In 2010 Brighton Festival basked in the runaway success of an installation-meets-theatre production by the site-specific group Dreamthinkspeak. Staged in an abandoned department store, it plunged visitors into the aftermath of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with its titular orchard chopped down and yuppie apartments built in its place. It was spellbinding.
No wonder expectations have been high for this year’s festival centrepiece, The Rest is Silence. A co-commission with the London International Festival of Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival, it is a 90-minute “meditation on Hamlet” that takes place in a disused warehouse.
It is also difficult to describe in any detail without spoiling its surprises. The audience stand in a darkened space as the performance unfolds around them and, as in the Chekhov production, creative director Tristan Sharps weaves in sequences of film, projecting them in unexpected places to ghostly effect. Audience and characters alike are haunted by dreamlike footage of the murder of Hamlet’s father and the death of Ophelia.
This year’s show, however, is closer to conventional theatre and not quite as magical as its predecessor. But there is still much impressive sleight of hand. Perhaps most striking is a “split-screen” staging that emphasises the characters’ separateness, their duplicity and the plotting behind closed doors. This piles on the paranoia until it assaults the audience from all sides.
The protagonists are seen in their rooms, a series of glass-fronted boxes. As in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the spectators become voyeurs, spying on Ophelia’s descent into madness and on Claudius cavorting with Gertrude. The duel between Edward Hogg’s saturnine Hamlet and Ben Ingles’ Laertes is fought in near-silence, as if viewed from afar, yet the actors’ body language cries out in grief and shock.
Only Shakespeare’s original text is used, albeit abridged and rearranged. The delivery of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is particularly inspired, and pulls off the trick of making the words echo in the audience’s heads as well as in Hamlet’s.
It is surely pure luck that this inventive piece coincides with the current vogue for Danish TV drama on the UK’s screens. Its modern-day setting, its Scandinavian design and an Elsinore that could pass for a corporate boardroom conjure up a Denmark that’s rotten in the style of Borgen.