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Deconstructing Hamlet

Deconstructing Hamlet

Earlier this week, the Mrs. and I looked at our upcoming schedules (busy!) and made a last moment decision to grab tickets for the Wooster Group‘s Hamlet, which today enters the second week of its run at the Public Theater here in New York. I have only seen a few of the legendary theater company’s shows in the past, but I consider myself a fan; The company’s use of multimedia and their, well, deconstruction of theater itself expands in scope and power with each performance, and their take on Hamlet is a compelling examination of the intersection between history, film and theater.

First, for my friends who are not into the whole postmodernism thing, let me begin by addressing a common criticism that somehow, deconstruction provides little more than an empty onanistic platform for pretentious nonsense. I know that the idea of engaging a text (be it a film, a play, a book or anything) by taking it apart and examining the multiple meanings within, the form, function and inherent contradiction that can exist within a single work, can be alienating for those simply not interested in examination at all. There may be something to be said for mindless consumption (although I am not sure what it is), but I have always thought of deconstruction as a way of seeing things, a way of rejecting the implied authority of an author’s role that ultimately enriches a work by opening it up to the whole world. So often, I recognize the disconnect between my own primary tendency to dig into works and their meanings from an emotional and personal point of view and the way in which others see things. I use that emotional moment as a jumping off point, and seeing a film or play or reading a book a first time, I allow myself the pleasurable experience of simply feeling. But if there were ever a case to be made for my own commitment multiple viewings, it is that I do believe strongly in deconstructing art; Every viewing enriches the levels and layers of meaning encased within a single text and I actually enjoy discovering those levels. It is one of the principle pleasures of thinking. The Wooster Group’s Hamlet takes the most venerated text in Western Literature, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet*, and uses it as a platform for deconstructing the modern theater itself, live, right before our very eyes. Let me do my best to unpack what Director Elizabeth LeCompte and her amazing company are up to…


The company’s previous play, Poor Theater, carried a revealing subtitle which has a direct bearing on this production of Hamlet and probably on the Wooster Group’s philosophy about acting; “A Series of Simulacra”, wherein the actors become, in the case of Poor Theater, simulations of the cast of Polish theater Director Jerzy Grotowoski and their production of Akropolis. (which is represented by a video of the performance which the Wooster cast acts out simultaneously) and the company of ex-pat choreographer William Forsythe (and the man himself). I want to point to Ben Brantley’s review of Poor Theater in The New York Times as a jumping off point to discuss Hamlet. Two plays talking to one another through the voice of a critic, a way of describing both by inaccuracy. This will serve as your plot summary. Let’s go…

When artists imitate one another, it isn’t only the sincerest form of flattery. Nor is imitation necessarily a symptom of a lack of original ideas, though the recent histories of Broadway and Hollywood might lead you to think so. As the Wooster Group demonstrates with wit, warmth, humility and, yes, sincere flattery in Poor Theater… imitation can be a hopeful attempt to crawl into the skin of someone else and see how it fits. This is not, for the record, always a comfortable activity… Poor Theater finds a company famous for deconstruction in the reconstructive mode of literal impersonation…” — Ben Brantley, The New York Times, September 29, 2006

Let me stop him there for a moment (or in the parlance of this Hamlet‘s video screen… “Pause”). The word I want to focus on here is impersonation. Remember that word. Impersonation. Got it? Ok, start again. “Play”.

Unlike the company’s masterly deconstructions of plays by Eugene O’Neill, Poor Theater involves a measure of collective navel gazing. Its self-consciousness can feel, on occasion, overly precious and insidery… Art is a religion for the members of the Wooster Group. Like all good churchgoers, they understand that precisely observed rituals can sometimes allow you a glimpse of heaven.“–Ben Brantley, The New York Times, September 29, 2006

“Pause” again. OK, another word to remember is the hyphenate self-consciousness. Self-consciousness. “Fast Forward”. Brantley’s review of Hamlet. “Play.”

The mesmerizing ghost of Richard Burton, at the height of his fame, materializes and dissolves again and again in the Wooster Group’s meticulous re-creation of a production of Hamlet staged on Broadway 43 years ago, starring Burton and directed by John Gielgud…” — Ben Brantley, The New York Times, November 1, 2007

“Pause.” New words: meticulous re-creation. Stay with me, this is going somewhere I promise. “Play.”

