9 December 2006 | J. Spurlin
Crude, black-and-white filming of a famous Broadway production: it feels like a shadow from the past
I didn't know a record of this famous production existed until I found it on DVD at the library. What a find! John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in "Hamlet," an acclaimed production in modern dress that was eventually recorded with a process called Electronovision and released in movie theaters. What's fascinating is that this is a record of an actual Broadway performance before an audience; the actors make no concession to the cameras and change nothing. The black-and-white process is crude, far inferior to that of recent stage shows presented on PBS. Yet I was amazed how compelling the show was anyway. Maybe the crudeness helped. It felt like a shadow retrieved from the past: I thought of the filmed dream from "Quatermass and the Pit."
Richard Burton makes a fine Hamlet, more virile and physical than most; his intellectual side is de-emphasized but far from lost; and he's funny. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but Hume Cronyn stands out as Polonius. He's so good, so funny, so able to bring out both the wisdom and the foolishness of the character that until he's dispatched, the play feels like the "Hamlet and Polonius Show."
Happily a year ago, I found at a thrift store a book by Richard L. Sterne (one of the minor players in this production) called "John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet." It includes transcripts of Gielgud directing the cast, the prompt script Gielgud created, and Sterne's interviews with Burton and Gielgud. I've only looked into it, but I can highly recommend it based on what I've read. Anyone who finds this DVD may want to seek out the book as well.