Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Rest is Silence - LIFT - Riverside Studios

[pretty much a walk-through/blow-by-blow-account as much as a review, so MORE THAN A LITTLE SPOILERY on matters STAGING]

If your idea of hell is spending 90 minutes trapped in an Ikea showroom, then you might want to think about giving DreamThinkSpeak's new show a wide berth.

Premièring at the Brighton Festival, The Rest is Silence is one of those pieces that functions primarily as a magnet for adjectives. It is variously: “thrillingly visual”, a “deconstruction”, “vigorous”, a “new interpretation”, “promenade” and “a multimedia experience”.

Put more simply, it's bits of Hamlet performed from within nine human-sized fishtanks (no water) and some video projection.

You/we the audience stand in the middle of a darkened square room. The perimeter is made of perspex screens. You/we correctly guess that behind these blinded windows will be a series of rooms around the court of Elsinore. You/we are correct*.

The thing opens with a film of [do I need to SPOILER-ALERT plot points in Hamlet? No.] Claudius staggering out of *the orchard* taking a swig of some booze to steady his nerves as he goes, murder committed. The film isn't especially well-shot, nor is the realisation of its projection especially well-executed, but this is all pretty forgiveable. It's by no means a bad way to start, although a bit more style (I was thinking perhaps a nod to David Lynch, Lars von Trier, or to recently discovered Scandi-crime dramas) would have paid richer dividends.

This turns out to be a dream (we assume), since the next “shot”, or “frame” (or “fishtank”) – this time live – is Claudius sitting blot upright in his, y'know, enseamed bed. He pops into his en-suite bathroom next door and starts to practice the speech with which he usually opens Act1,sc.ii. Again, it's quite a neat idea.

At this point, it might be an idea to designate these walls of the room North, South, East, and West, if only a) for ease of identification, b) to give you an idea of how the piece functions, and c) for me to see if, post-fact, there's a bit more logical thought going on here than I managed to discern in the hurly burly of the moment. Let's designate the wall in which Claudius and Gertrude's bedroom, their en-suite bathroom and Gertrude's dressing room are found West.

Cut from West to East, where the Polonius family (L-R Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes) are getting ready in separate rooms.  Laertes is wearing a particularly nasty purple shirt.

Next scene, lights up in North wall, which is one long unbroken room across its three windows. [It was also the wall where the pre-show/video-show was screened] And we're into (a very truncated version of) I.ii “proper”. Claudius gives his “speech” to a video camera that is worked by Polonius. He's sitting on a long low white-leather sofa with Gertrude on his right and Hamlet on his left. Hamlet is sighing and sobbing uncontrollably. Polonius zooms in slightly and eliminates Hamlet from the picture.

[absolutely eviscerated version of] Speech delivered, Claudius gets on with [an also hugely truncated version of] the Any Other Business of the scene; letting Laertes return to his studies in France and giving Hamlet a hard time for still crying about his dead dad. These duties despatched, they exeunt severally; the King and Queen off into the West Wing and the Poloniuses off into the East. Up to this point, I don't think Hamlet has spoken. Claudius has said stuff to him, Gertrude has said stuff to him, but he hasn't given any of his customary replies.

[I hadn't started taking notes by this point, so I might get this next sequence a tiny bit wrong but...]

Hamlet remains sitting in the North room, “O that this too, too solid flesh” comes from somewhere. Does Hamlet say it? I think perhaps he does. Hamlet is played by the normally compelling Ed Hogg who, although I didn't recognise him during the show, played Christ in Rupert Goold's astonishing production of The Trial of Judas Iscariot. He is very handsome – something like a cross between Jack White and Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows - but his chosen *quiet voice* here isn't unlike Alan Bennett reading the Pooh stories (no, I don't just mean he's got a Yorkshire accent, it's something more about the tone). It's initially quite disconcerting; and not in an entirely good way.

While Hamlet keeps brooding, lights come up on the East wing, where the Poloniuses are preparing for Laertes's departure. Daddy Polonius bores his kids with his famous list of advice (Don't be a Borrower, etc.). Then, surprisingly, we skip to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arriving in II.ii. They get welcomed by Claude and Gert. and are set the task of discovering the source of Hamlet's transformation. This is perhaps the real major deviation from the order of the narrative, at least as published in Shakespeare's name in First Folio.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I'm all for directors slicing and dicing text as they see fit. Indeed, I'm still toying with running this review in tandem with my now long overdue report on the Globe To Globe Lithuanian Hamlet, so I surprised myself by coming over all Michael Billington here. (It is, of course, only natural that Michael, therefore – in what I can only describe as a spirit of pre-emptive perversity – decides to go a whole bundle on this).

