Co-commissioned by the Brighton Fringe, LIFT and the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Rest is Silence has a host of high-profile interested parties. Fresh from a sold out extended run at the Brighton Fringe and promising a new take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, it is little surprise that the sense of expectation is palpable as the lights dim and the audience find themselves alone in a large, mirrored room.
What follows is a thoughtful tapestry that is part performance, part installation, part film – all woven together to create a simultaneously enveloping and distancing evocation of this tortured family. As an audience member rightly pointed out after the performance; this is no production for newcomers to the saga of Hamlet’s grief and rage at his mother’s marriage to her husband’s brother and murderer. What The Rest is Silence brings in visual impact, it unfortunately loses in language.
Erecting a literal fourth wall against which the actors fling themselves, each other and often their props, all action takes place in a sequence of plexiglass-fronted rooms surrounding the audience. Making for a very enjoyable viewing experience, not unlike a relaxed art gallery, this format grants the audience free licence to fully inhabit the space. Various members sit, lean against the glass where scenes are taking place and even remove their shoes. There is an air of ownership of the piece as people move around the space, choosing to follow particular scenes as the lights fade up or down on the action. Some scenes overlap or even take place simultaneously, with the focus on multiple characters in different locations affording a unique opportunity to stay with certain characters in preference to others and develop a relationship with their individual narrative that would not be possible on a crowded single stage. Nothing can quite measure up to standing inches from the glass against which Hamlet pounds his fists, wrestling with the prospect of murdering his uncle.
The sense of voyeurism that is so often second nature to theatre audiences is suddenly something that the whole room is aware of. The most intimate moments of these characters’ lives occur mere feet away – there is a barrier and yet there is not. They may see the audience, just as they themselves can be seen.
The true tragedy of this piece is not that everyone dies (the pithy conclusion usually pronounced upon Hamlet, and which dreamthinkspeak do not fail to provide in most spectacular fashion), but that Shakespeare’s wonderful language so often does. This is no fault of the cast – a strong ensemble overall – but an unfortunate side effect of the innovative format. The same free licence that audience members have to follow individual characters comes at the price of the narrative as a cohesive whole. Focus on Hamlet’s introspection and you may miss the beginnings of Ophelia’s descent into madness. Stay with one speech too long and you chance missing another. Much of the time spent attempting to move into pole position or anticipate the location of the next scene distracts from the richness of the dialogue which, it must be conceded, is utterly the point. For those familiar enough with the play, this will not be a problem, though it may be frustrating to have one’s attention so divided.
Overcoming the many challenges of such an intensive staging, the cast is admirably led by Edward Hogg’s broody and often terrifying Hamlet. Bethan Cullinane’s Ophelia is both tragic and touching – her doomed love for Hamlet rendering her the most engaging character of the piece. Ophelia’s timid and schizophrenic destruction of Polonius’ office as she succumbs to madness retains much of the audience, despite the beginnings of another scene opposite her. Michael Bryher and Stewart Heffernan delight as the excellent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with such finely tuned comedic timing that one cannot but hope to see them paired on stage again in the future.
Earning its title (though the line is, perhaps appropriately, never uttered) in the final scene, the closing minutes are free of dialogue and leave the audience to contemplate the legacy of the original catalyst for the tragedy and the inescapable conclusion that our worst actions will haunt us.
A compelling and tirelessly engaging piece, The Rest is Silence sets the bar high for productions seeking to generate a new dialogue between audience and performance. Though distracting slightly from the heart of the text, the innovative staging adds a pace and urgency to this timeless tragedy – giving the audience a unique sense of ownership. Not an ideal introduction to Hamlet, but highly recommended to those familiar with the piece and eager to see the strands of its DNA in a new light.