Published in Edinburgh Festivals Magazine
THE NEW YORK TIMES once said Scott Shepherd was a practitioner of "extreme acting". "It was a long time ago," laughs the Wooster Group stalwart when I remind him of the quote. "Maybe I've got less extreme with age."
There's no doubt the newspaper had a point. This is an actor who played every part in Macbeth in a one-man staging nearly 20 years before Alan Cumming had the same idea. More recently, Shepherd memorised The Great Gatsby in its entirety for a celebrated six-and-a-half hour performance.
By contrast, playing the lead role in Hamlet may sound like taking it easy. Except, with the Wooster Group involved, this is no straightforward Shakespeare. We're talking about the experimental theatre company whose production of La Didone six years ago in the Edinburgh International Festival managed to fuse a 1641 opera with a 1965 B-movie. The Wooster Group does not do conventional.
True to form, Hamlet is less a staging of the play than a staging of a movie of the play. In 1964, Richard Burton played the doomy Dane in a Broadway production directed by John Gielgud. At the end of the run, in a move that now seems 40 years ahead of its time, the company filmed the show with 17 cameras and, thanks to "the miracle of Electronovision", screened it for two nights only in 2000 US cinemas.
Now, director Elizabeth LeCompte has dug up what remains of that rare movie footage and used it as the basis for her Hamlet. Splicing the two things together, she gives us live and recorded Shakespeare at the same time. It means Shepherd has the task of playing Burton playing Hamlet, sync-ing every gesture and articulation with that of the great movie star.
"In certain forms of Japanese theatre you spend years meticulously copying the performance of some kind of master," says Shepherd. "In the western tradition, we think it's each actor's duty to bring some original idea. Their performance is supposed to spring from them as some kind of self-expression."
By working from recordings, the actor found himself freed from this expectation. "It's a way of getting beyond your own tricks, clichés and impulses," he says. "You're doing gestures because you've been instructed to. I've got to move my arm here now because that's what's happening in the movie. Out of that emerges a performance that you begin to understand and shape to yourself. Making your performance becomes a process of discovery as much as invention."
Shepherd can say this now, but it took time to get into the right frame of mind. His impulse was to play Hamlet in his own way, almost as a comment on how Burton played it. That, though, was too confusing to watch. "I thought I would put my performance next to his. I suppose I thought I could compete with him. But I soon learned that wasn't going to work and there was more to be discovered by finding some sort of collaboration with him. I had to learn how to channel the ghost of that performance from 50 years ago and build my performance on top of that."
Few actors would ever get the chance to study another actor's performance in such detail. For Shepherd, once he went with the flow and stopped thinking of Burton's style as old-fashioned, it has been like having a personal masterclass with one of the greats. "I learned to appreciate what he was doing and find those impulses within myself," he says. "It's kinaesthetic. By doing the movement, you begin to understand something that you don't understand by watching. It's an education for me and the group as a whole."
He hasn't started talking in a Welsh accent but he has felt Burton's influence on his work. "There's something that I keyed into about his confidence with the language of Shakespeare. With a lot of actors, you end up feeling their struggle to sell Shakespeare's expressions as natural. Burton didn't have that anxiety. I tried to learn that from him."
Some Wooster Group reinterpretations have given only a fragmentary taste of the source material, but this one does offer a coherent, narratively complete version of Shakespeare's tragedy. Bringing Burton back to life may sound like a gimmick, but there is method in the madness. Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father and, here, Shepherd is effectively haunted by the ghost of Burton. "A looming figure comes back from the grave to give him instructions that he doesn’t entirely agree with," says Shepherd, who has been obsessed by the play since directing it at college and "inadvertently" memorising it. "It may come as a surprise to connect the Wooster Group with this old Broadway play from the 60s but this is a genuine connection."
WHERE & WHEN
Royal Lyceum Theatre, 10–13 August, 7.30pm
From £10, Tel: 0131 473 2000
© Mark Fisher 2013
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