Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre Spring 2011
Filter is a
theatre company dedicated to the exploration and exploitation of stage
technology, particularly the inventive possibilities of sound.
Silence, created by the company with playwright-director David Farr, draws on the resources of the Royal Shakespeare Company for a production on a larger scale than before, and even more than before they run the risk of letting the medium overpower the message.
You are likely to leave with more of a sense of Boys With Their Toys than of the play the technology was meant to serve.
The least involving part of the evening is the group-created plot, about an English woman who goes to Russia in search of an old lover while her film-maker husband tries to assemble an exposť of police malfeasance in the Thatcher years.
Everything about the production seems perversely designed to distance us from this story and its characters. The actors all wear microphones amplifying their voices beyond natural levels, as if we were hearing recordings.
Ambient sound effects, from footsteps to an airplane overhead to one character's tinnitus, are similarly amplified to cartoon levels, while television screens show some scenes as they are happening, drawing our attention away from the live actors, and movie-style mood music underlines the soap opera quality.
Somewhat more successful in drawing and holding our attention - and clearly of more interest to the director and company - is the theme of the ways sound and the hearing of sound invade and shape our lives.
The film-maker's career depends on getting interviewees not just to say what he needs, but to be recorded saying it, and what he's looking for is confessions about bugging and wiretapping.
His sound man
spends his off hours spying on a neighbour with his ultrasensitive
microphone, while the Englishwoman and the Russian communicate by
swapping meaningful music cassettes and the woman's tinnitus develops
into a symbol of her psychological and emotional dissonance.
(A half-hearted attempt at a second theme, about the difficulties Russians had adjusting to the end of Communism, really goes nowhere,and might better have been saved for some other play.)
But even the exploration of sound comes across as more an opportunity for the technicians to show off their cleverness.
their delight whenever they hit a cue right on the dot or synchronise
recorded sound effects with onstage action, and they get more audience
response to things like the exaggerated sound of a pop-up toaster than
to the emotional dilemma of the heroine.
And so, although Oliver Dimsdale (husband), Katy Stephens (wife), Ferdy Roberts (lover) and the rest of the cast work admirably hard to remind us that there is a human story in there somewhere, this is really a showcase for sound designer Tim Phillips and his crew of techies.
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Review of Silence - Hampstead Theatre 2011