Wednesday, May 18, 2011

32 Richard Burton

Hamlet played by Richard Burton.
Directed by John Gielgud.

It’s 1995, I’m in my first flush of college in Leeds and I’m standing in HMV considering a VHS boxset of this Richard Burton’s Hamlet just as I have on a few previous Saturdays. Once again I turn it over and look at the price, £19.99 and consider whether it is the worth my weekly food budget and once again I put it back with a sigh. Then it’s 1997 and I’ve been paid some wages and visit the HMV in Liverpool specially in order to buy it only to discover that it’s been deleted already and I’ve missed my chance. Now in 2011, I’ve bought a VHS copy on eBay for about a tenner and as with so many purchases from the website, an itch has been scratched.

In the meantime I found a copy of Argo’s audio release but knew, because of the number of texts that referred to it, that it was best seen first, rather than just heard especially after the rigmarole which led to the show being recorded. As Richard Burton (who married Liz Taylor during the Canadian tour of Hamlet) reveals in a trailer and the entertaining interview (see below) which act as an introduction to the performance, using a process called “electronovision” and cameras set up throughout the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre on Broadway, a thousand prints were struck so that over four simultaneous performances audiences across the US could enjoy the production.

Anyone attending the NT Live events will agree with Burton (or his script writer), that those witnessing the experiment would see “the theatre of the future taking shape before [their] eyes.” Like the NT Live events, these were supposed to be limited showings; Sheriden Morley reveals in the booklet accompanying the audio cassettes, prints were contractually ordered to be destroyed and that it’s only thanks to Burton keeping a copy for himself and submitted one to the BFI that this was able to resurrected for the home market in 1995. Hopefully, with a safe enough gap, the NT will also allow their recordings to go to shiny disc. I missed Rory Kinnear.

John Gielgud’s production is at least famous enough to have gained a nickname, the “rehearsal room Hamlet” or some derivative thereof. Again in the booklet, Gielgud explains that by acting in rehearsal clothes with minimal props, he hoped that “the beauty of the language and imagery may shine through unencumbered by an elaborate reconstruction of any particular historical period” and to capture the magic of the final read-through when the play cracks on through without interruption from the director and before "the “final adjuncts” cramp the player’s imagination and detract from the poetic imagery” of the text.

It’s a laudable but paradoxical idea because even in attempting to find the moment “before costumes, scenery and lighting are added” such things have still been applied. These are not the clothes the actors turned up for work in – particularly noticeable in the case of Burton’s black habit – and this is still a set which has been designed to look like a rehearsal space, with a costume rack as the arras and large doors opening backwards into a void to accommodate the entre and exeunt of the actors. There are still many lighting effects denoting night and day and spookily blasting the crowned silhouette of the Ghost across the scenery, dwarfing the actors.

Nevertheless, Gielgud is correct when he suggests that Shakespeare’s words are powerful enough to stand alone especially when employed by the deep Welsh tones of Richard Burton, whose magnetic stage presence is so strong it could almost be the reason why the signal the VHS tape its housed on is clearly degrading, the tracking all over the place. He’s applauded by the theatre audience even before he’s spoken, and that applause continues throughout the show, after every soliloquy, after every emotional plea. But they’re not simply being polite; he is extraordinary, absolutely justifying the praise in the reviews at the back of the booklet.

Howard Taubman of The New York Times says that Burton “dominates the drama” and actually if I have a criticism, it’s that he burns so bright the rest of the cast lose visibility, the energy dimming considerably whenever he’s not on stage. Hume Cronyn as Polonius is able to match him and their scenes in which the son of the late king takes full advantage of the Lord Chamberlain’s misguided attempts at diagnosis are amongst the strongest interpretations I’ve seen, their comic time perfect. But elsewhere, the play does suffer. But by contrast, the relationship with Horatio, often the beating heart at the centre of the play, is entirely empty.

Few actors are able to make an impression. Alfred Drake’s Claudius is an unusually sympathetic figure and both he and Gielgud take full advantage of the critical suggestion that the new king took power in order prevent Denmark from being re-taken too easily by Fortinbras due to having a monarch who's gone soft since originally annexing the land, Drake presenting a man who now finds himself repentant and fully aware that he’s going to hell. John Cullum nicely taps into how Laertes’s fate mirrors Hamlet by assuming many of Burton’s physical mannerisms (years later Cullum would spend five years on Northern Exposure as Holling, owner of the local bar).

Despite my reservations, Gielgud’s production fully deserves its reputation, even if on other nights, not everything went completely to plan. Commenting in LIFE Magazine on a book that was later published about the rehearsal process, Burton recollects that he wasn’t always competent when it came to remembering lines. One evening he even began speaking “To Be Or Not To Be” in German, and although as he observes, there was little recognition from the audience beyond a slight murmur, all hell broke out at the back of the stage where Drake and Cronyn were hidden observing. Looks like I’ll be hunting down that book now too.

[Updated 10/7/2011 -- this whole production is now available from Global Shakespeares -- thanks to John for the link]


John Wyver said...

This is a great post - thanks. Lots to think about -- and I love the Electronovision piece which I discovered a while back. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Cory Howell said...

I actually have a copy of the book about the rehearsal process that you mentioned at the end of the review. It's a fascinating look into the process, as well as a glimpse of just how big Burton and Taylor's stardom was in those days. It also includes the prompt-script of the production, as edited by Gielgud, which is an intriguing look into the director's vision for the play. I had never heard of the book, until I discovered it among my grandfather's books shortly after his passing.