- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000


The inventive, modern-dress adaptation of "Hamlet" released earlier this year, with Ethan Hawke in the title role, piqued my curiosity about a production I had missed 36 years ago.
This was the Electronovision replica of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway revival of "Hamlet," directed by John Gielgud, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York City. The Library of Congress will be showing this museum piece in a free program at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Mary Pickford Theater, and video copies recently became available through Paul Brownstein Productions and catalog outfits specializing in oldies.
For a while the Burton version — recorded by three electronic cameras at three consecutive performances and then released as a three-hour special event in late September of 1964 — was believed to have been lost. But the star evidently was prudent enough to retain custody of two prints, which eventually lent themselves to restoration.
About a thousand participating theaters showed Mr. Burton's "Hamlet" twice on two consecutive days. Those performances tended to sell out. They did where I lived at the time, causing me a certain amount of regret for nonchalance, since I had assumed tickets still would be available at the door.
The Broadway show was a commercial hit. But there was no discernible clamor to revive the movie copy or add it to the repertory of Shakespearean films. The technology itself was unsatisfying. Cameras sent electronic impulses to a control truck, which recorded them on film. The hybrid image looks more like video than film.
Bill Colleran, the camera crew director, seemed to have relied on a long-range vantage point to a fault. The stage production was bare-bones, with minimum props and actors in rehearsal clothes. The field of vision remains barren unless an actor can be framed in a medium close-up shot. Cameras on the sides of the stage allow such an enhancement, and it comes as a great relief when Mr. Colleran pushes their switches. They needed to be used more often, whenever a principal speaker had several lines or a vivid exchange to share.
One doubts that the circumstances facilitated camera rehearsals. The overall impression convinces you that stage productions are best revamped for the camera, to maximize the advantages of cinematic lighting, sound recording and editing.
The sound probably is more satisfactory than the imagery, though plenty of speeches succumbed to echoes and murmurs. Nevertheless, one has the impression that the needs of the live theater audience and the eventual movie audience are being balanced with some skill.
In addition to Mr. Burton, the most prominent cast members include Hume Cronyn as Polonius, Alfred Drake as Claudius, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude (reprising the role she played opposite Laurence Olivier in his Academy Award-winning "Hamlet" of 1948), John Cullum as Laertes, George Rose as the First Gravedigger and Barnard Hughes as both Marcellus and the priest at Ophelia's funeral. Linda Marsh's performance as Ophelia is a conspicuous sore point, but no one flirts with greatness in the production. The performer meant to carry the show, Mr. Burton, excels only at violating Hamlet's warning to the players about tearing passions to tatters. A hair-trigger bleater and bellower, Mr. Burton keeps wasting his impressive vocal instrument on premature rages.
He improves once Hamlet returns from exile in England. Is this typical? By that time actors know that most of the workload is behind them and the end is finally in sight. To be fair, Mr. Burton settles down a bit earlier, in the "How all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy. He's probably at his worst while strutting with the players, since everything he does, including some wacky 360-degree spin-arounds, seem to be mocking Hamlet's lines.
My youngest daughter, who gamely watched the video version with me, contributed a definitive comment on Mr. Cronyn's Polonius. "I have never seen so much Hume Cronyn in my life," she said. It certainly seems an eternity of Mr. Cronyn when Polonius is the officious center of attention.
By now the most evocative aspect of the production may be appendices: a short interview with Mr. Burton and a "Hamlet" theatrical trailer. Sweating profusely, the star speculates that he may be participating in something historic for the theater — the first of many Electronovision recordings of Broadway hits.
"This is the theater of the future, taking shape today," Mr. Burton says. On the contrary. "Hamlet" didn't secure the market for such ventures, and one can see why. Abiding popularity for theater by Electronovision needed something more attractive than quickie, static video versions of exploitable hits.TITLE: "Hamlet"RATING: No MPAA rating (made before the advent of the rating system; classic play with episodes of graphic violence and occasional profanity, sexual candor and vulgarity)CREDITS: Directed for the stage by John Gielgud. Camera crew directed by Bill Colleran. Film restoration supervised by Sean Couglin. Theatrical producer is Alexander H. Cohen.RUNNING TIME: 186 minutes

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