Shakespeare 2016 10. Digital performance and reinterpreting the canon: The Wooster Group Hamlet 2007


This section is about 'Performance' as no longer focused on dramatic text only. Performance is defined here as ‘devised’ experimental work, which includes physical theatre and dance, multimedia theatre, performance art and ‘new writing’, as well as innovative staging of classical drama, such as the Wooster Group Hamlet, which takes drama to a different level by transgressing / transcending the canon and engaging with it at the same time.

Deconstruction has been a driving force of performance in contemporary practice since the 1970s. The experimental theatre company the Wooster Group are pioneers in doing so successfully since the mid-1970s. They constitute a landmark in the theatre landscape of recent decades: one that opens up the field of performance to infinite possibilities and distances itself from classical theatre-making.

The WG Hamlet will illustrate the subject of performance and the shift from a text-based culture to a media age of image and sound. It will also reflect on the creative uses of archives using 21st century technologies and provide a historical link to the contemporary phenomenon of 'livecasting' and digital theatre.

A focus on the Wooster Group production will allow us to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 2016, starting with Richard Burton's production of Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud, which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 1964 to celebrate, at the time, Shakespeare's 400th birthday.

Burton's Hamlet was recorded on high resolution video tapes using a technology called 'Electronovision'. The tapes were transferred into film, edited and shown for two days at US cinemas nationwide as 'Theatrofim'. A surviving copy of the film was then transferred into commercial VHS tapes. Later on it was digitised and issued as a DVD. The Wooster Group re-edited and re-played the digital film as part of the Wooster Group Hamlet performance, which will itself soon be released on DVD by the company.

The use of Burton's Hamlet recording in the Wooster Group Hamlet makes an excellent case study in the reuse of performance documentation and media archives, and will be of particular interest to the contemporary Performance Studies constituency, as represented by academics and students at Goldsmiths, Roehampton, Queen Mary, etc.

Exhibits and areas

There are three main areas in section 10:

Area 1 : Electronovision with Richard Burton's Hamlet: The First Broadway Production Filmed Live.

Area 2: The Wooster Group Hamlet.

Area 3: Livecasting / Digital Theatre.

Area 1

Richard Burton's Hamlet: First Broadway Production Filmed Live

Video & tapes to display - items 1 - 2

1999 VHS release of Hamlet

Display - item 3

Electronovision promotion pack of Richard Burton's 1964 Hamlet directed by Sir John Gielgud.

Warner Brothers 1964 Electronovision 'materials kit' with instructions for publicity, promotion, selling aids and advertisement of Richard Burton's Hamlet film, which ran for two days, in almost 1000 cinemas, on the 23rd and 24th of September 1964.

Display - item 4

Electronovision promotion pack at the British Library

During the two-day run, the film was shown four times: two evenings and two matinees. The matinees were aimed at students and the company tried to persuade schools to dismiss the children early so that they could see the film.

Display - item 5

Publicity images from Richard Burton's Hamlet film.

Audio - item 6

Electronovision advertisement: Richard Lederer, Vice President-Advertising, Warner Bros. Pictures Co.

Display - item 7

Burton's medallion.

Flexi-disc of Richard Lederer, Vice President-Advertising, Warner Bros. Pictures Co. giving explanations on how to present the film at the cinemas. / Hamlet medallion, included in Richard Burton's Hamlet Electronovision promotion pack, intended to be worn by the cinema staff during the two-day run of the film, as part of the 'dressing the house for Hamlet'.

According to The New York Times (1964) Warner Brothers spent a total of $700, 000 on promotion and distribution of the film ($5,406,855 in today's money). Richard Burton invested in the project and it is thought he could have made $1 million from the two-day show at the time.

Display - item 8

Electronovision infographics.

Diagram of the Electronovision system

Electronovision was a technology involving a combination of television electronics and film techniques. Hamlet was recorded at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, under the play's normal lighting conditions and over the course of three live performances. The recording required the use of several small cameras placed in the orchestra seats. The feed was sent just outside the theatre into a mobile unit, transferred into film and edited, producing a result resembling a 1960s videotaped broadcast.

After the run, the prints of the show were supposed to be destroyed due to contractual reasons. Two copies survived: one that Richard Burton donated to the BFI; and one discovered in 1988 in Burton's garage by his widow.