This downtown troupe’s sometimes ravishing, often numbing homage to a fabled theatrical event turns Burton’s performance as the Prince of Denmark into a tantalizing on-screen disappearing act…The technical team of the Wooster Group has massaged a filmed version of the Burton Hamlet, which had a brief theatrical release, into a liquid, black-and-white canvas of evaporating forms and faintly heard voices… This Hamlet, which places mimetic live performances before the grainy, wall-filling screen version, is much more than an overextended visual pun. As the actors…try to give flesh to the fading phantoms behind them, the production becomes an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theater. For how could anyone without a fully equipped time machine hope to summon exactly the experience of Burton on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in the spring of 1964…? What crackles and sparks in the air of live theater can seem quaint and lifeless when captured directly on film, a fact of which Ms. LeCompte and company are well aware… The Wooster Group’s own Hamlet is largely a gesture-by-gesture duplication of what’s happening on the screen behind. When, that is, you can make out what’s happening on the screen, where the actors have a way of suddenly fading into nothing but a pair of illuminated eyes or simply nothing at all, and where the whole mise-en-scène can suddenly turn snowy. Any sense of what Burton’s Hamlet was really like becomes as unreliable and mutable as memory.” — Ben Brantley, The New York Times, November 1, 2007

“Stop.” A couple of new words now. Homage, duplication and unreliable. So, let me summarize. Through these two plays, The Wooster Group are employing the following devices and strategies in their relationship to a source “text” which they integrate into their performances:

Meticulous Re-Creation
Unreliable (and here, I think he means in the postmodern sense).

I’m going to draw a line here and talk about what is really happening on the stage, because I think Brantley who is, let’s face it, the most important theater critic in America, has got it all wrong on this one. He’s making a common mistake and it is important we get it right because Brantley himself holds the role of high priest of mimetic functionality; I heard his words repeated and grumbled by audience members, echoing throughout the intermission. Say a Times review doesn’t matter and I’ll point you to a vast sea of received opinion trapped in the echo chamber of New York’s theater patrons, endlessly cycling back, word for word! I shit you not. It would be nice to at least hear the parroting of the play’s actual strategy. Whit Stillman had it right; “I don’t read books. I only read literary criticism.” Exactly. Oh, right. I was drawing a line…



The Wooster Group’s production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a theatrical palimpsest, a presentation whereby a selective history of Hamlet sits on one stage, together, the ink of the past bleeding into the live performance of today. Parts are erased and written over, visible as fragments. The past is recycled, repurposed, reimagined while in partial view. It is also, primarily, a ghost story, a haunting interpretation where the etherial specter of Hamlet‘s history as a performed piece of theater rides shotgun with the paternal visitations of Hamlet’s dead father; Hamlet, haunted by the ghost of itself.

The play begins when Scott Shepherd, who is playing Hamlet, cautiously walks on stage while the house lights are still up (and people are still finding their seats) and begins conversationally talking to the audience and the technical team about the video projection of John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet (starring Richard Burton as Hamlet) that sits behind him, paused on the video monitors and the large screen at the back of the stage. “Fast forward past this until we get to the ghost,” our present day Hamlet says, staring into a monitor on the floor before commenting on one of the actors passing by at eight-times normal speed “That’s Barnard Hughes,” Hamlet says. “He was in Midnight Cowboy.” Together, the audience and Hamlet watch the screen as the images run by in fast forward and the house lights slowly dim. Finally, we settle upon the first ghostly visitation in Hamlet and slowly, a few words at a time, Shepherd’s Hamlet begins to simulate the 1964 version, which shakes and stutters on the screen, rewinding a few frames and jumping a few frames ahead, Shepherd capturing these artificial, manufactured ticks and hiccups both physically and verbally.

