First performed in Edinburgh in 2014, Mark Farrelly’s solo show about the life of writer Patrick Hamilton is a fascinating insight into a troubled mind. Hamilton, who came from a family of novelists, enjoyed success as a writer from a young age; despite producing several bestselling novels, he’s perhaps best known today for his plays Rope and Gaslight (which, as a side note, gave us the modern expression gaslighting). But he also struggled for years with alcoholism and depression, and when we first meet him, he’s awaiting his final session of electroconvulsive shock therapy – an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to beat the Black Dog once and for all.
Encouraged by our “earnest silence”, Hamilton goes back to the beginning, sharing the story of his life in a monologue that combines Farrelly’s own words with excerpts from Hamilton’s work. Both are of a high standard, playing gleefully with language to paint unique and vivid pictures in our minds. These come to life in the masterful hands of Farrelly himself, who doesn’t so much play as inhabit the role of Hamilton. Charismatic and unpredictable, he builds an instant rapport with the audience, and then proceeds to hold us spellbound for the next 70 minutes. The total absence of any set behind him feels increasingly irrelevant as he easily holds our attention, conjuring up settings, characters – both real and taken from Hamilton’s work – and even a horrific car crash (which left him disfigured for the rest of his life) quite literally out of thin air.
Despite the lack of set, Linda Marlowe’s production is still highly atmospheric, due in no small part to the very effective lighting and sound design. The hiss and crackle of the impending shock therapy creates a sense of urgency in Hamilton’s monologue, and there’s an intense scarlet light that floods the stage each time he relives – somewhat vicariously, it seems – the violent acts committed by his characters. In contrast, at one point the lights are extinguished altogether, to great comic effect.
In fact, for a play about a depressed alcoholic, The Silence of Snow is very enjoyable and often surprisingly funny. Hamilton narrates his life with a wry humour and gently mocking tone – more than once the audience is invited to “keep up” – that masks his intensifying mental struggle. Late in the play, he invites his wife, ex-wife and brother to an intervention of sorts, which rapidly falls apart and leaves him alone and terrified of what lies ahead; it’s only in this moment that we really see the fragility of the man behind the mask. This scene gains greater poignancy when we learn that the play’s dedicated to Farrelly’s close friend Tim Welling, who was the first person to read it, but who took his own life before he could see it performed. (A collection for MIND taken after the show has so far raised over £7,500.)
Patrick Hamilton was once one of Britain’s most successful writers, but less than a century later, he’s faded into relative obscurity. The Silence of Snow seeks to shine a light not just on Hamilton’s work but also on the man himself – even if that light isn’t always particularly flattering. It’s not a very cheery tale, but it is an informative and expertly performed biographical piece, which – if you’re anything like me – will send you home wanting to know more.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