Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rediscovering the Gielgud-Burton "Hamlet"

On my most recent visit to Booklegger in Eureka, I found a copy of the first and probably only edition of Richard Burton in Hamlet, a book by actor Richard L. Sterne. In 1964, John Gielgud directed Burton on Broadway, at the height of his Burton-and-Elizabeth Taylor fame --the two actually got married while the play was in rehearsal. Sterne was a young actor in the production, and apparently all on his own, he decided to secretly tape record the rehearsals.

He hid a bulky reel-to-reel of the time in a briefcase, with the microphone pointed through a hole in the side of it. And once when he wanted to record a rehearsal with just Burton and Gielgud, he hid himself as well, under the stage. He stayed there not only for the two hours of rehearsal, but for several hours more until stagehands left, so he wouldn't be discovered.

Then after it was all over he told Gielgud and Burton about it, and they thought it was hilarious.

Sterne also took notes, and then had hours and hours of transcripts to make and edit. The book came out three years later, and probably didn't catch the wave of interest the play generated--it was a Broadway hit, sold out for its entire run. But the result is fascinating to read, more for Gielgud than Burton now, though there is some interesting dialogue with him. Gielgud was in touch one way or another (as participant, theatregoer or student of the lore) with every major production of Hamlet going back to the nineteenth century. Besides the history and how it informed his approach, this book offers some fascinating ideas and insights on directing for the theatre.

That production is also notable because it was one of the first that presented Shakespeare in modern dress--in this case in "rehearsal clothes," with no scenery and minimal set. There was a fashion for this minimal approach for awhile. It was supposed to strip the plays down to their essentials, undistracted by period clothes and elaborate scenery.

Gielgud wanted to do the play as if it were the final run-through before the technical rehearsals, before the costumes inhibit and change performances, and the sets "as beautiful as they are," he says in the first rehearsal, "they sort of cramp the imagination and the poetry--and they are apt to destroy the pace."

For the audience, this style provides the opportunity to concentrate on the acting, the words, and the play itself. Just the play.

Personally, I can't wait for this style to come back, and replace today's orthodoxy, which is to transplant Shakespeare to another time and place, regardless of how appropriate to the play, and the more outlandish the resulting set and costumes, the better. What might have helped directors, actors and audiences alike see the plays afresh has often become distraction and sensationalism, a way to sell the show with the Shakespeare brand while mocking the plays at the same time. The intent also seems to be to reassure the audience that there's really nothing there but cliches and pageantry, so there's no reason to aspire to a deeper understanding. Don't worry, it's just a show.

What excellent productions of any kind actually do--whether they are period, transplanted or minimalist like the Gielgud-Burton Hamlet--is reveal both the depths of the play, some of its complexity, and also the bedrock humanity and human situations that indeed are universal and can communicate to any audience. Done well, Shakespeare's plays are great shows. I suspect that the when this predominant style of presentation fades or is put out of our misery, something like the Gielgud-Burton Hamlet style will return.

But is switching time and place always bad? See the review below of the Kenneth Branagh As You Like It on DVD.

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