Monday 30 May 2016

Ophelias zimmer – Royal Court, London

[seen 18/05/16]

It’s difficult to know where to start with, or how to approach Ophelias zimmer (trans: Ophelia’s Room – German doesn’t use apostrophes to indicate possession or, typically, use Title Case for titles. In this review, Ophelias zimmer is always the artwork, and “Ophelia’s room” is always the place.)

In terms of facts: O.z. is a collaboration between director Katie Mitchell, writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford. It was first staged at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Wilmersdorf, Berlin, 8 December, 2015 in a German translation by Gerhild Steinbuch. The further credits are: Sound Design: Max Pappenheim, Dramaturgy: Nils Haarmann, Lighting Design: Fabiana Piccioli, Mitarbeit Regie: Lily McLeish. Artistic Collaboration: Paul Ready, Michelle Terry. The actors – uncredited with official roles in the programme – are: Maid: Iris Becher, Man: Ulrich Hoppe, Ophelia: Jenny König, Hamlet: Renato Schuch. The ‘texts’ of Ophelia’s mother were recorded by: Jule Böwe. Oliver Herbst and Mario Kutz were the ‘extras’.

It feels important to acknowledge that seeing Ophelias zimmer at the Royal Court – in mid-May, three months after Cleansed at the National Theatre – we in the UK are experiencing both time and work out of joint. In linear terms Cleansed was the immediate follow-up to Ophelias zimmer. (Indeed, The Forbidden Zone, UK-premièring at the Barbican this week, opened in Berlin on 28 August, 2014 – before even Mitchell’s Young Vic Cherry Orchard, before Macmillan’s People, Places & Things... etc..) I note this largely because, reading Cleansed as a reaction to making Ophelias zimmer makes a lot of sense. Of both, arguably. Experiencing O.z. in the wake of Cleansed perhaps makes less sense.

Also relevant to this transfer, it feels important to note: The Royal Court Is Not The Same Shape as the Schaubühne. As such, an aisle seat in the mid-stalls – normally a pretty good seat for Royal Court productions – here becomes a real problem, since you have no view of the floor of the stage.

Ophelias zimmer is (at least in part) a response to Sir John Millais’s painting, Ophelia. The piece begins by outlining The Five Stages of Drowning. Jenny König (Ophelia) puts on layer after layer of clothing during the performance – partly to simulate the effect of water on a human body; turning the “slim performer into a bloated corpse” (to paraphrase Mitchell). The floor of Ophelia’s room is a pool. From the stalls, you cannot see this. You can hear splashy sounds, and know that there’s water, but the carefully constructed visual effect is entirely hidden. Those in the Circle and the Balcony were in a much better position to understand the piece. Similarly, on the far right of the stage (as it appears to the audience) there is a glass-fronted sound-booth. (...Sie kennen aus Waves, Yellow Wallpaper, und so weitere...) The booth is also not ideally placed in this transfer. Those are/were definitely significant factors in the question of “What did it actually feel like to be in the room with this artwork?” but where my seat was is extrinsic to the work of art itself. I also rather like the idea that Lamford/Mitchell had made something that privileged the view from the cheap seats.

What is in Ophelias zimmer? It is fair to say, I think, that a lot of what happens in Ophelia’s room is “nothing”. Ophelia comes in, she goes out, she sits on her bed, she picks up a book, sometimes she reads the book. Sometimes Ophelia sits and sews. Sometimes a maid comes in with a new bunch of flowers, she empties the “old” flowers out of the vase, and dumps the new ones in it. Sometimes the maid brings a new “letter” from Hamlet. In this production, these letters are played by old-fashioned cassette tapes. We can perhaps surmise that the production is set somewhere between June, 1980 (when Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was released as a single) and sometime around 1999, when people stopped using cassettes and started burning CDs. And in dark ages/medieval Denmark. And in Jacobethan England. And in a side room offstage in every production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet ever since. Perhaps particularly offstage at the Schaubühne, Berlin (and touring), from 17 September 2008. It is set backstage in the minds of men and the minds of women, and in all the rooms where culture has ever sought to imprison us. Ophelia’s room here becomes a kind of Schrödinger’s signifier: everything and nothing all at once.

The official Schaubühne programme copy reads: “In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia appears in five scenes. If a play only consisted of these scenes, it would make for unpleasant reading. A young girl is told to reject the advances of her boyfriend in case he wants to have sex with her. She tells her father that her boyfriend just burst into her room and gripped her arm and shook her. The girl is taken to the palace with all her private love letters to meet her boyfriend and must then pretend to be alone with him even though she knows the king and her father are watching. She goes to see a play that her boyfriend wrote in which he accuses his step father and mother of murdering his father. The girl visits her boyfriend’s mother and is no longer able to speak coherently or behave in a sane manner.

What is going on in Ophelia’s private life? Does she really only read, sew and write love letters to her boyfriend, the prince? How does she feel about her body, her gender and her dead mother? What happens when she comes back home after the strange events in the palace? How does she find out that her father has died? How does she feel when she discovers that her boyfriend killed him with a knife in his mother's bedroom? Who is the strange man who suddenly appears after her father’s death? How does she go mad? And does she really die sliding comfortably into a stream covered in flowers as her boyfriend's mother reports? Or is there something more sinister and strange going on? And what does the bloated dead body of a young girl floating in a river really look like?

