Silent Shakespeare

Devised by Petros Michael
To the Moon
Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Silent Shakespeare

Silent Shakespeare! It’s an oxymoron. Shakespeare is the words. That’s not to say you can’t use his stories and idea—he pinched plenty—but a ballet of Romeo and Juliet is Macmillan or Ashton not Shakespeare, so what’s the reasoning here?

To the Moon’s artistic director Sharon Burrell explains in a programme note that she and director Petros Michael have often left productions of Shakespeare’s plays, "having gained vivid impressions of the characters and their emotional journeys without necessarily having understood every word". Then, thinking of audiences who feel Shakespeare’s language a barrier to full access, they thought, "the time is right for an innovative presentation of some of the most famous Shakespeare scenes, characters and lines".

There is nothing very innovative in telling a story through dance or mime so the innovation here must be the choice of content, but what matters is whether it works as entertaining and interesting theatre. Some of it certainly does.

What we get is seven actors who enter carrying little piles of clothing who line up on the floor and begin to try on a shirt or a tie to let us know they are going to experiment with taking on different characters before taking up positions against the black walls of the stage (to which each returns when not actually performing). A recorded voice rather colourlessly begins Jacques “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It, stopping after “the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms”. The cast then act out the babies mewling, though not puking, on the floor. We then get the “whining schoolboy” lines and so through the seven ages, each followed by a presentation of appropriate characters and incidents drawn from Shakespeare’s plays.

It is a sort of cross between Whose Line Is It Next Anyway? and a game of charades. It is certainly not story-telling for I doubt that someone who does not know the plays would see much more than people representing that stage of life—and that sometimes might be difficult to reconcile with what you have been told it is. Who, for instance, would see a lady being assailed by snakes as "a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like a pard", and even if you know the plays quite well you have to do a bit of lateral thinking.

It's Cleopatra of course, her death scene, and then you might remember that she’s been fighting a war with Rome. Those babies? Probably the infant Perdita, laid on Bohemia’s (non-existent) shore as a bear chases Antigonus away, but a reminder too of new born Elizabeth Tudor, or even the babe that Lady Macbeth bore and refers to in one speech? You have to make connections. Why on earth should a “justice in fair round belly” be represented by one actress arranging the other members of the cast in a series of life-like poses? Not a character but Justice as a concept, could this be a reference to wronged Hermione’s living statue? It’s a guess the Shakespeare game for Bard buffs rather than a wordless exploration of character and emotion.

I gave up on trying to work out why the “whining schoolboy” (or girl in this case) should then be enthroned and crowned. After the crying babies I’d expect things to be literal. In retrospect perhaps it is a reference to all the young princes deprived of coronation Edward V, his brother and Blanche’s Arthur.

The lover “sighing like a furnace” is an excuse to do lovers in general with a lot of mimed kissy-kissy. I thought at one point Caliban was one of them, lusting after Marina, but then he turned into Puck and there was a chunk of the Midsummer lovers in the woods and a lovely Malvolio from Michael Mitcham, though I doubt if either meant anything as story to those who didn’t already know them. What may have been Helena rejecting importunate advances could have been other girls in danger while there were hints of Claudio and Hero and Cressida and Troilus, Hamlet and Ophelia and of course the Verona lovers.

There are shadow ghosts (did they come under justice?): Hamlet of course, with his father miming his murder, Julius Caesar’s—there are plenty of them. The “lean and slippered pantaloon” is rather a letdown: typical youngsters pretending to be quavery old men but no Shallow or Silence here (or as the Justice) but an ailing Henry IV with Prince Hall trying on the crown. As for the final “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything”, instead of decrepit dementia we get death scenes: Lady Macbeth hanging herself, Ophelia, Romeo with the dead Juliet and a wonderfully imaginative Macbeth ensnared by the witches.

There are some really imaginative touches here that make me want to see how director Michael would tackle a scripted drama or a piece of physical theatre that had its own points to make. In Joseph Adefarasin, the company has discovered an actor with a strong stage presence. I’d like to see whether he will hold a larger audience and how he handles text.

All this cast look dedicated and work hard but, clever though their work is, at times it still ends up being a very sophisticated game of charades. I quite enjoyed it but for those who don’t know the plays it must be like watching an actors’ workshop—but then that can be interesting too.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton