Hamlet in little boxes

The Rest is Silence, Studio 2 Riverside Studios, 16 June 2012

We queued in a dingy alley behind Riverside Studios to be admitted via the Studio 2 back door into a square space that appeared to have mirrored walls. For what seemed like ages the audience had no other object of attention but itself.

Then dreamthinkspeak’s take on Hamlet began.

For the next ninety minutes (with no interval) we were subjected to an intelligent rearrangement of the text that was played out behind the plastic walls integrating live action with video projection.

What appeared to be mirrored surfaces were illuminated to reveal a series of rooms around the central space. As the action moved from room to room, the best tactic was to go to the centre of the space and turn on the spot.

This review references the walls in this production in clockwise order starting with wall 1, which occupied one side of the square and was one large room (1).

The performance began with a projection onto the front wall of room 1. It showed Hamlet’s father walking in his orchard. He approached in close-up and we saw blood running out of his ear, which was obviously the aftermath of his aural poisoning.

Over behind wall 4, Claudius woke up in his bedroom with a start as if the projection had been his bad dream. He wandered naked into the bathroom next door and rehearsed a speech beginning “Though yet of Hamlet…”

In this production, many other characters rehearsed in private before making statements, thereby emphasising the false nature of public discourse and the performance pressure felt by in the world of the these speakers.

With our attention still focused on Claudius, other walls were lit up to reveal the space behind in which the other characters were preparing themselves. All the rooms looked like they belonging in either modern offices or stylish luxury homes. The inference was that this family was one of considerable wealth and commercial power.

Back in room 1 Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes and Hamlet appeared for the court scene. The court looked like a modern office reception area. The main characters, with the exception of Hamlet, dressed in business wear.

With Gertrude sat at his side, Claudius spoke “Though yet…” to a handheld video camera, with the images projected onto the front of walls 2 and 4. Having previously seen his rehearsal, this felt like a performance within a performance.

The speech done, Claudius and Gertrude directed their attention to Hamlet and sat either side of him on a sofa. Unlike the other power dressers, Hamlet wore a black pullover, part of a casual black outfit several degrees of smart below the ubiquitous corporate look.

After asking him about his melancholy, Claudius and Gertrude froze. Hamlet got up from the sofa and stood just in front of them to deliver “O that this too, too solid flesh…”. Once finished, he reinserted himself between them.

This manner of delivery further emphasised his isolation. What is normally a soliloquy was here delivered by Hamlet lonely among the crowd of his immediate family.

There was no Horatio in the production, which further increased the sense of Hamlet’s loneliness.

After Laertes was given leave to return to France, the action moved clockwise through the rooms. Ophelia and Laertes talked in her room about his impending departure and then Ophelia spoke with her father Polonius in his office about Hamlet’s advances to her.

Reversed

Claudius and Gertrude enlisted the aid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a room in the corner of wall 3. At this point the action was mixed up and reversed. Skipping over Hamlet’s meeting with the pair, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat around with notebooks reading back Hamlet’s words and laughing at what he had said to them. This emphasised their role as spies and the total insincerity of their friendship with him.

As they laughed, Hamlet sat in the room opposite (1) with his head in his hands. Other characters joined in the repetition of Hamlet’s worlds, so that eventually everyone was talking at once.

Hamlet rose to his feet when he saw his father in a room directly opposite (wall 3). His father beckoned to him with his handgun. The entire space went dark as Hamlet’s father explained how he had been killed. When the lights went up again, Hamlet was in the room with him holding onto the handgun.

The appearance of Hamlet’s father at this moment pointed to the possibility that it was some form of fantasy brought on by the extreme stress of his situation, surrounded as he was by a confused tumult of his own words being thrust back at him.

The room containing Hamlet and his father went dark as room 1 lit up to reveal Claudius and Gertrude cavorting together. Projections on the adjacent walls showed other people enjoying the high life. As he watched his family, Hamlet sat in semidarkness and put the gun to his head as if threatening suicide.

A projection of Hamlet’s father appeared on the back wall of room 1 as Claudius launched into “My offence is rank…” Hamlet’s father then walked in on them both, but invisible to the clearly disturbed couple.

Hamlet entered the room with the handgun, looked at the praying Claudius and spoke his “hire and salary” speech after refusing to shoot him.

