To think of Shakespeare – at least in terms of popular culture – is to think of the soliloquies, of the closing couplets, the words that mean so much that as a collective we can immediately say “that’s Shakespeare, that is”. Not so at the Lion and Unicorn theatre, where Silent Shakespeare aims to turn our preconceptions on their heads and immerse the audience in the empathy of Shakespeare’s characters, stripping back the words and laying their humanity bare to our sympathies.
Such was Petros Michael and Sharon Burrell’s vision, at least, detailing that during the year of the Globe2Globe festival, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in global languages, Silent Shakespeare aimed to remove that linguistic barrier all together.
It doesn’t disappoint. From the moment it begins, Silent Shakespeare is a silent film playing out before us – Shakespeare’s most beautiful and poignant moments flying past with a backing track consisting mainly of the creaks of the stage and the occasional interjection of Paul Foulds delivering Jacques’ famous ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech from As You Like It. The piece follows the seven ages of man, taking elements from different plays and using them to represent the lover, justice, soldier, and others. The changes in scene are marked beautifully by onstage costume changes, showing the pure versatility of the actors as they drew laughs and tugged on the hearts of the audience.
I will admit that I found the first half difficult, mainly because I found myself distracted by guessing which play was going to come next rather than appreciating the beauty of what was in front of me. Digesting it in the interval I found that it sat easier after thinking over why they had chosen to perform a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream over a different play, or how effective Sharon Burrell (as both producer and a company member) was at manipulating the rest of the company through the age of the Justice.
The second half, however, was gorgeous in its own right. Far shorter than before the interval, it covered the final two ages of man and teased the senses in a way that the opening could not. The company explored the effects of ghosts in a circular passage broken only by their anguished breathing, and Annabel Bates and Kate Farrow both shone, drawing a beautiful parallel between Lady Macbeth and Ophelia, their anguish both amazing and arresting as it filled the theatre almost entirely. The finale is something which can only be experienced, however, as the audience place their trust in the cast and are given some of the beauty and experiences that the company members must have gained throughout their time on the piece.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Joseph Adefarasin, Natan Barreto and Michael Mitcham, who make up the male half of the cast, and take on some of the most difficult characters in Shakespeare without batting an eyelid. Mitcham’s face almost says it all, perfect for a silent piece of theatre; his expression is as hypnotic as Adefarasin’s interpretation of Puck, the shuffling imp, or Barreto’s heart-breaking Hamlet. Not to give too much away, but there were tears of anguish at the close.
With a company of only six onstage, playing and interpreting characters across the board, this could have been a difficult piece to digest and enjoy, but the cast make it so that there is no need for words and the complications they bring. They brought a weight of emotion into the small space of the Lion and Unicorn, and they used it to leave your senses spinning.
Silent Shakespeare is playing at the Lion and Unicorn theatre, Kentish Town, until 8 September. For more information, visit the company’s website: www.to-the-moon.net