Audio - item 9

Burton's interview and advertisement.

An interview with Richard Burton talking about Electronovision and the radio advertisement made for the production

Video - items 10 - 11

Display - item 12

Interview transcript from Electronovision's promotion pack. 'Special Open End Interview with Richard Burton'

Richard Burton on actors performing and either being adept or inadequate....
'The immediacy of Broadway'
Burton's reservations about doing the classics

Horace William Sargent Jr., entertainment impresario and founder of Electronovision, also tried to make arrangements with Sir Laurence Olivier to film his version of Othello the following year in Toronto. (Perhaps this is the reason why the Electronovision pack was found in Olivier's archive here at the British Library. Sargent may have had it sent it to him during the negotiations for the filming, which in the end didn't happen).

Hamlet's 1964 production was directed by Sir John Gielgud and premiered at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on the 24 April 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. The play ran until the 8th of August.

The film opened just over a month after the play's run. Gielgud didn't like the film and he said in The New York Times that it 'wasn't very cinematic and it wasn't theatre either'. He also said he 'deplored the tendency of actors to try to immortalize everything they did'.

Video - item 13

Passing on the torch

The only surviving footage of Sir John Gielgud's Hamlet at the Old Vic in (1944)

Screenshots from the only surviving footage of John Gielgud's Hamlet at the Old Vic (1944) which is featured in 'Diary of Timothy' (1945), a short documentary film by Humphrey Jennings. - Humphrey Jennings collection DVD.

Gielgud's engagement with Hamlet as performer and director is well documented. (Great Shakespeareans Set IV, p.34-) (Unfinished....,)

Magazine display - item 14

Life magazine special edition (1964) dedicated to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

Front cover of Life magazine, special issue celebrating Shakespeare's 400th birthday.

Burton first played Hamlet at 27, giving 101 performances at the Old Vic, London 1953. In summer 1963, while making the film Becket with Gielgud, he asked him if he would direct him in Hamlet.

Gielgud staged the play in the manner of a dress rehearsal — a so-called 'final run-through' — with minimal props and no period costumes. The actors were free to choose their own clothing. Richard Burton wore modern black plain clothes.

The production was rehearsed in Toronto and did a pre-run in the city and in Boston. During that time Burton married Hollywood star actress Elizabeth Taylor. They had worked together in the film Cleopatra. The celebrity status of the married couple drew audiences to the play. People paraded outside the theatre to get a glimpse of Taylor, who would show up to meet with Burton at the end of the show.

Display - item 15

Burton's Hamlet production cast

Richard Burton's Hamlet cast 1964. The production had a run of 137 performances.
'It was a sell out for the entire run and it became Broadway's longest running and most profitable Hamlet in stage history. It was also the first Broadway production to be filmed live with the audience.' (Richard L. Sterne, 1967).

Display - item 16

Book: John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet. A Journal of Rehearsals, London 1967

One hundred and twenty hours of tape were secretly recorded during the rehearsals by actor and author Richard L. Sterne, who played the roles of a gentleman and player musician in the production. He later told Gielgud and Burton about the tapes and his plan to write a book. Gielgud and Burton reacted favourably. John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet. A Journal of Rehearsals was published in London 1967. It includes verbatim transcriptions of discussions.

Later, Richard Burton wrote a review of Sterne's book for Life magazine (9 February 1968) 'A Reluctant Hamlet Reviews the Tale of How It Got to Be or not to Be', in which he explains how he met Gielgud while doing Hamlet at the Old Vic in1953; recounts the day they discussed doing Hamlet together in 1963 when filming Becket and his differences with Gielgud regarding the delivery of the verse. (unfinished)

'I wanted people to feel they were seeing it for the first time, and if the verse had to be mauled and brutalised a little, the mauling and brutalisation should go on. Now there lay a problem.
John Gielgud is the most mellifluous verse speaker of our time and is always aware of the exact cadence and rhythm of the iambic pentameter. He is incomparable, I am, and always have been, determined to get the sense over first and let the rhythm and poetry come where it will. I didn't want to know where the stop lines were. We compromised, though John never ever approved some of my, to him, horrendous readings.'

This was the first time that a movie star drew a lot of attention to Shakespeare.