Hamlet (Photo by Paula Court)

And soon, the play is in full swing. Shepherd is joined by the rest of cast, and as their immersion into the simulation of the video image (itself a simulation of the live theatrical experience of Gielgud’s play –a very important distinction) grows deeper, new techniques emerge. Most interesting to me was the way that the cast literalizes cinematic technique by showing the artificiality of cinematic perspective, editing, the use of cross-cutting, etc. When an edit is made in the film, the cast physically recreates the shift in perspective on stage; The staging is racked in and out by actors and stage hands physically moving pieces of the set (and themselves) closer to and then further away from the audience. For example, when, in the Gielgud video, a master shot becomes a two-shot filmed from a position to the side of the stage, all of the live actors pivot, the subjects simulate the two-shot by suddenly coming center, downstage and together, and the rest of the stage is repositioned to simulate the perspective of the video image. Sometimes it happens so quickly in the editing of the film that the actors shuffle inches forward and back in a matter of seconds, take trips halfway down the stairs before adjusting to perspective and climbing them again to simulate height, etc. This being a Wooster Group performance, the integration of the Wooster’s own video tricks and techniques eventually enter the fray; Most significantly, the technicians digitally remove images from the 1964 video in order to highlight a single gesture, piece of clothing, or a hand as it is simulated by the actors on stage. By the middle of the play’s second half, with Ari Fliakos and Casey Spooner terrific in several roles each and Kate Valk’s great doubling of Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and Ophelia (what would Freud say about that?), the technique doubles back on itself so that we are now inside of a mobius strip of Hamlets and Hamlets, meanings and interpretations, while still being essentially in Hamlet itself. The best example? At the end of The Player’s unwitting simulation of Claudius’ supposed murder of his brother and Hamlet’s father (written for them by Hamlet himself to catch his step-father’s reaction to seeing his own crime), you’re suddenly watching a play simulating an actual murder in the past, placed within a play within a video within a play within a play simulating a video of a play in the past. And then, suddenly on the screen, Ophelia and Gertrude engage in a conversation; Since the brilliant Kate Valk is playing both roles in two separate costumes, Shepherd’s Hamlet, author of the play within the play, looks to the audience with a concerned face before saying “We better skip past all this Ophelia stuff” and the film fast forwards on the screen letting Valk, the actress within the play, off the hook. And that is the moment you realize exactly what this production of Hamlet is really all about.

“Fast Forward.”

Hamlet (Photo by Paula Court)


The vast difference between mimesis/simulation and homage/impersonation/re-creation is crucial to understanding the intended meaning of Le Compte’s production of Hamlet (I put a note in below, so that I can better explain the importance of this distinction without bogging things down for those who know better already. See the ** at the bottom of this post.) Ben Brantley’s reviews of The Wooster Group productions I referenced above do not grasp this distinction and instead misrepresent the action on the stage (which is intended to be a mimetic but wholly integrated, self-contained and original work on art in itself) as being the equivalent of re-creation through impersonation. The key to this misunderstanding is in a sentence I did not comment on previously, when Brantley writes

…the actors…try to give flesh to the fading phantoms behind them, the production becomes an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theater. For how could anyone without a fully equipped time machine hope to summon exactly the experience of Burton on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in the spring of 1964…?

Well, no one could “hope to summon exactly the experience.” Isn’t that the point? That is exactly what the play is not; An homage to the greatness of Gielgud’s production and to Richard Burton’s performance that tries to “give flesh” to the past. If that were the case, why would the company constantly subvert the film of the play (or use a film of the play at all?) Instead, why not study the film and then re-stage the play movement for movement, scene for scene, gesture for gesture, inflection for inflection in cold, patient submission to the original performance? That would be a “meticulous re-creation”. Obviously, The Wooster Group is up to something else entirely. It is interesting to note that Brantley’s own interest in the Wooster production wanes the more the Group intensifies the techniques of mimesis and literalized simulation:

Yet what is of such priceless worth in this production — the evocation of the longing to know what a past performance was like — is established with great eloquence early on. I was quite happy (and occasionally rapturous) during the show’s first half. But by its second, I felt it had crossed the line from hypnotic into narcotic.

Well, that is because what is of “such priceless worth in this production” is not “the evocation of longing to know what a past performance was like”, but instead the physical reality and transparent interplay between a filmed version of a play and its incorporation into a living, breathing piece of theater, here, right now. This Hamlet is not about nostalgia for a sexy, young Richard Burton but instead about the malleability of Hamlet itself, its themes and meanings, its characters and the way in which these actors (the living ones in the play you’re watching) carry the weight of the text itself alongside the innumerable temporal and unknowable representations that came before them. Here, the role of simulation is not to flatter the filmed versions (plural) of Hamlet (which, in this performance, included a hilarious appearance by Charlton Heston in Kenneth Brannagh’s version and the voice of Bill Murray in Michael Almereyda’s version) through impersonation, but instead to break apart the role of the actor, of technique, through the use of simulation, of becoming a character that is precisely another actor’s interpretation of a character. Which is to say, the only thing more artificial than the manipulated, ghostly filmed version of Gielgud’s version of Hamlet on display in this play is the idea that somewhere in time, Gielgud’s version carried some primal authenticity or authority. The opposite is true; The Wooster’s Hamlet takes Hamlet apart, calling the entire enterprise into question by showing just how transmutable theater is, how maleable a text (a play, a film, a performance) can be, and how tradition and authority are very much open to question.

