A buzzing, somewhat bemused audience is coaxed inside a black warehouse, lit only by dim strip lights. Massive, dull mirrors flank every wall, boxing us in and creating endless rows of reflections. Some spectators try to mingle but this is an environment designed for lonely, quiet souls. As we shuffle nervously about, those looming mirrors lend an air of interrogation. It feels like we’re being watched. It feels like we’re in trouble.
This uneasy spell is eventually broken by a video clip, projected against a line of mirrors. We watch a sombre chap stroll through an orchard and recognise him as Claudius (providing, of course, you know Hamlet. If you don’t, I’m not convinced this is the show for you). This projection of a prowling Claudius bounces off the cage of mirrors, his ‘foul murder’ played out over and over again. It’s a simple but fiercely suggestive opening to dreamthinkspeak’s The Rest is Silence, which immediately blows away the cobwebs that so often cling to adaptations of the play. It sure as hell beats the normal stumbling around in the dark, which often makes for such a dismally predictable opening.
In fact, Tristan Sharps’ inventive and rigorous set is one of the most thematically useful designs I’ve ever encountered. The enclosed environment creates a cloyingly claustrophobic atmosphere, the surrounding mirrors induce a tingling paranoia and the dancing reflections suggest a world of endlessly spiralling consequence, beyond everyone’s control – particularly poor old Hamlet’s.
And yet… For all the innovations here and some gorgeous, enveloping visuals this is essentially a cerebral experience; a show that gets you thinking but never really wriggles right into your heart. Still, there are some very smart touches, which make Shakespeare’s language fizz in exciting new ways.
Many of the play’s more famous speeches are handled in a surprising and illuminating fashion.‘To be or not to be’ is split amongst the entire cast: Gertrude weeps as she scans her son’s diary, Claudius reads the speech as if it’s an amateur essay and Polonius ponders Hamlet’s words, alone in his study. With each character sectioned off in a glass booth, we’re left to roam and rediscover this speech at our own pace, lingering at the interpretations that hit us hardest. The lighting is also used to clever effect. The ghost’s speech is whispered, tremblingly, in absolute darkness. Never have those words – ‘Horrible, horrible!’ - frightened quite so much.
The brain dances happily, playing with countless new interpretations but the heart stays fairly still. Hamlet might sit, spotlit and sad, for much of the show but his clawing grief and frustrations never quite reach us. Ophelia’s madness – always rushed but here played out at an insane pace – simply doesn’t make sense and the complex relationship between Hamlet and his mother never really materialises.
Even the penetrative designs starts to lose its gloss. Initially fascinating and always lively, this gloomy prison begins to feel a touch safe, even conventional. It might be strange and new but this is ultimately quite a rigid space, hemmed in by its own rules and invisible walls. One longs for the actors, trapped inside their private booths of misery, to smash through the glass and grab us by the throat.