Tuesday 13 August 2013

EIF 2013 – The Wooster Group Hamlet, or, Theatre Is Not Dead, But It Very Soon Will Be If It Serves Up Diabolical Shows Like This

Regular readers will know that the Pollard Clan has a benchmark for awfulness, the legendary Edinburgh International Festival American Repertory Theatre production of Three Sisters back in 2006. As I reeled out of this ghastly evening, I was unsure whether this was worse, but it was certainly a very near thing.

The Wooster Group here present an idea that proves to be really quite remarkably Bad. Well, I say present, but it should really be re-present as it transpires from reading the programme that in fact they originally presented this back in 2007, something the Festival has gone out of its way not to publicise – had they done so I might have discovered the New York reviews I found upon my return home this evening and not made the mistake of buying a ticket. The show appears to have been resurrected because it fits Jonathan Mills's technology theme – a theme which has so far blessed us with two of the worst Festival shows in recent memory.

However, to get back to this remarkably Bad Idea. Back in 1964 Richard Burton's performance as Hamlet on Broadway was filmed by 17 cameras and broadcast to cinemas around the United States.  For reasons best known to themselves, the Wooster Group apparently thought it would be a good idea to create a show where the film would intermittently appear on a screen at the back while a live ensemble of actors recreate the film on stage – cue endless imitation of gesture, voice, movement etc. etc. I can't really imagine that if this had been done straight it would have been much good, but the Wooster Group are clearly not a bunch to stop at half measures. So they also significantly edited the film. Large sections are dispensed with (though sadly not nearly enough to prevent an increasingly desperate boredom from setting in). This speeding up also had the effect of reminding me of Tom Stoppard's brilliant 15 Minute Hamlet (if only Mills had given us a production of that). Those sections which remain are jumpy, weird pauses are inserted all over the place to ensure almost all remaining textual sense is eradicated (classic deconstruction technique this). Scott Shepherd (the show's sort of Hamlet) gives as their reason for this at the start, that with the advent of film and tv, theatre has been killed. I completely dissent from this position, but as I said in the title if we produce ghastly stuff like this then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The pity of it all is that this is clearly a very good company of actors and a talented production team. Scott Shepherd (extraordinary  in last year's Elevator Repair Service Gatz in London) would almost certainly have given a notable Hamlet had he chosen to. The overall imitation (so far as one can judge since often the film has been tampered with to render it impossible to tell what it was originally like) is remarkable. On the rare occasions when these performers actually deliver a bit of Shakespeare's text straight the delivery impresses. These moments are sadly constricted because everything around them is seeking, in classic deconstruction technique, to remove all sense of character and feeling from the play, but they bring home the tragedy of expending so much talent and effort in such an utterly pointless, barren enterprise.

This show is the latest instance of Mills's increasing tendency towards theatre programmes dominated by such deconstructed theatre, the shows in which have generally ranged from the indifferent to the awful. There have certainly been quite a lot of deconstructed Shakespeares too many. Perhaps he might like to have a rethink for his final festival. In the meanwhile, one performance of this show remains tomorrow. If you have a ticket I'd return it in favour of Mitsuko Uchida at the Usher Hall, if you haven't you need shed no tears. We can only hope that remaining shows on the technology theme improve in quality. On the basis of this and saturday's Fidelio it shouldn't be difficult.

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