Imparting instructions to the actors hired to expose his uncle’s guilt, Hamlet tells them to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”. Suiting the action to the word has long been a central tenet of a certain branch of theatremaking, which seeks above all to remain faithful to the intentions of the written text – to “serve the writer”. The script is understood as the fixed and stable original, of which any production is just an ephemeral version. Through their playfully intelligent layering of quotation and interpretation, however, The Wooster Group launch a whopping great question mark over this understanding, insistently prodding at accepted notions of text, authorship, authenticity and liveness.
The Group, performer Scott Shepherd explains in a prologue of sorts, are reconstructing a past performance – theatre as archaeology. The performance in question is John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet, which was produced on Broadway and beamed out to the world in what was then a landmark for filmed theatre. The recording was meant to be shown in cinemas just twice and never seen again, thus preserving the fleeting nature of the live event. But The Wooster Group have got their hands on the tapes.
And because this is The Wooster Group, it’s nowhere near as straightforward as a faithful reenactment of Gielgud’s production. The company have played around with the footage, editing it so that the rhythm directly matches the pattern of words as written on the page, causing the figures on tape to jump and freeze. With delicious wit, The Wooster Group enshrine and explode the idea of authenticity in the same moment, using this attempt to apparently “serve the text” as a tactic for revealing how false and misguided such a philosophy of interpretation really is. The assumption that a theatrical text can ever be understood as stable is exposed as increasingly absurd.
This intellectual flair is typical of The Wooster Group’s approach. In their attempt to conjure – or perhaps exorcise – the ghost of Gielgud’s production and Richard Burton’s Hamlet, each of the performers precisely copies the actions of their 1964 counterparts on screens mounted around the stage, while on the main screen behind them the recorded figures dissolve in and out of sight. More than simple imitation, this evocation of past performances reminds an audience that every role is haunted, while at the same time unveiling the iterative nature of acting. There’s also something fascinating in the slippages between performance past and present, raising questions about the synchronicity of our experience of theatre. We, like the actors, are always a split-second behind, running to catch up.
While The Wooster Group could arguably have given this treatment to any classic play if a similar recording were available, the use of Hamlet feels particularly apt for the interrogations that this work makes. For a start, our culture is so drenched in references to it that the play can already sound like quotation, even for those coming to it afresh. As The Wooster Group layer it with version upon version, dropping in snippets of other film adaptations alongside the 1964 production, what is left is the sense of a theatre built upon citation – the performative equivalent of Roland Barthes’ “tissue of quotations”. There’s also a satisfying irony to the fact that the most troublesome aspect of most productions of Hamlet, that pesky ghost, becomes the focal point for a piece concerned with theatrical ghouls.
Much of the enjoyment generated by The Wooster Group’s dissection of this text is of the same character as the gratification gleaned from reading an intellectually stimulating thesis. It’s the ideas that really thrill. This said, however, their performance is no dry academic text. It’s funny, often surprisingly so, as furniture is frantically shifted around the stage and the production blithely fast-forwards through sections of the play that most of us have no doubt wanted to skip at some point. Shepherd – who so dazzled in Gatz last year – holds the piece together with wry wit and charm, while the role-juggling performers around him offer vital energy to what could easily become a static knot of ideas. The Wooster Group’s version of a version may occasionally feel a little distant in its cool intelligence, but there are few opportunities to see intellectual exploration and theatrical virtuosity so brilliantly married.