He knows the whole of The Great Gatsby off by heart and he plays Richard Burton playing Hamlet, beside the film of Richard Burton playing Hamlet– we talk Wooster Group, and making your life difficult with actor Scott Shepherd.
You play Richard Burton playing Hamlet in John Gielgud’s 1963 stage production that got turned into a movie, with the movie playing behind you. What is your role exactly!?
It’s a nightly negotiation between the old performance and the new one. At the bottom of it is the commitment to have some sort of conversation with these dead actors and a lost piece of art. And at the same time there’s an exasperation with the instructions sometimes. I mean this dilemma mirrors the dilemma of Hamlet, whose dead predecessor comes back from the grave to tell him what to do, and it’s not really what he wants to do. And so that’s how I understand it, as a similar thing being imposed on me. But there’s something new that arises out our attempt to replicate something that’s lost to time.
So you replicate and remix the old movie being screened behind you, but when do you start adding to it and superimposing yourselves over the movie?
Well the first thing to note is that we really edited the film, we really cut it down according to some idea about how to speak verse. We edited and moved things around, so that we even developed this strange quality of movement in the film that we try to duplicate on stage, live. And so already before we started we altered the source in order to make it stranger. We wanted their set, so we took the footage and took the people out of it and shot it across the back wall. So already from the beginning we superimposed ourselves over the movie.
There’s a ghostly quality to the video, bodies seem to come in and out of the film in a way that immediately made me think of “o that this too, too solid flesh” but also a self-reference about the transience of the world of theatre and performance. Was that the intention?
Yes and I think that comes across very clearly. I look back at those actors disappearing on the screen, and I find it very moving and a startling expression of how these things disappear, these performances just disappear. The film itself is a unique artefact. The producers of Gielgud’s production wanted to screen the film of the Broadway show across the country for only two days, and then destroy it so that it would be like a theatre performance, gone. But one copy survived, I think it was found in Richard Burton’s attic.
The film really dominates the actors on stage, they mime and take their cues from it, and it takes centre stage with its visual power. Has there ever been a feeling that you risk being purely aesthetic and not communicating enough?
I think that’s a really deep question that maybe has something to do with the aesthetic of the Wooster Group, the vision of the world they have. As far as the film goes, it is visually dominating and that’s a balancing act we need to play everyday, and it’s also the reason why the figures on the screen disappear from time to time, because of course a moving image will command your attention in a way that’s hard on the actors! But I think it’s something Liz [LeCompte] has figured out well, how to draw the audiences attention back to the actors. But about the purely aesthetic- for Liz that visceral, emotional centre is larger and more cosmic when it includes the technology around it, it goes out to the world, these ideas of our relationship to the old performance, the fractured nature of the events that she tends to create – all of that is a personal, emotional, expression that to her works, not just aesthetically.
Did you have fun working with the 1960’s style of acting we see in the film?
I think it works in our favour because it’s both close enough and far enough that the show can go between a feeling of making fun of it, to a feeling of parody and to a real connection with that old thing. To be honest when I first watched it I couldn’t quite relate to it. But now I’m grateful to have that quality of acting as an ingredient to a performance that is mine.
So you also play Nick Carraway in Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz. What was that like? Is it true you know the entire book off by heart?
That is true essentially, I get challenged on it from time to time, people speak a few words and I just pick up from where they leave off. Doing Gatz was a privilege, particularly in London, doing something you were so confident in. I don’t know if I will ever feel that good on stage again.
You work primarily with The Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service, so in a way you’re New York experimental theatre’s pet! What good work have you seen lately?
I went to see Romeo and Juliet performed by a company I’d heard about called Nature’s Theatre of Oklahoma, it was based on interviews of people trying to remember the story of Romeo and Juliet. And it was just brilliant. Every once in a while someone has a great idea for what to make a piece of theatre with, and that changes the rules. Now that gets me excited.
Hamlet runs from the 4th until the 7th October at the O’Reilly Theatre, tickets available here.
Words: Roisin Agnew.