Hamlet is a play tormented by ghosts. “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” asks one of Elsinore’s watchmen, safe in the knowledge that the spirit of Hamlet’s father will appear every night, or at least for as long as the production is running, commanding his son to avenge his foul murder. Each production is similarly haunted, laden with ghosts of performances past; with generations of supposedly unmatchable princes from Simon Russell Beale to Laurence Olivier to David Garrick. We’ll never know for sure, because theatre leaves little trace. You had to be there.
In the first Dublin appearance by the Wooster Group, however, the prominent New York ensemble tries to match Richard Burton’s Hamlet word for word and gesture for gesture, re-creating his 1964 performance from a recorded “Theatrofilm”. Brought to us as an experiment in what the performer Scott Shepherd describes, po faced, as “reverse Theatrofilm”, Elizabeth LeCompte’s production replaces “our spirit with the spirit of another”.
Burton’s performance, in other words, becomes the ghost in their machine. As a glitchily edited black-and-white recording of Burton flickers and dematerialises on plasma screens, the Wooster Group’s performance becomes a frantic act of mimicry through technology, using monitors to mirror Burton’s movements, copying 48-year-old intonations through earpieces, shifting their stage positions unnaturally or scrubbing the set into a new position each time the film judders.
Initially fascinating and impressive to watch, this method nonetheless contains madness. LeCompte makes her points with cool, sardonic intelligence: here the production itself has been cast as Hamlet, witty, giddy and chaotic as it follows the ghost’s impossible demands.
But while Hamlet himself accepts there’s a divinity that shapes our will, the play’s energy lies in his resistance. Naive as Burton’s production now seems (memories are forgiving, recordings are not), he made his own choices. Shepherd’s performance forfeits such agency – ironically, his Hamlet involves the precise execution of a difficult task. (He’d probably kill Claudius as soon as LeCompte told him to.) This makes for an aloof production, one that’s easy to admire but quite difficult to love.
Kate Valk, who plays both Gertrude and Ophelia, comes closest to eliciting an emotional response in the closet scene, but the production, coldly self-aware, doesn’t expect us to invest. It is more fluent in arch gags invoking the baggage of previous incarnations; if a scene from the Burton film goes missing (“unrendered”, the screens flash), a cringe-inducing excerpt from an Ethan Hawke or Kenneth Branagh film adaptation is duly sourced, and you’re reminded just how quickly fresh interpretations can curdle.
But what has the Wooster Group put on the line? However considered and dazzling, the act of piecing Burton together from fragments doesn’t risk failure but expect it, and so this “experiment” is never anything more than a feint. The Wooster Group knows what it will discover; it has nothing to prove.