Malthouse Estate Warehouse, Shoreham, 2nd May to 8th June
The Chekov commentary 'Before I Sleep', which two Festivals ago played to record-breaking audiences and great acclaim (including around here) finally receives it's follow-up. This time the subject is 'Hamlet'. Then they'd asked audiences not to give away the “secrets” of the show. Judging by other reviews, they seem to have accepted the inevitable this time around. (Though the programmes are notably not handed out till the end, and contain no images from the production.) However, being obsessive about spoilers I've saved writing about it until it ended its run. (And not out of my normal tardiness. Honest, guv.)
That venue name above, that's not some trendy monicker dreamed up by some Factory records fan. This really was staged not just in a disused warehouse, but one which required Festival-goers to trek out to Shoreham. However, unlike it's predecessor, it's not actually a site-specific work. If it couldn't be reproduced in a conventional theatre, it could be done anywhere with a square space large enough. In fact it seems it will shortly be reproduced in Newcastle. (Hence my post label 'Site-specific promenade performance', coined especially for 'Before I Sleep', remains without a second outing.)
We enter a room surrounded by mirrors on four sides. At first we see only ourselves. Projected images then appear. But as things progress more and more of the spaces become backlit, revealing 'cells' or 'pods' inhabited by the actors, like the units of a corporate office block, only horizontalised. As one scene ends the lights dim, for others to take up elsewhere. We see the characters through these patinas throughout. These shallow pods become like a series of reliefs, where they encounter each other but with a virtual formal bar on interaction. Being upstaged in this performance would have been almost literally impossible. Within this, they sometimes film each other, and we see the image projected live as they talk.
Many spaces are private rooms, like cloistered worlds, someone's boudoir, someone's office, even someone's bathroom. They share a minimalist, modern sheen - silver lamps and iMacs. It looks like the sort of stuff people buy to represent themselves, which never really gets past looking just like stuff they've bought.
This time round, the play's much more the thing. In sharp contrast to 'Before I Sleep', this is less a commentary upon a play and more a reworking of it. We start somewhere near the start of the play and end at the end of it. The simple structural change of having a single audience who turn up at the same time to see the performance once, rather than a series of groups exploring an environment in different speeds and at different orders, virtually insists on this.
However, we should stop to consider how radical a reworking this would seem if not seen in the shadow of its predecessor. Many of the best-known elements are ruthlessly expunged (including “alas Yorick”), others rearranged and speeches swap character's mouths. Dialogue sometimes continues across pods, overlaps between scenes and sometimes degenerates into babble.
When watching a familiar play like this, it is hard to avoid thinking “this is their take on the suicide soliloquy”, “this is their take on the climactic duel” and so on. Many reworkings seem chiefly aimed at defamiliarising the audience from the material, to stop them thinking like this. This is the first production I have seen which effectively says “this is our take on the suicide soliloquy”, “this is our take on the climactic duel.” Many people commented that 'Before I Sleep' needed only the most cursory knowledge of 'The Cherry Orchard.' Not so here. Paradoxically, through being given more of your actual 'Hamlet' we're expected to know more of your actual 'Hamlet.'
There's one other notable formal device. Characters will usually fall into darkness when their pod is unused. But at various points Hamlet remains - staring morbidly ahead from his own cell while others discuss him and repeat his words. Partly this fits the theme of spying and observation. But there's more. His signature “to be or not to be” speech is read by other characters in staggered, overlapping fashion, he only joining in near the end. Why might this be?
There is, of course, method in such a style of production. Just as there's a reason why 'Hamlet' is Shakespeare's best-known play, and “to be or not to be” his most-quoted phrase. More than any other of his works, it isn't about journeying to the place, getting hold of the thing or overcoming the other bloke. Commentators focus on the Prince's “delay” to the point that they may as well be talking about an effects pedal. His dilemma, his inner conflict isn't some problem to be overcome, it's the very core of the play. He doesn't exist as a plot function. Quite the reverse, the play exists first to precipitate his conflicted state of mind, then to reflect and externalise it. Beyond that, it has no further use for such things. He's effectively soliloquising even when other characters are talking to him. As he says himself, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
There's perhaps two ways to read 'Hamlet.' The other characters represent the weight of society, the world against the individual, confining and defining him, unable to accept there's a multitude going on inside his head. His 'madness' becomes his response, his means to assert his own idiosyncrasy. Or alternately they're externalisations of his thoughts, the King his sublimated desire to kill his father and shag his mother, and so on.
This production, by pruning the play back to the bones, throws this dichotomy into sharper relief. The dissembled nature of the production isn't a means, a way of arriving at the point, it's more that it is the point. The parade of windows in place of a linear narrative, suggest a fractured self. In essence, it highlights the way self-awareness becomes a poisoned chalice. As soon as we become self-aware we become an object of our own contemplation. Inevitably, we split and divide. Rather than being enabling, the expanded awareness leads to indecision, a kind of paralysis. That staple of historical fiction, the avenging hero, is replaced by a ball of confusion forever trying to be both psychiatrist and patient. The mirrors, the modernist design, the cell-like pods, the separation between characters, all underline this.
But in so doing it firmly comes down on one side. In proving this point it highlights the way the other characters are aspects of Hamlet's mind, echoes of his thoughts. He is both the King and the silent, scowling youth who would depose him. And I am not at all sure that this is the sort of question we want resolved. A good production of 'Hamlet' will let your mind wander freely between these concepts, not nail it to either pole. Take a classic quote, such as “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Is the Prince dismissing his compatriots as mere “bad dreams”, as though they were unwanted interruptions, inferior to and more trivial than his own thoughts? Or is Shakespeare suggesting they are literally bad dreams, projections of Hamlet's subconscious? We don't know, we probably never shall, and that's a sign of things working the way they should. A play about a man in conflict, it should itself be in conflict, shouldn't it?
There's also a problem in staging the play which would not have existed in Shakespeare's day, Hamlet seems the proto-Goth, the ultimate teenager in sulky self-obsessive war against his parents. He's portrayed here as black-clad, petulant and ponytailed, smashing up his bedroom in a tantrum. A similar scene shows Ophelia in her father's study, sneakily sitting in his chair like she's trying out adulthood, going through his desk drawers like they're playthings. At such times the performance seemed to be taking these aspects head-on, choosing to highlight them. Yet at others it seemed to want to retreat back into a more 'classic' Shakesperian drama, as if it was raising things it could not quite control.
Us old-timers of this town tend to talk about 'Old' and 'New' Brighton. 'Before I Sleep' felt very Old Brighton. Though I don't believe anyone involved came from squat culture, it seemed to take much of the spirit of squat events (occupying a space then improvising from what was found there, extemporising props and themes) and make them into something more focused and polished. In fact when I first saw the redecorated windows, I assumed it was the work of 'art squatters.'
Conversely, 'The Rest is Silence' seemed new Brighton. “This stretch of coastline is set for regeneration,” comments the programme. “We are in the world of warehouse conversions and loft-house developments with minimalist interiors.” But, perhaps significantly, this environment looks not like some last hurrah of the old but as if the yuppies have already arrived. (Ironically, while this was being staged squatters did occupy the previous venue for a conference.) The work is sharp, sophisticated, inventive and thought-provoking. But 'Before I Sleep' was an assault on the senses, like entering some crazy wonderworld where imagination was untamed.
This I admired. But that I loved.