I should be clear: To be honest, I'd been *expecting* much less text. I was surprised that something so at pains to distantiate itself from “Hamlet” – the changed title, the wafty publicity image, all the talk of “deconstruction” – was actually, snazzy set aside, turning out to be little more than a Very Cut, modern dress production. Therefore, I was puzzled by why director Tristan Sharps had brought Rosencrantz and Guildernstern's entrance forward. Of course, there's no real reason not to. Claude and Gert don't *know* that Hamlet has previously met with the ghost of his popped-off papa, who fingers Claude for his murder. But, the audience knowing this does invest subsequent scenes with a lot more tension.

That said, I suppose we the audience have been unambiguously *told* – via video – that Claudius has done *something bad* before the live acting even starts. (I still think there's a strong case to be made for a Scooby Doo version of Hamlet in which “the Ghost of Hamlet's father” turns out to be Fortinbras in a scary costume).

Already I started to get interested in who the ideal audience member for this show is. What I mean is, to what extent is Sharps trading/banking on his audiences knowing Hamlet Very Well Indeed, and to what extent is he hoping that we will leave all our foreknowledge at the door and just attend to what he is actually showing us?

The next bit, [at least according to the notes I'd by this stage started hurriedly trying to tap into my phone as discreetly as possible] sees R&G “repeating” things Hamlet has said to them back to each other. It's more than a little Stoppardian. It is also, initially, excruciatingly irritating.

[I should concede that I was possibly not at this point the ideal audience member. I'd been up since seven. Had done a whole day of stuff already elsewhere, and was possibly not best pleased by having to stand up for the next 90 minutes. Maybe not the *ideal* audience member, but possibly not a-typical of yer average Londoner. I mean, the show starts at 8pm. Most people will have been at work all day. While I'll concede that LIFT *is* a Festival, Londoners aren't, for the most part, really able to avail themselves of the atmosphere festive all day long... Anyway. In short: I'm old, I'm crabby, I prefer sitting. Grumble over.]

My initial irritation with R&G stemmed largely from the fact that they seemed to be being played as a pair of brainless, camp idiots; and there's only so much facetiousness one can stick into a characterisation before you genuinely want to punch *the character* in the face.

I was also getting increasingly put off by the shiny, nouveau, *new*ness of everything. I wasn't kidding about it feeling like an Ikea showroom. And part of that was the fact that none of the rooms felt like *real* rooms. I totally get how that could be a directorial decision, but that doesn't mean I had to agree with it or think it worked.

Interestingly, looking at the production/publicity photos of the show emanating from Brighton [see top], the rooms look like they were a fair bit bigger there. And I wonder if DTS have had their vision slightly compromised by the lack of available size at the Riverside Studios. Because I did increasingly feel that the crampedness of these rooms was a significant contributing factor to my initial problems with the piece; like the performers were too pressed-up-against their glass screens (presumably mirrored, or at least highly reflective, on their side?); so that they didn't really have nearly enough space to, well, to *act*. Certainly not to be able to act with the requisite level of realism/natural-ness demanded by the set up. They all looked way too caged. Which, sure, could again be part of Sharps's regie-conception, but the tininess of the rooms conflicted with the expense of the furniture. (Yeah, while it's Ikea-showroom-like in conception, the furniture is definitely a bunch more upmarket).

But anyway, R&G (they're in the South wall, right hand room) report more of Hamlet's lines while Hamlet himself sits and broods, more spoken-for than speaking. Quoted but not understood.

It strikes you (well, me) that the removal of Horatio is especially cruel, and really changes the dynamic of the play. I'd never much figured Horatio as terrribly important – although I've recently been fascinated by the Eastern European insistance that he's almost certainly a double agent working for Fortinbras all along. But, my God, does Hamlet look isolated without him. Indeed, I would argue that this is the most unkindest cut of all, certainly the cut that most changes the dynamic of the story. Instead of always having someone to hang out with, talk to, explain his thoughts, feelings and plans to, Hamlet looks completely miserable and borderline psychotic. It's remarkable the extent to which him explaining what he's up to makes him more compassionate.

Of course, there are other substantial cuts. the players are dispensed with altogether, but then so are Hamlet's doubts as to whether or not the Ghost – who finally shows up now – is telling the truth.  In this version, the ghost's speech is pared down to bare facts. He's been killed by Claudius and he was “sent to [his] account / With all [his] imperfections on [his] head”.  This speech was delivered in near total darkness. Which was highly effective. The ghost's moan: “O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!” was indeed chilling, if you bought into imagining what it meant for Old Hamlet's immortal soul.

The Ghost gives Hamlet a gun. I shall not speculate as to how something as airy and insubstantial as a ghost manages to carry a gun. It is probably a metaphor. Anyway: net result, Hamlet is now armed with the knowledge of his father's murderer's identity and a gun.