Which, not surprisingly, is what Hamlet himself is all about. As played by Scott Shepherd, the young prince is a Puckish control freak who seems to be engaging in a present-day act of autobiography, taking the audience past the parts of his own story he finds unnecessary like a kid with ADD. He doesn’t honor the past, he wants to make his case, assure himself and get his revenge (Burton, Claudius, whoever!!!) Shepherd is a propulsive actor, and his most illuminating moments come not when he is aping Richard Burton, but when he is undermining Burton’s strange and sometimes stilted delivery. It is clear that Burton himself came from the school of “memorize it and say it fast” Shakespearean acting and, listening to him duel (or dual) with Shepherd on some of the most famous lines in the history of theater, you can’t help but think Burton was drawing bold, knowing underlines with his delivery. The monologues, with Burton’s stilted stops and starts, strange moments of laughter and imposing physical stature offer Shepherd the opportunity to create a winking alternative to Burton’s Hamlet as they battle for our attention and for supremacy on the same stage. Hamlet’s interiority, his self-consciousness, is made hauntingly manifest in this almost schizophrenic relationship between Shepherd and Burton as the young Prince heads toward his fateful showdown with his father’s ghost and his new step-father. All of those monologues, all of that talking to himself, now physically manifest in the rivalry between two Hamlets. Isn’t it true, after all, that Hamlet is playing a role, that of the dutiful son, in order to see his plot through? Perhaps the ghost of the Burton Hamlet is how Shepherd’s Hamlet imagines himself, his inner self, while the world around him is something else entirely.

Hamlet (Photo by Paula Court)

Ultimately, watching Hamlet dissolve into something new and exciting before your very eyes is an exhilarating experience, but I can understand why people might find the whole enterprise overwhelming; There is so much richness in this production, so much to think about. At the same time, isn’t that the point? Shouldn’t art engage us on all of these levels, shouldn’t we be transported through time and back again, through places within ourselves as well as manufactured, external places? For me, The Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet opened up a new way of looking at the play, a continuum of meaning that will only grow from here. The play is the thing. Bravo.

* I mean, Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom considers Hamlet to be the moment in which Shakespeare invented modern human consciousness. So, a big, important play then, Harold?

** Simulacra or simulation are different from imitations, duplications and re-creations. An example; Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell Soup Cans are simulacrum of actual Campbell’s Soup Cans. A poster or print or an advertisement of a Warhol painting of a Campbell Soup can is a duplication of a painting. Me forging an exact likeness of Andy Warhol’s painting is a re-creation of Warhol’s original simulacra. Me doing a very inexact painting of a Campbell’s Soup Can in the style of Andy Warhol is an imitation or homage. The Wooster Group are engaged in a simulacra or simulation; They are creating an original work of art that is in direct reference to other stand alone objects (in this case, John Gielgud’s filmed theatrical production of Hamlet and the play Hamlet itself). A map of Hamlet that is, itself, now Hamlet. They are not making a duplication or copy of the Gielgud (did the Gielgud play fast forward through itself? No.), they are not forging an exact likeness of the Gielgud (not even close… The use of video screens, actors doubling in unique ways, music… not even close) and they are not doing an inexact version in the style of the Gielgud. This Hamlet is a stand alone work of art. In terms of mimesis, or mimicking the words and gestures of the performers on the video of the Gielgud version, I propose that the actors are not so much imitating or copying as they are playing the role of the other actor along with a video representation of the original performance. Meaning, Kate Valk (say) is not so much copying the on-screen Ophelia as she is simultaneously Kate Valk playing Ophelia and Kate Valk playing Linda Marsh playing Ophelia. An important distinction, I think, which adds meaning to each actor’s role in this production.

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