but Scott Shepherd, who plays Hamlet, had been doing the play as a one-man show for years occasionally around New York. I think he wanted to do it with The Wooster Group, and he and Kate [Valk, long-standing Wooster Group member, who plays both Gertrude and Ophelia in the production] got a bunch of people together to work on as a reading. They invited me to come over, and I got hooked there on a couple of things. I got hooked on this ghost. I mean, how do you do that? I got hooked on Gertrude as well, and we started looking at a lot of films, and I got into the history of the play, and watching whatever recordings we could find.”

LeCompte also got to thinking about a performance of Hamlet she saw in the 1960s, which was a near legendary production directed by John Gielgud, which featured Richard Burton in the play's title role. With Burton at the height of his film star fame, the production was filmed from seventeen different camera angles using what was hailed as a new form known as Theatrofilm, which utilised something called Electronovision. The film was then shown over just two days in some two thousand cinemas across America, and remains little seen since then.

Despite the gloriously retro notions of Theatrofilm and Electronovision, the 1964 film can be seen as a precursor of the sorts of screenings major theatre and opera companies do with hot ticket productions, The Wooster Group are reversing the trend by having live actors onstage mimicking what's happening onscreen while allowing their own personalities to pour through. The result, as the film is at moments fast-forwarded, is an audacious remix for the twenty-first century.

“I got intrigued by recalling what I had seen,” LeCompte says, “and by remembering it and trying to recreate it in some way. Recreate isn't really the right word, but it wasn't about trying to reimagine it either, because I wanted it to be there, like a ghost. So I attached myself to the film because it was a full performance, and then asked Scott and Kate and the others, none of whom had seen it, to watch it and just do it. After that, we got deeper into this thing about how, if in the year 3000 or 2050, if someone came down from Mars and wanted to see an artifact of our civilisation, how do we figure out how it was performed? So we used that as an idea, to pretend that we didn't know how it was performed.

At the same time, Scott didn't like the way it was performed and Richard Burton's interpetration. Burton was doing it without stressing the end of the line, so Scott edited it, and it eventually beca,e what it is now.”
These are techniques LeCompte has been exploring since The Wooster Group's early days.
In their first visit to Edinburgh in 1986 with LSD Just The High Points (rather coyly billed by Edinburgh International Festival as The Road To Immortality Part Two), for instance, a company featuring Willem Defoe and a young Steve Buscemi in the cast, presented four very different sections to their play. One of these reconstructed what happened when the company left the camera running after dropping acid in the rehearsal room. Another presented a deranged courtroom drama that looked like a manic take on Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Miller had refused The Wooster Group the rights to his play, so they wrote their own. Their take on mass hysteria was a frenetic affair, punctuated occasionally by klaxon noises that moved the cast speedily on to the next scene in a way that lent it a filmic, jump-cut effect in much the same way as is the case in Hamlet.

“It's developed a lot,” LeCompte says, “and we've gradually found out a way of working and using the things that we do that works.”

Long term Wooster Group watchers can chart the company's development through a quartet if videos culled from the company's extensive archive, and screened by New Media Scotland as part of the EIF programme.

While The Wooster Group are regarded of the grand-parents of the theatrical cut-up, melding different pop cultural influences together, the last few years has seen a new breed of American theatre-makers who have picked up the Wooster Group's baton and run with it enough to help create an avant-garde new wave. Most notable of these id The T.E.A.M. (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), who use literature and film to explore more explicitly political concerns than The Wooster Group do, even as they are recognisable descendants. This is something that LeCompte gets positively clucky about.

“I see it all the time,” says LeCompte. “It never occurred to me in my wildest imagination that there would be a whole new theatre that say things differently. They've all taken different little pieces of what we worked on originally, and they're doing things that are radically different, but with the same ideas at the core. I think it's pretty great. It makes me very happy, and I never thought I really cared, but I do care when I see someone taking something that we explored and making it something that I can't recognise, something new. That's the most exciting thing. I do see people who are just straight copying without bringing anything to it, and that makes me fee really sad, but there are plenty of people who are reinventing it, and that's really nice.”

Hamlet, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 10th-13th, 7.30pm.

The Herald, August 8th 2013



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