Ophelia was in Polonius’ room playing with the objects on his desk, mockingly impersonating of his homilies on good behaviour. Meanwhile Polonius was in the long room (1) trying to hide behind the sofa before finally secreting himself behind an end door.

Ophelia went back into her room where she met Hamlet, who held her up against wall.

Hamlet went into the long room (1) and was confronted by both Gertrude and Ophelia. He launched into a conflation of his separate diatribes against them. This was a brilliant piece of reordering. Hamlet rejected Ophelia’s remembrances, and then, after being accused of offending his father, he ended up ordering Gertrude “Get thee to a nunnery”.

Ophelia left the room, allowing Hamlet to turn fully on Gertrude. Projected images of the two brothers allowed Hamlet’s father to be compared with the “mildewed ear” of his uncle.

He pointed the gun at Gertrude when accusing her of preferring a “King of shreds and patches”. At this point Polonius entered. Hamlet swung round to face him and pulled the trigger.

The rooms on wall 3 were searched through by Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looking for clues to Hamlet’s madness. They found diaries and writings.

While this was going on, Hamlet stood in Gertrude’s closet (wall 4) and pointed the gun at a photo in a table-top frame, before sitting in Gertrude and Claudius’ bedroom.

Cacophony

The people in the rooms began to read out “To be or not to be” from the disparate papers they had discovered. This became a round, with one character beginning the speech after another had started. With all of them speaking at once, their words became a cacophony of sound.

Hamlet stared out at us and eventually joined in, speaking the words slowly and deliberately, as if truly discerning their meaning, unlike the garbled, uncomprehending confusion of the others.

This was one of moments where it was rewarding to concentrate ones gaze on Hamlet and merely listen to the other voices. At other times it was possible to listen to dialogue and view the speakers reflected on the opposite wall, allowing interesting effects to be created by the spectator.

Laertes returned to confront Claudius and Gertrude in their room with his gun, demanding to know how his father had died.

Over on wall 3, Hamlet appeared in a sea cabin on a ship bound for England. Further along the wall in a separate room, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat at the stern of the ship, once again comparing notes on Hamlet’s utterances.

They repeated comically mixed up versions of “To be or not to be” constantly getting the words either wrong or out of order. This was funny and also a sideways glance at dreamthinkspeak’s own technique applied in this production. But mostly it showed how lesser mortals like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could not follow or accurately reproduce Hamlet’s train of thought.

The story of how Hamlet rewrote the execution order from Claudius was told in voiceover. We saw Hamlet take it from a bag belonging to his supposed friends and later replace it. A screen in the ceiling of the space was used to show wax dripping on to the rewritten commission to create a new seal.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appeared in a projection on the centre of wall 3. They were sitting in the same position as before, and as the camera pulled back we saw them looking out from the stern of a motor yacht, which slowly disappeared into the distance.

Back in long room, Claudius received letters from Hamlet, which he read out to Laertes. They now knew to expect his return at any moment.

In a tragic replay of her previous playful foolery in Polonius’ office, Ophelia reacted to her father’s death by going mad in the same room, crying and singing as her distraction mounted.

Over in the long room, Gertrude announced to Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia had drowned.

We saw the evidence of this in a video projection on the front of wall 1 in which Ophelia, suspended in water, floated gently upwards. The overhead screen was used to show her drifting gently across the ceiling. This overhead projection then merged seamlessly into her funeral as we looked up at soil being dropped towards us as if into her grave.

The production came to a close in the long room. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes was fought in complete silence. Foils were provided and poisoned drink was prepared, which Gertrude drank accidentally after wiping Hamlet’s sweaty face.

After the two stabbings, Hamlet forced poisoned drink down Claudius’ throat and all lay dying. Hamlet’s father entered the room and observed the scene.

At the back of the room, screens rolled up out of the way to reveal the projectors, while the orchard and ear sequence was played again on small monitors.

Conclusions

Billed as a meditative, dreamlike reconstruction of the play, this felt more like an innovative adaptation than an oblique comment.

Acting inside plastic boxes did not really bring out the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Danish court as might have been expected. Instead it worked to bring the action of the play closer to the audience: safe behind the plastic panels, the cast were more approachable.

At one point Hamlet banged his fist very forcefully against the plastic wall separating us from him. He struck against a barrier that divided cast from audience, but the loudness of the noise had the effect of emphasising our mutual proximity.

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