'From then on, we've never had a Shakespeare that didn't have either a television or a movie star in it. It changed Broadway for us, and it changed all of acting in America for us...Gielgud thought he (Burton) was going to imitate his performance, and of course, Burton didn't; and that made Gielgud pretty angry.' (Elizabeth LeCompte)

Audio and item display - items 17 - 18

Record set of the play made in 1964 with the original cast and recorded in one day.

Columbia Masterworks LP album set. A four-record set made in 1964 with original cast. The entire production was recorded at an all-day session in the studios of Colombia Records. It contains an illustrated booklet with articles on actors playing Hamlet; Shakespeare and his rivals; Sir John Gielgud; Richard Burton; Costumes; the story of Burton’s Hamlet; bios of cast members; quotes on Hamlet from 1661 till T. S. Eliot in 1919; Hamlets by men, women and children, etc.

Area 2

The Wooster Group Hamlet 2007

Digital performance and reinterpreting the canon

The Wooster Group Hamlet illustrates the shift from a text-based culture to a media age of image and sound. Here, Hamlet is staged in dialogue with a projection of Richard Burton's 1964 film version, rather than Shakespeare’s text alone, to guide the production.

The Wooster Group is the most important experimental theatre company in the US and possibly the world.

'They engage with classic texts in a deconstructive manner and 'they are known for their high-tech intermedia aesthetic, which makes use of video, film, electronic sound effects, microphones and computer programs, to disrupt, fragment, and transgress the dramatic text and the bodies of ‘characters’.' (Karen Jürs-Munby, 2006)
'Documentation plays a key role in The Wooster Group's making process. Transcription, forensic reconstruction of documentary material (drawn from recordings of their own rehearsals, television, film, the performance work of others, interviews, telephone calls, meetings and so forth), the intricate construction of scores by performers, technicians, assistant directors, stage managers, all indicate the multiple ways in which documentation is not only a residue of their process but also a vital component of the Group's creative practice.' (Andrew Quick, 2002)

Elizabeth LeCompte, the company's director, saw Richard Burton’s Hamlet with her mother in 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. But what made her to choose Burton’s Hamlet as a reference point for the Group's Hamlet was the discovery that the production had been filmed and shown in cinemas around the country in what was then a ground-breaking experiment.

The Wooster Group set out to take the play that had been turned into a film and reverse the process. LeCompte describes the Wooster Group Hamlet as an 'archival or historical reconstruction'.

According to the show's programme, The Wooster Group intentions with Burton's film were:

‘to reverse the process, reconstructing a hypothetical theater piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film, like and archeologist inferring and improbable temple from a collection of ruins’ production’.
‘We channel the ghost of the legendary 1964 performance, descending into a kind of madness, intentionally replacing our own spirit with the spirit of another.’

Display - items 1 - 2

The Wooster Group Hamlet playbill

Image by American photographer and painter Richard Prince. The poster shows the picture of a nurse emerging from a pile of books and a DVD case of Richard Burton’s Hamlet. All the books are editions of Hamlet, except one, Hollywood Nurse, which relates to Richard Prince's 'Nurse Paintings' based on the covers of a 'naughty-nurse' book series by Marguerite Nelson published in 1960s . The nurse is the only character from the cast depicted in the poster and the playbill. This is a new character created to accompany Ophelia (Kate Valk) when she is going mad. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Gerturde appears accompanying Ophelia but the role of Gertrude in the WG Hamlet is also played by Kate Valk. According to Elizabeth LeCompte, Richard Prince came up with the nurse when he made the poster for them, and she thought people were going to ask where the nurse was in the piece so this is why this new character appears dressed as a nurse in the play.

The Wooster Group Hamlet cast List

Please note: despite what it says in the WG programme, Richard Burton's Hamlet was recorded with seven to nine cameras and shown in nearly 1000 cinemas across the U.S.

The WG Hamlet is more like a re-transmission than a reconstruction. They take care not to duplicate the Burton's film exactly, but add in pauses, textures, occasional other Hamlet interpretations from two other films - Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet , with Ethan Hawke, and Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 Hamlet.

Playing with modes of transmission - live, taped, digitise, edited, all at once, interchangeable, intertwined - The Wooster Group reposition theatre in a mediatized age (Jenifer Parker-Starbuck, 2014)

The group has also manipulated the film to create ghost effects.

