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The Wooster Group's Hamlet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Scott Shepherd
Photo by Paula Court.

If the Wooster Group's Hamlet, which The Public Theater is housing at its Newman Theater, were being presented under a different title, its claim to brilliance would already be assured. Because, while it vaguely concerns that famous family of troubled Danish royals, its questions about being or not being are asked in more abstract ways than even adventurous productions of William Shakespeare's most famous play would dare.

That makes any direct comparisons to the peerless original challenging at best and useless at worst - under the hands of director Elizabeth LeCompte, Hamlet just ain't Hamlet anymore. That will undoubtedly disappoint, confuse, and even anger some - an outraged colleague of mine bolted at intermission - but it doesn't diminish the results of what is at its best a gripping evening of theatre. It's the first Hamlet I've seen, on stage or screen, that successfully sheds all the weighty vestige of 400 years of history and analysis that so often give Shakespeare's enduring tragedy the dusty patina and musty scent of an academic thesis.

It surely must also be among the first - if it's not the first - to either downplay or delete some of the English language's finest speeches and most resounding thoughts. From "What a piece of work is man" to "Alas, poor Yorick," and even - gasp - "To be or not to be," the words (when you can hear them) fly by so fleetly (when they take wing at all) that you hardly recognize them, leaving you the rare opportunity to view what's onstage as not part of a greater context, but rather the entire context. What LeCompte has put onstage is a group of nine actors acting as front men to Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn, and Alfred Drake.

Those three men were, respectively, Hamlet, Polonius, and Claudius in the then-groundbreaking 1964 Broadway revival of the play, which was directed by John Gielgud, himself once a Hamlet of considerable distinction. This production was its own deconstruction of the classic Hamlet aesthetic, played in what looked like rehearsal clothes against a skeletal frame of a multileveled set, and helped propel an already skyrocketing Burton still further into the stratosphere. More unusual still, it was filmed and shown in 2,000 movie theaters across the United States for only two days, before vanishing into the storage vaults of history.

LeCompte has charged her company, which is led by Scott Shepherd as Hamlet, with recreating the spotty surviving black-and-white video of that performance as it projects on a movie screen located far upstage. Everything, from the original performers' voices, movements, and reactions to the camera pans and zooms, is replicated as closely as possible. Ruud van den Akker's set facilitates this with the use of sliding panels and a series of video screens (which aid with the close-ups) and a general design that recalls and refracts Ben Edwards's 43-year-old design.

Kate Valk and Casey Spooner.
Photo by Paula Court.

The actors - who also include Ari Fliakos as Claudius, Bill Raymond as Polonius, Kate Valk as Gertrude and Ophelia (setting up the evening's funniest in-joke), and Casey Spooner as Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern - do remarkably well mimicking and evoking the 1964 cast, but those moments are never among the most enlightening of the evening. Far more fascinating is what happens during the snatches of time when the film crutch vanishes, either because the video is being fast-forwarded, or because the source material no longer exists or the quality has degraded to unwatchability. When these moments aren't filled with other footage (Kenneth Branagh and Charlton Heston make brief cameo appearances), the real excitement kicks in as the Wooster Group actors themselves step through the gaps in the film to take center stage.

Shepherd might choose to abandon Burton's bombast and instead quietly ruminate on his character's existential nature the way a more traditional Hamlet would. Spooner's Laertes might wail a pop ballad to the departed Ophelia as Hamlet wastes his time with skulls in a graveyard. Or the entire cast might spontaneously decide to use the Bard as the basis for an intermission-ending rock concert. But what always bleeds through in these moments is that the performers, like Hamlet, have been tasked with duties beyond their mortal control - their words and actions are not their own.

So resigned and convincing do they become as they cope with this knowledge that they embody the play's isolationist emotions in deeper and more vivid ways than I've ever seen before. As Hamlet descends into his revenge scheme and the surrounding body count rises, the pain of being slave to an unforgiving Fate resonates through everyone with the pounding clarity of an overamplified bass. It registers most strongly in Shepherd's single-minded Hamlet, but Valk ensures her linked characters are all but flattened under their obligations, and the ends they meet make them more significant losses than usual.

Effective as LeCompte's conceit is, it's not without a cost: You can't help but wish everyone would unleash even more of their modern magic; and the production's three-hour running time is pushing it, with the concept (it never feels like a gimmick) never wearing thin but also never reaching the heights you hope it will. If LeCompte's Hamlet is imperfect, it keeps excellent company with the thousands of productions over the centuries that have been more faithful to the text but haven't been as spiritually or dramatically true.

The Wooster Group's Hamlet
Through December 2
13th Street Repertory Theatre, 50 West 13th Street
Tickets: please call 212.967.7555 or visit

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