There follows a long sequence of Hamlet pointing the gun. First at the mirror in his room (South wall, centre panel), then at himself, then back at his bedroom mirror – behind which, of course, we are standing. And, thanks to the freedom of movement afforded by the staging, you can play “chicken” by standing in front of Ed Hogg looking like he's about ready to shoot you in the face. I didn't last very long. It's harder than you'd think, even when you know that the gun is fake and Hamlet is only an actor.

Hamlet chucks stuff around his room. The wide-screen video thing comes back up opposite on the back wall of the North room, as if the room now gives out onto a view of the Orchard, however , it turns out to be the flashback-to-the-murder thing again – this time – while Claudius and Gertrude dance together in the room – showing Claudius entering the garden and dropping the poison in Old Hamlet's ear. Then the Ghost of Old Hamlet enters the room and Claudius, overcome by his guilty memories; and Gertrude, by this ghost she can't see; run off a-whimpering.

Hamlet does some more gun-pointing at his wall.

Lights up on the East wing and there's a cute bit with Ophelia making “wheeeee” noises on her father's smart office swivel chair. This is perhaps the moment that crystallises one of the things this production *is* giving us – a lot of the “off-stage” “unseen” moments. It's not an especially *new* idea – I'm pretty sure I've seen other productions explore/offer similar things – but thanks to the overtly explicit privacy these characters enjoy (they aren't even having to *pretend* the fourth wall). We get to see the characters doing “those little personal things that people do when they think they're alone” (cf. Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe). It is tempting to think that *those things* aren't, necessarily, perhaps, *these things* that we're being shown, however.

I think we then see Hamlet go to Oph.'s room, kiss her and then push her around a bit. I'm not sure, given what we've actually seen of Hamlet's emotional journey thus far, or of his relationship with Ophelia, that we've been given enough to see this as anything other than nastily abusive. But perhaps the production either a) doesn't mind – suggesting that Hamlet has been made genuinely mad (without Horatio, there is no talk of antic dispositions), or b) is expecting us to bring a bit of context with us into the theatre.

The next scene is the most inventive yet. In three separate identical version of Hamlet's bedroom on the South wall Claudius, Gertrude and R&G separately rifle through H's possessions (the inevitable Scandi-crime novels – Jo Nesbo features prominently – Dostoevsky and H's diary...). Scattered drafts of “To be or not to be...” litter the floor, like so many attempted suicide notes. A clever touch is that each version of the room, while running simultaneous, picks up where the last left off, and we can discern a difference of approach between Gertrude's gentle, genuine concern, Claudius's paranoia and rage, and R&G's inevitable total mystification.

And, as night follows day, “To be or not to be...” arrives, spoken, not by Hamlet, but severally by Gertude, Claudius, R&G and Polonius. I watched Richard Clews version as Polonius, reading direct from the diary, or as copied into his notebook, reading it exactly as a father of a daughter whose recent ex-boyfriend was given to writing overwrought fantasies of misery. It's "To be or not to be..." done with utter scorn, and actually a very fine, detailed performance. He stops and repeats the sillier words (“...who would fardels bear? Fardels?”) wearing an expression of complete contempt. I liked this a lot.

Cut to:  East Wall

Ophelia rehearsing her “I have remembrances of yours / That I have longed long to re-deliver” in her little cupboard.

[I made the brief note: - Man, this is the stuff we *really* *don't* *want* to see – and there is a certain element of that to this production. The idea that Shakespeare mightnot have written in some scenes because they wouldn't have been very interesting. This is Hamlet stripped of all its majesty and rendered down, and reduced, at times, to somewhat trite moments of teen-romance melodrama. After all, Ophelia's misery is no more tragic than anyone elses who's just been dumped. Sure, it feels bad to her, but incredibly she comes out of the original with more dignity than she does here]

We then move back in time in III.i to the bit where Polonius, now we're on the North Wall large room, where Polonius co-opts Oph. into his desire to spy on Hamlet. Ophelia assents  and starts to deliver her “I have remembrances...” speech at Hamlet as soon as he enters...

But then Gertrude crashes the scene and Hamlet begins cross cutting his later attack on her in her chamber into his break-up row with Ophelia.

So there he is, having a row with his mother and his girlfriend *at the same time*. Did ever readings get more Freudian, or more messed-up? No wonder it hath made him mad.  He's mixing up his lines and his women. *Both* ladies in his life are ordered to nunneries. Gertrude gets lines aimed at Ophelia; Ophelia, Gertrude lines. It's rather wonderfully effective, and Ed Hogg kicks into gear and really lets rip here. It's barnstorming, angry stuff. The only surprise is that, with all his pent-up rage, he doesn't actually smack someone in the face.

