Year of Shakespeare: The Rest is Silence

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

The Rest is Silence, dreamthinkspeak, 29 June 2012, at the Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

By Adam Hansen, University of Northumbria

In Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1890-91), one discussant says: ‘In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. … There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.’ In brilliantly distinctive ways, and in contrast to more traditional (if not more reverential) stagings of the play, this production affirmed this ‘fact’.  After ushers insisted the audience digested caveats detailed on a laminated handout (including: ‘There will be a loud bang during the performance and a scene that will include some nudity’), we were accommodated (or confined) in a large quadrangle of mirrored walls, what the laminate termed ‘an enclosed space’.  Said laminate assured us we could ‘move around at any time’; yet though we could ‘budge’, and did not ‘sit…down’, would Hamlet’s words to his mother fix us: ‘You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (3.4.17-19)? As people scrutinized images of themselves and each other, you could see how distinct and diverse yet how contained we were.  Reflection was curtailed by a cut to darkness.  The arboreal scene of Old Hamlet’s murder appeared, projected onto what had been mirrors, but were now screens. Another cut soon followed, this time to a modern bedroom styled in the aesthetic permeating the production: sleek, glossy, sanitised.  The room, housing Gertrude and Claudius, was set behind Perspex or glass, and about a metre from the floor.  Even as Claudius rehearsed his opening lines, and performed ablutions, cleanliness was next to business-like remoteness, elevation equated to controlling privilege. Referencing a modern nexus of media and politics Claudius eventually performed his words to a camera.  How successful was this multimedia mode when most people still watched the actor, not the screen showing the camera’s footage?  As more screened-off spaces lit up to come in and out of play, being ‘at home with the Hamlets’ was far from happy families, especially if you were a woman.  Claustrophobia was significantly gendered – Ophelia was trapped in the intimate space of her own chamber being lectured by the men in her life.  When mad, Ophelia sang crumpled beneath her father’s clear desk, boxed within a box, yet always open to scrutiny.  In this domestic tragedy, home, much more than Denmark, was a panoptic ‘prison’ (1623 Folio, 2.2.242).

While the set was enclosed, enclosing and subdivided, enforcing the audience’s alienation from the actors and the characters’ isolation from each other, with everyone subject to everyone else’s gaze, the words the characters used represented a contrastingly shuffled, fluid version of the playtext(s).  When it comes to Hamlet, and its multifarious incarnations, that potential plurality is important.  Scenes and interactions from the various versions of the work we know as ‘Hamlet’ were relocated in ways that made those words mean new, or newly realised, things.  Much was made of repetition, too – from Claudius’ opening dry-runs, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern practising as they fulfilled their royal commission to snoop.  At times the simultaneous echoes became cacophonous and nightmarish, and as such perfectly preluded the Ghost’s first appearance.

Like poor adaptations, repetitions can degrade an ‘original’, as when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a mockery of Hamlet’s responses to them.  Yet as parody, repetition also empowers, if momentarily, as when Ophelia bridled against her father by mimicking his platitudes. Repetition also intensifies and reworks.  Self-consciously realising this is vital for any rendering of a text enduring iteration. Closer inspection revealed the Prince’s reading materials and papers betrayed his anxieties, and Hamlet’s influence: Sartre’s Nausea, Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø, alongside screeds insistently declaiming ‘conscience does make cowards’ (3.1.82).  Can we connect with and understand Hamlet/Hamlet without understanding what they signify now? Questions like this perplexed Elsinore. At one fabulous point, Gertrude and Ophelia read Hamlet’s scribbles to read him; at another, three identical versions of Hamlet’s bedroom were turned over by three different investigators, as if that space of selfhood, sexuality and ‘sleep’ offered answers (3.1.65).

This repetition compulsion, with all its ambiguities, culminated with the rendering of Hamlet’s soliloquy from 3.1.  Many characters relayed ‘To be or not to be’ (and the rest), all with different emphases and pacing, all isolated in the set.  This made the speech more and less solipsistic – diffused into babble, it gained resonance from what the words meant to their new speakers.  Ophelia, for example, grappling with the speech’s concerns would, in play and performance, go on to ‘not…be’.

Yet for the characters, as for us, in a world of conflicted beliefs, death is hardly a certain escape.  After her drowning Ophelia appeared overhead, projected floating, face down.  If she transcended, we did not: to have that view, the audience was figuratively underwater, just as we were later entombed beneath footage of soil thrown into her grave.  Suicide is a limited kind of agency, but it is, perhaps, tragically, ‘a consummation…to be wished’ when all else fails (3.1.62-3).  Seeing the Ghost, Hamlet hammered against the confining windows and screamed words displaced from the play’s opening: ‘Let me not burst in ignorance but tell’ (1.4.46).  But no confines burst in this telling, until, that is, we saw the Ghost in some previously ‘undiscovered’ space beyond the quadrangle’s ‘bourn’ – and we know ‘No traveller returns’ from there (3.1.78-9).  Like Elsinore’s inhabitants, do we live coiled in insatiable scopophilia, slaves to spectacles and shows?  Is a mobile mass of individuals free to choose its focus, or conditioned to see in set ways (in the multiple versions of ‘To be’, most of the audience still regarded Hamlet)? Apparently, given what soundtracked Gertrude’s private dance of desire for Claudius, Chris Montez’s 1966 hit version of a song by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon: ‘The more I see you / The more I want you / … More mad about you’.    Ultimately, does such voyeurism and overhearing (in the theatre or elsewhere) pacify or madden?

 

What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Adam Hansen

Adam Hansen is Senior Lecturer in English at Northumbria University.  He has published widely on early modern literature and culture, including, most recently, Shakespeare and Popular Music (Continuum, 2010), ‘London and its Others in Timon of Athens’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch 147 (2011), and ‘Cities in Late Shakespeare’, in Late Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, eds. Andrew Power and Rory Loughnane (Cambridge UP, 2012). He is currently working on a study of the far-right’s appropriation of Shakespeare.
  • Monika Smialkowska

    This was certainly ‘Hamlet’ with a difference – thought provoking, gripping and surprising. I loved the fragmentation of the set, subdivided into multiple spaces – Hamlet’s room, Ophelia’s closet (too small and confined even to contain a bed), Claudius and Gertrude’s suite, Polonius’ office, as well as some multi-purpose areas. At different times, lights went on and off in different sections, making the audience in the middle constantly shift their attention and point of view. Sometimes, there was simultaneous action in several rooms, and it was up to individual members of the audience to choose which bit they were watching (or, as I occasionally did, you could watch your fellow watchers instead! Scopophilia to a t?). As a result, there were as many different performances as there were viewers – no two people saw exactly the same play. It was more than theatre in the round – it was theatre all around you, disturbingly enclosing you and not letting you relax (in a good sense!).

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