The Worst Hamlet Since Churchill’s

heilpern hamlet1h The Worst Hamlet Since Churchill’sElizabeth LeCompte’s latest avant-garde experiment in high-tech disorientation and miked automatons might be described as the world’s first karaoke production of Hamlet, the Emperor’s new clothes, an intellectualized example of star-fucking—or what Ms. LeCompte confidently announces it to be: a re-creation of the 1964 film of Richard Burton starring in Hamlet on Broadway.

A giant video screen dominating the stage at the Public Theatre shows the three-hour film as the Wooster Group actors, led by Scott Shepherd as Hamlet, try to mimic it all in perfect synch onstage. For anyone who’s serious about theater to go to the enormous trouble of doing this strikes me as perverse enough. Time was when we went to the theater to see … well, live theater (and the Burton film is available on DVD). But in her first foray into Shakespeare after 30 years of deconstructing everything from Chekhov to O’Neill, Ms. LeCompte has managed to pull off a historic first: She’s wrecked both the film of the play and the play itself.

We see the attraction of the high-tech concept to the renowned director. Ms. LeCompte is a conceptual artist at heart whose familiar bag of tricks—the alienating banks of TV monitors and video installations, the distorted sound and dislocated images, the mobile screens, tables and walkers, the deadpan, ironic actors as wired marionettes—have now led to the ultimate “anti-theater”—a re-created movie onstage.

Ms. LeCompte’s theatrical vocabulary has reached a dead end. It developed over the years only as far as modern technology has improved. There are more video artists listed on her Hamlet production, for example, than there are actors—including six artists known as “video erasers.” Ms. LeCompte has explained that she erased and obscured numerous scenes in the original Burton film in order to reconstruct “a hypothetical theater piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film, like an archeologist inferring a temple from a collection of ruins.”

Whatever. It’s a fake premise. Meant to lull us into “a kind of madness,” as she puts it with sledgehammer insinuation, and “channel the ghost” of Burton’s 1964 stage performance, the outcome is an arty bore. The “madness” amounts only to the willful nuttiness of her production. When real madness is called for, the usually miraculous Kate Valk, doubling like a quick-change artist as both Ophelia and Gertrude, fails to do anything with Ophelia’s mad scenes. And the “ghostliness” that passes for technical virtuosity is no more than the banal digital effect of a snowy video screen, jump cuts, fast forwards or a disappearing Richard Burton.

We miss Burton far too much. Film records of famous stage productions never capture the real thing anyway. But as Scott Shepherd’s counterfeit Hamlet onstage mimics what’s left of that celebrated performance, Mr. Shepherd’s obvious limitations in the part only make us long for the real thing to do a Purple Rose of Cairo and leap from the screen to give us his blistering Hamlet.

Burton’s somewhat flashy turn is one of mesmerizing, snarling injury. His commanding ease with Shakespeare and innate sense of poetry spring from his Celtic roots. His calling card is his heroic, tumultuous contempt and fire, whereas Mr. Shepherd is no Hamlet at all, unless an impersonation of another actor’s version be one. He copies Burton’s gestures accurately (though not always), he diligently jerks and jump-cuts along with the blurry screen images, he yells out “fast-forward” when bored with what’s happening onscreen—and a little of this goes a long way. What he manifestly cannot do is capture Burton’s essence any more than he can pluck out Hamlet’s mystery. Left to his own narcissistic devices, Mr. Shepherd either shouts or decides to drift into a relaxed Southern delivery. But the tortured Hamlet is never relaxed. (Nor is Burton.)

 

MS. LECOMPTE’S SHOCK tactics are well known, of course. Woe to those of us who aren’t shocked by them. (Her disciples are quick to accuse doubters of being old-fashioned—or worse, unhip.) The director who spliced her version of Three Sisters with scenes from Godzilla (Brace Up!, 1991), and linked Gertrude Stein’s opera Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights with the soft-porn movie Olga’s House of Shame (House/Lights, 1999), must be onto something. But what, exactly—except hollow effect?

On the other hand, the expressionistic version of The Hairy Ape (1992) had all the usual technological tricks, yet it memorably hit the mark in the scary shape of Willem Dafoe playing Eugene O’Neill’s antihero like a monster from the bowels of the earth. And I enjoyed the 2002 version of Racine’s high tragedy Phèdre (renamed To You, the Birdie (Phèdre)), mostly because the game of badminton being played onstage was so gloriously, inappropriately nuts. (The production also featured theater’s first public enema. Ms. Valk was pretending. But still.)

Alas, the new experimental Hamlet isn’t even fun. Mr. Shepherd drops his pants at one point to show us a melancholy prince in jockstrap and garter belt. It’s the sort of lame joke that was once considered irreverently outrageous long, long ago. Ms. LaCompte randomly splices the filmed Hamlets of Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke into the Burton video, and throws in Charlton Heston speechifying in some biblical epic for easy, smug laughs from the gallery (and gets them).

But what fun she might have had! One of the extras in Burton’s Hamlet was the unknown James Rado, who went on to create the first rock musical, Hair. Plus, a great fan of Hamlet happened to be Winston Churchill. (Unless he could be dissuaded, he used to recite chunks of it drunkenly at dinner, along with rousing selections from Henry V.) And, thanks to a learned correspondence with my colleague at The Village Voice, Michael Feingold, I’ve discovered that Betty Hutton, the 1940’s star and Preston Sturges’ immortal Trudy Kockenlocker, knew her Shakespeare, too: She performed a spoof number by Frank Loesser titled “Hamlet” in the movie Red, Hot and Blue. It has to be a classic. (“The moral of the story is very plain,/ You better get a muzzle if you got a Great Dane.”)

Let’s see now: We’ve got Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Richard Burton, the creator of Hair, Winston Churchill’s sodden recitations and the Betty Hutton “Hamlet.”

I think Ms. LeCompte had her chance, and she blew it.