Little wonder that he winds up shooting Polonius. Mercifully, Ophelia has already fled the room before this happens. But it's still speeded up the play no end. Skipping effectively straight from III.i to IV.i

[thanks to my incomplete notes, I've now got no idea where they slotted in the bit where Hamlet *doesn't* shoot Claudius in the head while he's praying – after C&G have had their dance, perhaps? But anyway, that scene isn't missing, it's just been moved somewhere]

From here, we find Laertes turning up in the Claude&Gert West Wall bedchamber and waving a pistol in the Royal face and demanding to know what happened to his father. Then Ophelia totally loses her shit in the East Wing.

That said, by this point, you are (I was) really starting to wonder if this is still meant to be set in a “Royal” household at all. This was another instance of that unhelpful bring-knowledge-in/leave-it-at-the-door conundrum. Certainly for the first couple of acts I was still figuring the play as set in a Danish royal family. And, thanks to the way that modern-dress productions have taught us not to watch Shakespeare too literally for clues, I was doing fine with that. Claudius wasn't exactly “regal”, nor Laertes *noble*, but then I've seen enough Northern Broadsides shows to be more than aware of social class hopping productions. On the other hand, the production was doing nothing to suggest, encourage, or even confirm the idea that the dramatis personae were still Royal, save perhaps for the video-taping of the *very* cut version of Claudius's speech (therefore, I couldn't swear he doesn't mention anything about Kings, Queens, or Kingdoms, but I don't remember him doing so [answers in a comment if you happen to *know*]). On the other hand, if he *isn't* a King, what on earth is he doing making a film where he talks about his marriage to his recently departed brother's widow?  That's Life?

And, as me and a couple of friends joked after the show, if they aren't a royal family, what the hell is Polonius now? Some kind of spooky cousin? Brr. Anyway...

Next up we whizz back to the South Wall which has now been transformed (well, left and right) into the boat on which Hamlet, under the care of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is sailing to England. As you know, we never see this in the play. What Sharps has cleverly done here is take the instructions that Claudius gives them beforehand, and then the account that Hamlet gives of the journey afterwards and mixes them into it happening in real time (we are shown, not told, in fact. And as well as being one of the freshest inventions in the show, is also one of the things that works best – it makes me think that Sharps should have taken more time and shown us much, much less of what we do normally see in Hamlet and made up more stuff like this that is implied – although that way possibly lies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead II - Still Dead (?), and fewer marks for originality. Saying this does make me idly wonder why this *isn't* a “multi-media”, “promenade” production of that play – presumably because it's more expensive and not a classic. Anyway, more matter, less waffle, Haydon...).

Admittedly, I'm a child, but I did really like seeing Hamlet's hand snake into R or G's jacket pocket, hung up on the back wall of an on-deck gazebo and nick the letter condemning him to death, and then pop up in his own cabin a minute later, write his own version, seal it, and then whizz back to R&G's little tent and pop it back into the pocket.

All the while, R&G are still playing with the torn up fragments of the To Be Or Not To Be... speech that they found in Hamlet's bedroom, and trying to piece together the thought-process it could be using the same words. This results in a pair of lovely, new speeches made from the words of the original. And they're nicely done: slightly surreal, and ultimately poignant, not least because we are now acutely aware that both are now facing imminent death.

Amidst all this nautical fun, we also get the burial of Ophelia via video-projection on the ceiling. It's basically a corpse-eye-view from within a glass-topped coffin – i.e. we see Gert, Claude and Laertes looking down and a close up view of some soil landing on top of us until there's no more light.

And all this while Hamlet's still all at sea.

I know! Right?

Whither the gravediggers? What about poor Yorick?

Still, it does speed the action up no end. With Ophelia buried beforehand, when Hamlet gets back we can get straight to the fight at the end, with none of the usual pissing about and prevaricating.

There are only four characters left.

With no Horatio and no Fortinbras, and in a production with no extras, this last scene is a curious thing indeed. It starts with four characters and ends with four corpses (needlessly, since I don't recall Claudius setting by the usual “chalice for the nonce” which ends Gertude's life, but nevertheless, there it is, there she dies, and despite no one seeming to explain anything out loud, Hamlet seems to manage to force Claudius to drink it, as well as stabbing him with the poisoned foil).

When they are all lying dead, the video-projected face of a giant Old Hamlet looks in through the big windows and weeps.

[needs a bit of a round-off/analysis but I'm knackered and this is too long already]

*Well, correct, except in might not be Elsinore


gemma brockis said...

i like sitting too.
and a question - does hamlet dump ophelia? i thought she dumped him...

gemma brockis said...

gemma by the way
yes.he definitely dumped her in this production. but the original is much more ambiguous. that's what makes it so fucking awful - you're never entirely sure whether if she had not bowed to pressure from polonius and returned his letters they might have had some kind of chance.
they are both cowards. i think. rather than her being his victim.