Thumbnail of CoverClipping from the February 24, 2007 Issue of The Economist

The Economist February 24th 2007 | Books and arts | New theatre | Prince of our disorder | A “Hamlet” for the brave | WHEN it came to thinking through how to stage her new, avant-garde version of “Hamlet”, one thing that the director, Elizabeth LeCompte, knew was that it should not look a bit like the Danish castle where Shakespeare’s most famous play takes place. So the stage is cluttered with microphones, monitors and cables. A video-screen serves as a backdrop. The set looks far more like a recording studio than Elsinore. | An actor comes to the front, taps a microphone and asks if the audience is ready. This is Scott Shepherd, who plays the prince. Perhaps the audience is about to witness a rehearsal, or a “Hamlet” made up on the spot, or another play altogether. With Ms LeCompte’s Wooster Group you never know. That is the point. They dismantle illusion before any attempt has been made to mount one. | Since 1975, when a small group of like-minded writers and actors got together in a New York space known as the Performing Garage on SoHo’s Wooster Street to improvise with new texts and some old ones, nothing in a theatre is sacred when the Woosters are in residence. The acting is stylised, often deliberately mechanical and monotonous. And they make extensive use of video and amplification. Plays, such as Racine’s “Phedre” or Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, are deconstructed and reassembled with new motifs. | In “Brace Up!”, the Woosters’ Chekhov, there was a strong Japanese flavour. In “To You, the Birdie!” (“Phedre”), the action was reconstructed around a badminton game, shuttlecocks landing on the ground to the sound of shattered crockery. | There is a trick, too, behind their “Hamlet”. Scenes from a modern-dress Broadway production, starring Richard Burton as the prince and filmed over two nights in 1964, flicker on the screen throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance. The actors on stage-seven in all, covering all parts (Kate Valk plays both Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and Ophelia)-take a stance, then reposition themselves as the film stops and restarts. Their words sometimes echo those in the film or occasionally anticipate them. Sometimes there is no film at all and, unusually for this group, an intact original text unfolds with gripping, though brittle, intensity. | Ms LeCompte explains that it was Mr Shepherd’s obsession with the play, which he knows by heart, that encouraged her to try it. She was especially impressed when one day she saw him and Ms Valk improvising the great scene in Act III between the prince and his mother: “I had kind of ignored the play, so I listened to audio-tapes, some going back 100 years. The Burton production I saw live and that actually changed theatre in New York. This was Shakespeare giving in to celebrity, and it totally freshened him up.” | This “Hamlet” will appal some for being so resolutely unclassical. But the play is all there. Probably only the Wooster Group would dare inflict such technological terrorism on it, yet leave its audience with so entertaining a revelation.  | The Wooster Group’s “Hamlet” is at St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York, from February 27th to March 25th | Looking on his like againo |