WHO GOES THERE?
Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (later at the Hawth, Crawley, and St Mary's, Hastings)
Opened 8 May, 2001

The audience for Tuesday's presentation of Who Goes There? by dreamthinkspeak [sic], at the Gardner Arts Centre as part of the Brighton Festival (and later to be seen at Crawley and Hastings) included a number of sixth-form students who were apparently studying Hamlet, of which this is a cut-up, site-specific promenade multi-media(!) version. Like the rest of us, they no doubt gained insights into particular aspects of the original, but how far will it increase their understanding of Shakespeare's play as a whole? To what extent does watching such a version depend on prior knowledge of its source?

A preliminary wander through the bowels of the centre puts the audience in the right frame of mind for the main performance to follow. In dressing rooms and other closets, the players (seven: Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet and the Ghost; Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia) are discovered muttering various of their lines, and a number of physical and video installations create a collage of a dim, claustrophobic and confused Danish court. We are then delivered to the wedding reception in the foyer, complete with wine and cake (though not, sadly, the cold cuts Hamlet mentions), and videos of the ceremony. Above, we can see Laertes packing; the happy couple enter and mingle. Claudius's welcome speech fades out on Hamlet's entrance for his own explanatory soliloquy. Laertes and Ophelia bunk off while Polonius drones on about his "few precepts." Characters chase each other in and out, before we relocate first to a darkened gallery space with two huge video screens, then outside for Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost. As the latter explains the truth about his death, we see the funeral ceremony walk past in the background in a kind of three-dimensional flashback, then Claudius and Gertrude run off hand in hand. Hamlet delivers "To be or not to be..." while carrying the Ghost on his back literally bearing the burden of his knowledge and his harrying of Ophelia is physically intercut with that of Gertrude.

Thus far, Henk Schut and Tristan Sharps' collection of illuminating snapshots promises to build into a satisfying whole, but they fumble it badly in the home straight. After a video presentation in place of the play-within-a-play (narrated in person by the Ghost), the screen rises to reveal that we are sitting on the stage of the main performance space. Claudius goes into the auditorium to pray, and is there threatened by Hamlet. Gradually, every other character (including the now-dead Polonius) is revealed around the auditorium, lit only by a sweeping spotlight, crawling and writhing towards the stage as they deliver a babble of individual speeches augmented by similarly overlapping words over the speaker system. Gradually, all fades to silence and blackness. It is, refreshingly, quite as bleak and tormented as the grimmest of Jacobean revenge tragedies, but having been briefed to expect an event at least half as long again as the 80 minutes that had so far elapsed, I felt surprised and not a little cheated that this unresolved chaos was the end. At best, Sharps and Schut compress the second half of the play into this five-minute barrage; at worst, they simply give up on it and cop out by going for atmosphere over events. Never less than fascinating, but ultimately little more either.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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