Nov 7, 2006

Hamlet at the Pompidou Centre, Paris


Go on, say it to yourself, out loud.


It is a heavy, magical word, the saying of which instantly conjures a storm of signs and meanings; skulls, and stages, TS Eliot and Laurence Olivier, To Be's and not To Be's. If even to pronounce the word carries with it such a caravan of cultural baggage, then staging a production under this banner must be done in the knowledge that you are reaping the whirlwind.

Rather than keeping this intimidating knowledge somewhere in the back of their minds, The Wooster Group confront it head on. A company not unused to messing with 'The Greats' (their production of Miller's The Crucible, L.S.D, had the playwrite foaming at the mouth with indignation) this is nonetheless the first time the company has retained the original title of a work. Clearly this is set up as a confrontation from the start - Liz Lecompte the plucky David to this most mammoth of all cultural Goliaths.

And yet (as should be expected from the Wooster group) before we have even entered the auditorium the goal posts have been shifted. A slither of white paper insterted in the programme informs us that this is not a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet but a recreation of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway version (recorded at the time to be screened across the country in thousands of cinemas in groundbreaking scheme known as 'theatrefilm'). Hamlet the play, no longer takes centre stage, the limelight instead shifting to the relationship between this present Hamlet and a past imagining of the text. Here then is Liz Lecompte and her company not as David but as a Matador, tempting the bull into charging then skipping sideways at the last minute. It is this that is the somewhat tantalising yet frequently frustrating game that the show proceeds to play for the next two and a half hours.

What the audience is confronted with is a cast of indisputably talented actors mimicking as exactly as they can the movements and speech of the figures from the 1964 broadway Hamlet that is projected behind them, and on television screens across the stage for them to take their cues from. Every camera change (there were 17 recording the broadway show), close-up, editing malfunction and screen flicker is represented. Closer to a gym work-out than a dance, the actors leap in jagged movements across the stage to change camera angle, arms and heads jerking back and forth as we see the figures on the screen behind do as the aging filmreel flicks and skips.

Meanwhile the film itself as been digitally touched so that Richard Burton and the other actors fade hauntingly, at many moments disapearing entirely to leave nothing but an empty set and the camera focused on an unseen body that the audience can only imagine from the actions of the live actor in front.

This exhausting, constraining exercise becomes the perfect metaphor for Hamlet itself, a narrative play hideously distorted by the weight of cultural reference that both company and audience bring to the show. A weight that means that a speech about suicide is greeted with warm familiarity and the report that two minor characters have been unjustly executed is always accompanied by knowing sniggers. All actors performing Hamlet are bound by the past, here, those chains are made visible, not disguised by gimicry or cod naturalism, but centre stage for all to see.

Within this context, the moments that work most effectively are Shakespeare's own irony-laden comments on theatre. The mousetrap becomes a fascinatingly anarchic experience in which the number of levels of performance taking place are dizzyingly impossible to pin down. Hamlet's famous solilquys are also imbued with a new sense of despair and absence in the production, as the actor jinks and stammers to an alien rhythm, while the ethereal half presence of Richard Burton (part actor, part Hamlet, part ghost) appears and disappears behind him, his famous voice echoing certain lines or even words. In addition the haunting presence of the ghost audience (laughing still from beyond the grave, or at least the end of the show) represent an uncomfortable reminder of the all to brief and transitory nature of all that takes place both inside and outside of the theatre.

And yet, is this clever meta-Hamlet enough to sustain the full length of the show? For all their quick footwork (both metaphorically and literally) the company never tackle the play head on, never attempt to subdue it or dismember it, leaving it respectfully intact. Indeed, by the end it appears that the undoubted power of Shakespeare's text has in fact subdued the company, as, stagefighting and all, the audience is treated to an almost traditional, almost, dare we say, naturalistic, finale.

And then of course, there is still a third Hamlet to consider, Richard Burton's 1964 broadway version. In its time considered revolutionary Broadway material not only for its simple set and its insistence on rehearsal room clothes instead of costumes, but also because in its filming and screening across the country it looked to give theatre to the masses, to democratize the medium by bringing Broadway to Des Moines and Jacksonville. In comparison (and indeed, in comparison with the company's own earlier work) The Wooster Group's knowing dance around the play comes off badly - an all too clever metatheatrical treat for those select few who can make it to the Pompidou centre in Paris.

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