At the start of The Wooster Group‘s Hamlet: Scott Shepherd comes alone to the stage, calling for the projection of the tape, and starting on the dialogue, Act One, Scene One, with the first appearance of the ghost. All very low key, him sitting. The volume low.
Stay! speak, speak!
He’s alone aside from the screens, the usual functional-but-techy looking scenery, and the projection of the film. It’s some Richard Burton Hamlet film, from a 1964 Broadway production directed by Gielgud which was recorded in live performance then shown for only two days in 2000 cinemas across the US. The film was meant to be destroyed after this simultaneous ‘screening-event’ but Burton kept one copy and this – found in an attic after his death – has since been widely distributed. It’s this film – an unauthorized remnant of a single live action – which will ghost the whole of the night these 43 years later, as back-projection and as an immaterial imperative from the past that – like Hamlet’s dead father – endlessly lays down its demands on the bodies and the materiality of the present. Demand to do something. To vengeance. To action. Demand to move things onwards. A demand to both animate and dispel the past, in fact, by action in the present. A bringing forth, and, at the same time, an exorcism.
Speak. Speak. I charge thee, speak!
says Shepherd, demanding. The tape – imperfect, flickering, pixelating, jumping. He wants the past to speak. To speak to him. To speak through him to us. It’s a tough call. On the bare stage of the beginning of the piece it’s almost a joke, a farcical demand, but its a joke that over a stubborn two and a half hours becomes sonic/video-mixing poetry, gets somewhat mired in its observance of theatrical-narrative, and at times gets to be a tangible theatrical achievement.
Speak. Speak. The tape is manipulated, figures are erased, partly erased, reduced to hands, eyes or fighting swords. Figures are flicked in and out of existence, figures flicker on and off, in an out of static storms that are at times reminiscent of Bill Morrison’s Decasia: The State of Decay. Speak. Speak. He wants (they want, in the broader sense) to make the shell of the past re-animate, to articulate it into the present. A triple layering – a message layered over as it passes through time, from Shakespeare, to Gielgud/Burton, to the Wooster Group, with a few hundred thousand others in between. Maybe that’s what theatre (that theatre especially) is always (the animation of what was, through practice, into the present), and at the struggling heart of the Woosters’ Hamlet it’s the layered archaeology of this transaction (tyrannous and wonderful, empowering and not infrequently crippling) that is made visible at all times. Becomes material. A kind of technologically mediated, bodily, suddenly tangible Chinese-whispers. A virtuoso ventriloquism/dance, and a clumsy fight, with the past.
And then, today, I read this fragment from M John Harrison’s review of Stephen Venables’ book Higher Than the Eagle Soars, about being the first Briton to climb Everest without oxygen:
To Venables climbing is “a game where history is everything”. The real fascination of the Eiger North Wall, for instance, “is the accumulated sediment of human myth deposited on its ledges, ramps and infamous ice fields”. He’s quite contemptuous of the proclamation he heard at the 2005 Mont Blanc Bicentennial celebrations: “La montagne est un lieu où on se trouve face à face avec La Verité”. Far too French. You don’t climb on truth, you climb on the shoulders of giants, inside the culture – or conspiracy – of climbing.