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By Frankie Goodway
Three women are on stage when I enter the BT studio. One, the musician Augusta Thomson, is deadly still, holding a violin. The other two women are the writers, directors and actors of the play. The first, Alexandra Zelman-Doring, clad in a flowing white ‘thespian’ shirt and black torn leggings lies on the floor, arms and legs splayed, while the second, Ada Grafter-O’Higgens, in a cream slip, tickles her. I am not late, so this moment lingers uncomfortably long, the tickling starting out innocent and slowly becoming disquieting, curiously sexual, and morbidly fascinating. Zelman-Doring’s laughter soon sounds mad, as indeed it must because as the scenes unfold it becomes clear she is perhaps the best known madman in literature – Hamlet.
Act Before You Speak is a performance that is determined by the literature it originates from, and is rooted in a general consciousness of drama. At the Burton Taylor website the two lines we see on this piece compare it to Beckett’s silent drama; the narrative itself steers a non-linear route through Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the opening moments contains a coin tossing that immediately brings to mind Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; and there is enough projection and onstage music (compellingly played by Thomson) throughout for a comparison to Brecht to stand up. The theatrical heavyweights this piece invokes are not imagined as equals, but for a play without words a great many hang in the minds of any audience member.
Rethinking these words seems part of what this re-imagining of Hamlet is trying to achieve. The words of Hamlet are so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is hard to come at them afresh – I’ve sat through one too many performances of the play where that most famous line was interrupted by school-boy laughter before “That is the question” made it past the actor’s lips. Act Before You Speak distances the emotions of Hamlet from his words, only a fraction of which appear projected on the wall behind him. Yet for a play without words it is curiously without action as well, all murders absent, the title seeming less of an imperative to this notoriously wordy and inactive prince, but more an exhortation of the pauses before speech.
Instead we see Hamlet take tea twice with Ophelia, played by Gafter-O’Higgins, though she could just as well be Horatio, given her presence when the ghost appears. They enjoy a rapturous moment with a bunch of dried lavender, an example of the sensuousness of this production. Everything to do with sense is tightly controlled, from smells of lavender and a burnt match, to the precise movements of the two principle actors on stage. Unfortunately, this focus highlights every error, from the uncontrollable ringing of an audience member’s phone, to the whirring of a projector. Later the two switch roles, and here I felt a tad let down, as the physicalities of both were not as strongly differentiated as I had hoped. It is all very well to do without words, but some kind of marker is needed beyond costume change, which seems too crude a tool for a production that is otherwise remarkably subtle.
And yet… is it all very well to do without words when Hamlet is the source? The performance relies upon a detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, yet the absence of his words dismisses him. Many of the images given would suit a performance of the original, though the intense slowness with which some were delivered were well suited to the silence permeating the studio. Changes are made that throw the narrative into confusion – Ophelia’s grave is dug before she is dead, and other scenes are dealt with at lightening speed. Finally, at points I’m not sure why these characters are silent. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother is the most glaringly difficult in this regard, her shushing of him so self-conscious it seems ridiculous. For most of the piece the actors’ silent communication is powerful, but if they are prepared to hum and scream than why the fear of words? I object to the notion of a previous reviewer that I should ‘try for once not to understand’ and simply accept the emotion of the performance – for a start, at times there is little to go on in the action, particularly the reactions of Gafter-O’Higgins, and secondly there is too much alienation at work in the projection and music for emotional resonance to be the main focus. Act Before You Speak is deftly clever, but it is not a play to catch the conscience of the king.