‘Let’s just erase and bring in and out the characters in the film so that they can ghost.’ You know that old Victorian ghost photography, where you kind of think you see something, but you don’t really?'(Elizabeth LeCompte)

Scott Shepherd interprets the role of Hamlet and simultaneously directs the operator of Burton's Hamlet DVD to fast forward, skip ahead, go back from the stage etc. He was also responsible for the Wooster Group’s editing of the film. In an interview with Jason Zinoman of The New York Times, 28 October, 2007 he explains his method to honour Shakespeare's text:

'I had the conviction that I wanted to be very strict about never pausing in the middle of a line of poetry, only at the end.' 'Some of the play is written in verse and some is in prose, and there should be some difference.' 'What I was discovering was that when you force yourself to pause at the end of the line, as opposed to the sentence, it starts to sound the way people talk anyway. A whole different logic starts to be available'

In addition the actors on stage recreate the camera angles of the film shots to match the composition of Burton’s film playing on the screen behind. (Unfinished)

'The Wooster Group uses the technologies of live and recorded performance to explore the reciprocity of archive and repertoire' (W.B. Worthen 2008)

Video - item 2

The Wooster Group Hamlet

12 August 2013, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Acquisitions / loans suggestions

  • Suggestion for display: request to borrow some of the Wooster Group documentation of Hamlet. From what I have seen in The Wooster Group Work Book (2002), they document the creative process of each production with visual materials rather than just text. That includes video, photographs, drawings, storyboards, etc.
  • (Audio) Casey Spooner (of Fisherspooner): songs inspired by the text of Hamlet, which he sings to Ophelia. He plays Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Player King.
  • American painter and photographer Richard Prince's poster for the production.

(Work in progress from here onwards)

Audio - item 3

The Wooster Group symposium organized by LIFT in London (2002) A two-day symposium on the work of the Wooster Group, curated by Adrian Heathfield and Andrew Quick for LIFT. It features all the Wooster Group members including Elizabeth LeCompte, (the company's director), Kate Valk, Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos, Willem Dafoe, etc., in discussion with academics and theatre practitioners.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard's Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead (an absurdist play based on Hamlet's courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern): Shakespeare meets Samuel Beckett. Premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 24 August 1966.

Audio item

British Library recording of the first London run at the National Theatre in 1967.


There are also manuscripts related to the play, which I am investigating from Stoppard’s collection

  • Playscript of Hamlet - As Shakespeare Always Wanted it Performed - So He Tells Me by Tom Stoppard / Western Manuscripts / MPS 4752 / First performance at Duke of York's Theatre on 10th December 1990

Possible a precursor to Stoppard’s play?

Play by W. S. Gilbert, (William Schwenck), 1836-1911 (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame): [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. A tragic episode, in three tableaux, founded on an old Danish legend. [A travesty of Shakespeare's Hamlet.] / London : Samuel French, [1912?] / General Reference Collection C.132.g.60

Title: GILBERT PAPERS. Vol. LXII A (ff. 26). (a) 'The Fairy's Dilemma'; 1904. ff. 1-18;- (b) 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'; n.d. ff. 19-26.D'Oyly Carte Opera Company: Art. Photographs: Art. Portraits: Actors and actresses in productions of W. S. Gilbert's. / Western Manuscripts / Add MS 49350 A / 1 item

Area 3

Livecasting and Digital Theatre

Looking at what’s happening in contemporary Britain and internationally with new ways of disseminating theatre.

NT Live programme

RSC Encore

Digital Theatre

The British Library archives the master copies of Digital Theatre live recordings. Access to these recordings is available in the reading rooms.

Video - item

Much Ado About Nothing (British Library Digital Theatre collection)

Dir. Josie Rourke with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Video recording of live performance at Wyndham's Theatre, London, August-September 2011. Filming and post-production by Digital

Video - item

King Lear (British Library Digital Theatre collection)

'King Lear'. Dir. Michael Attenborough with Jonathan Pryce, Zoe Waites, Jenny Jules and Phoebe Fox. Video recording of live performance at Almeida Theatre, London, November 2012. Filming and post-production by Digital

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