dreamspeakthink’s latest piece achieves the near Herculean task of bringing something fresh to a play that has been constantly and exhaustively re-staged, most recently with Michael Sheen as the eponymous Dane. Set in the present day, it snips and reconnects the threads of Shakespeare’s text in unexpected ways, resulting in a multimedia experience that is absorbing and thought-provoking, if sometimes frustrating.
One of the most striking aspects of this production is its treatment of Hamlet. The archetypal angry young man – whose furious conviction that his uncle has murdered his father for the throne of Denmark drives the story forwards – receives lesser billing here than elsewhere. Shorn of his confidante Horatio and with some of his most famous lines filtered through the mouths of others, he is a glowering but distinctly diminished presence.
This adds to an atmosphere of oppressive scrutiny – even Hamlet’s words are no longer his own – but it also creates problems. Having a sniggering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read his “hawk and a hacksaw” speech from notebooks leaves no room for inflection. Is Hamlet actually mad? Or is he performing? We never get to decide for ourselves because we never see it. And without a Horatio as our way into his head, Edward Hogg’s tongue-tied Hamlet is (perhaps unavoidably) shrill and unlikeable rather than compellingly complex.
But this re-imagining is pointedly not called Hamlet; where the disgruntled Dane recedes from view to become a spectre-like figure of vengeance, other characters come to the fore. Bethan Cullinane stands out as Ophelia, playfully sneaking into her father’s office to eat his sweets and spin in his chair when he’s away. In their scenes together, she, Ben Ingles as a preening but loving Laertes and Richard Clews as Polonious bring the unexpected warmth of family life to the customary cold of the Danish court. Consequently, when tragedy falls it isn’t that of one man; in this strongly ensemble effort it hits like a gut-punch from all sides.
This is literally true in the cavernous black warehouse in which the action takes place. Screens on the four walls around us light up to reveal a ring of bedrooms, offices and libraries, before plunging into darkness as the characters circle the audience in a loop of chafing confinement. Video projections on the ceiling put us in a grave, down a plughole and under water as a dead Ophelia floats slowly over us. The change in focus and perspective is by turns voyeuristic, claustrophobic and unsettling. You’re on your feet for 90 minutes but it doesn’t feel like it.
A video camera in the opening scenes gestures towards the idea of a watched world. But this production is as interested in looking out as it is in looking in. From Hamlet banging helplessly on a transparent screen as the ghost of his father silently observes him from the other side of the room, to Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude looking over our heads in horror as Ophelia goes mad, director Tristan Sharps uses the set as a powerful visual metaphor for the barriers that exist between the characters. Separation and lack of communication are the fault lines that will tear this kingdom apart.
This is where the de-emphasis on Hamlet pays off, with the character’s profound existential crisis chillingly refracted through the closed-off society around him. Here, nothing exists that cannot lose its bearings, particularly in language – as a slick but guilt-stricken Claudius (Philip Edgerley) and Ophelia discover, choking on speeches they rehearse so many times that their meaning disintegrates and silence swallows them up. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pull apart Hamlet’s words as though anatomising him on a slab.
dreamspeakthink’s treatment of Shakespeare’s verse and structure as something to be fragmented and reformed in new combinations is the production’s greatest strength. It scrubs scenes of their carbuncled familiarity and casts them in a vivid new light. Highlights include Hamlet swinging wildly between his mother and Ophelia, raging at both about nunneries and “the rank sweat of an unseamed bed” – making collateral damage of the bewildered girl as he pours his disgust with Ruth Lass’s quavering Gertrude into her instead.
All of this culminates in the fatal fencing contest between Hamlet and Laertes. As characters die of poison, the two men abandon their foils and with snarls of rage throw each other to the ground. It’s an electric moment of shocking, wordless brutality between the survivors of two families destroyed by self-serving greed and anger – almost derailed by a sightline so poor that sometimes all you can see are the craning heads of the people in front of you. It’s a huge flaw in a production that otherwise manages potential obstacles well.
But, thankfully, this doesn’t detract from what is ultimately an unnerving and brilliantly innovative experience. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father surveys the carnage before advancing on us as a massive projected eye, like something from a Japanese horror film, Horatio’s absence becomes hugely important. Here, there will be no storytelling, no one to keep Hamlet or the others alive in words. There is no future. As we are plunged one last time into darkness, all that is left is silence.
The Rest is Silence was commisioned by Brighton Festival, LIFT and the RSC as part of the World Shakespeare Festival and will be at Riverside Studios from 12th – 23rd June and at Northern Stage in Newcastle from 26-30 June 2012.
First published by Exeunt magazine