The Rest is Silence

William Shakespeare
dreamthinkspeak
Riverside Studios

The Rest Is Silence

No, it is not a newly discovered addition to the Shakespeare canon but, as you might guess from the title, this company's take on Hamlet: a filleted and reordered version using Shakespeare's words, sometimes in new and imaginative ways.

Previous work that I have seen by dreamthinkspeak has been site-specific, either drawing a story from the place or choosing a location where they could create an evocation of the tale they had chosen. They have been journeys through environments with carefully chosen furniture or props, sound, film sequences along the way, strange images in unusual places, most acted sequences only glimpsed and a minimal use of spoken text. This is very different.

A raised stage surrounds the standing audience which is compartmented into separate rooms, linked like the sequences of rooms in a seventeenth century palace and separated from the audience by glass panels. When unlit they become invisible, the glass a mirror reflecting lit scenes elsewhere. Sometimes the action moves from room to adjoining room, sometimes a space lights up on a different side, even above your head, and sometimes scenes in two locations are intercut with each other. These all seem private spaces, the audience are eavesdroppers, or perhaps even watching everything on a CCTV system from some secret control room, for tiny television screens appear above the huge glass panels when the play comes to its end.

This becomes entirely a palace affair. Although we see Claudius rehearsing his first speech as he performs his morning ablutions (and intriguingly he doesn't share a bed with Gertrude) and then deliver it to a television camera under Polonius's supervision, there is no involvement with the world outside. There is neither Fortinbras, nor Horatio, palace sentries, players, gravediggers or courtiers. This is an affair between two families: Hamlet's and Polonius's. Rosencranz and Guildenstern are called in to sort out Hamlet. We see them rehearsing various approaches to how they are going to approach him but we never actually see them with him. Their communications appear to by text or e-mail on their iPads: snatches of Hamlet's dialogue and soliloquies, even his conversation with Polonius. Perhaps these aren't voluntary messages at all but they are hacking into his messages and his mind.

There is no sense of regime change or of a state in turmoil; no warring Norwegians, Laertes is not leading a rebellion. If it is a surveillance culture, that is not apparent until the end, but everyone is busy sticking their noses into others' private business, Gertrude has got her hands on all Hamlet's letters to Ophelia and even Ophelia searches on her father's computer.

If you know the play at all, the story-telling is straightforward, though at the same time you'll be registering what they've done with it. I think it will be pretty clear to those who don't know it too, who won't find half their mind registering the manipulations. They won't be thrown, for instance, by Hamlet's letter describing what happened on the way to England being read by Claudius. Is it written to him in this treatment or has it been purloined? It does change the situation that leads up to the duel if Hamlet is actually telling Claudius—and the excuses for the duel and the fatal preparations for that confrontation are not clearly established.

There are a number of non-verbal episodes, some of which go on long after they have made their point, and some realised on film, including Ophelia's suicide and burial and an opening sequence that at first I took to be Hamlet visiting his father's grave that actually shows Claudius. Is this the orchard where Claudius killed his brother? Is this supposed to show the murder which sparks off the plot? Certainly this treatment gives Claudius's guilt as much prominence as Hamlet's slow response to his father's ghost whose appearance and injunction to revenge comes well into the performance.

Edward Hogg's black-clad, long-haired Hamlet seems very traditional. He is often seen morosely brooding while other scenes take place. He's lost a lot of his speeches but he delivers the text strongly, sometimes playing against the verse. He is at his best in the scene where, handgun-wielding, he comes across Claudius playing and in a passionate episode where, at the same time, he confronts both Gertrude and Ophelia, the lines being drawn from the "get thee to a nunnery" scene (now directed at his mother) and the "closet" scene, a device that dramatically works extremely well.

There is a strong, well-spoken Claudius from Philip Edgerley and an aristocratic Polonius from Richard Clews. It is not his pedantry that gets laughs but his attempts to find a place to find behind the furniture when planning how to overhear Hamlet with Ophelia. Bethan Cullinane's Ophelia seems to be going mad long before her father's death and Ruth Lass's Gertrude, though a caring mother, may well have been aware of her husband's murder. Michael Brhyer and Stewart Hefferman are a giggling Rosencranz and Guildenstern and Thorston Manderlay a darkly mysterious ghost.

Director Tristan Sharp has drawn committed performances from his cast and with co-designer Robin Don has devised an intriguing way of presenting it. Unless you are tall enough to see over everyone else's heads, you have to keep changing location to follow all of it, which perhaps increases the involvement, though I missed the immersive nature of the company's earlier work. It is a very stylish presentation; this is show house Elsinore, and a very watchable 90 minutes, performed well enough to want to see these actors in a version that hasn't been deconstructed.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton