Electronovision: ‘the theatre of the future’

13th August 2013

Oh to be in Edinburgh now that Hamlet‘s there. The Wooster Group‘s radical adaptation of the play has its last performance tonight as part of the official festival – it’s sold out, of course, but there is a hope that the production may come to London next year. As the company’s web site explains, this is ‘Shakespeare’s classic tragedy… re-imagined by mixing and repurposing Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway production, directed by John Gielgud’, and a taste of its pleasures can be gleaned from this ‘flight plan’ video:

HAMLET in NY – flight plan [10.24.12] from The Wooster Group on Vimeo.

Lyn Gardner for the Guardian was won over when the show was in Dublin last year and for the same paper Andrew Dickson more or less concurs. Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph is, by contrast, underwhelmed: ‘altogether too much straight-faced mucking around’. But what this clearly glorious theatrical event does offer me is the chance to replay the astonishing video interview and trailer with Richard Burton (extracts of which appear above). He gave the interview and recorded the trailer when his Hamlet – on which The Wooster Group base their production – was filmed on the Broadway stage back in 1964 for release to cinemas. How prescient of NTLive and RSC Live from Stratford Upon Avon is that! As Burton rightly says, ‘This is the theatre of the future, taking shape before your eyes today.’

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the launch of ‘Theatrofilm with Electronovision’.

As Richard Burton explains, the Hamlet was recorded by multiple video cameras to be shown in around 1,000 cinemas across the States for just four cinema performances in September 1964. As Stuart Ian Burns notes at The Hamlet Weblog in his invaluable discussion of the interview and of the recording itself, the idea was that it would never be shown again. All the prints were supposed to be destroyed, and it is only thanks to Burton keeping a copy and much later donating it to the BFI that we can enjoy it today on (very rare) DVD copies and in fragments on YouTube:

There are a thousand interesting pre-echoes here of our debates and discussions today about the best approach to recording theatre, including Burton’s words about he regarded acting in front of the cameras.

None of the actors make any concession to this new process, in other words we don’t tone it down in order to seem like film actors or play it up because the cameras are a little further away than they would be in a movie studio or a television studio. It’s played exactly as is, and the result will be unique, possibly extraordinary and perhaps epoch-making.

For more on Electronovision, which was used for other productions as well as Hamlet, see the informative Wikipedia page and this section of Drama Between Poetry and Performance by W.B. Worthen on Scrib (where it features as part of a consideration of Hamlet from The Wooster Group). There are a couple of interesting (but unsourced) technical images related to Electronovision here and here. Also, watch out for a future post on this blog, since this is all too compelling to leave here.

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