This performance aims to challenge received cultural images of Ophelia both in art and on stage. It asks us to consider what lies behind the aesthetization of Ophelia and interrogates our fascination with these old historical plays whose male heroes repeatedly crush or destroy women. It asks whether there isn’t something toxic and deeply misogynist being dragged through history on the coat tails of heroes, like Hamlet, Romeo and Macbeth, something that may still be influencing our own modern day gender relationships.”

The trap Ophelias zimmer sets – particularly for any white, male, Establishment critic (although white probably isn’t a factor here; Hamlet in this production was born in São Paulo and doesn’t look remotely like the Aryan archetype of Hamlets past) – is the temptation to deny this logic. I absolutely don’t. I wholly agree that the misogyny in Hamlet needs exposing and/or erradicating.

What I am less certain of is the extent to which Ophelias zimmer itself puts together an effective case. But perhaps that is too-literal a reading on my part of the intention. I’ve wished, since seeing it, that I had gone in *completely* unaware of the thinking behind the piece and instead watched/experienced it solely for what was in front of me, rather than thinking about the myriad other ways in which one could tackle the same problem. But then, equally, I wonder if “blank slate” is even a remote possibility when doing anything connected to a text as canonical as Hamlet.

I was also distracted – my fault, I know – by the vagueness of the rules by which Ophelias zimmer operates. There’s the timescale. To read the blurb above you might reasonably conclude that the time-frame of Ophelias zimmer is the time-frame of Hamlet up to the point of Ophelia’s death. It then *feels* like this isn’t the case. We see her watching the wedding fireworks from her window, uninvited to the wedding, apparently. Technically, these scenes could, I suppose, cover the time where Horatio and co. first see the ghost, casting Claudius’s first speech in Act 1 scene ii as being made directly after the wedding – a scene which Ophelia isn’t written into (although I’m sure is present during in a bunch of productions, if *definitely not* the Schaubühne/Ostermeier/Eidinger one, where Gertrude and Ophelia are played by the same actor/actress). But for some reason, perhaps lacking an external referent (and, yes, I guess that’s the point) it’s frustratingly difficult to pin down. As such, the thing I sort-of wanted to happen – essentially the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead version – where everything maps exactly onto what happens in Hamlet – is already shown as if through a kaleidoscope; off-kilter and constantly back-footing you from the get-go. Which is of course fine, but if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever quite recovered my footing. Similarly, (maybe due to my vantage point) I couldn’t work out the rules of the foley sound and the recorded sound. It felt slightly compromised by what was seen to be live, and what necessarily had to be recorded. That felt like an area where there could plausibly have been meaning, and then possibly wasn’t.

There is a feeling too, that Birch and Mitchell had an absolutely watertight case that they could’ve put by using the available evidence. But, to ensure the conviction, they’ve made up some extra stories. Nowhere in Hamlet does it suggest that Hamlet leaves Polonius’s body in Ophelia’s room. Nor that he sends her sexually explicit or abusive letters. He might, but we don’t have the evidence. “He seems like the sort who might...” or “That’s exactly what people like him do...” feel like sentiments that would lead to a very unsafe conviction. As the actual evidence exists, it feels like a pity it isn’t used. But that’s not what’s in front of us, and it’s not my job to say what I’d rather had been.

Here we have Ophelia living this terrible life in her almost bare room. And, yes, on one level it makes its point incredibly clearly. Although the room more represents a creative dead-zone in the mind of Shakespeare and perhaps his interpreters on stage, than – necessarily – the life of a Danish noblewoman. What’s odd, though, given of the relatively short length of the play, is actually, how little time it feels like she spends there. Now, maybe I’m an outlier on this point (I think every other review has spoken of “tedium” or “boredom” either approvingly or otherwise), but it all felt pretty zippy to me. I got that Time Passed. And that there was a bell that rang to change time. But, really, I think I wanted something more like five hours to really get into it. And really *feel* it. *Loads* of stuff happens in Ophelia’s room in Ophelias zimmer. And also, because there’s a big old glass-fronted box on stage, you also aren’t actually trapped in the imaginative room with her. You – in the audience – are given another point of reference to look at almost all the time, seeing two men make all the sounds of walking and doors opening and closing. Perhaps, again, this is a comment about men *still* getting to make all the decisions, and all the big noises, but as such it seems to undermine the mission here to also expose and undermine patriarchal power. It feels instead like it reinscribes it; larger and different, somehow.

Similarly, there’s *that bit* where Renato Schuch’s Hamlet bursts into Ophelia’s room, takes her by the wrist and holds her hard; then goes to the length of all his arm; and, with his other hand over his brow, performs a manic Ian Curtis-like dance to THE WHOLE OF LOVE WILL TEAR US APART (on the anniversary of his suicide, the day I saw it). Which is JUST BRILLIANCE INCARNATE. For three minutes twenty four seconds, Schuch somehow manages to embody all the genius, heroism and romance of Curtis/Hamlet, and at the same time, communicate just how problematic, self-regarding, and ultimately violent all that is as well. So, yes. That bit is just perfect. Does it feel like it’s problematic that it’s about Hamlet? Absolutely. It almost reinscribes what I’d understood to be the thing to which the makers objected in the first place – that the good bits are about Hamlet, and Ophelia just gets sidelined, treated badly, and then killed off (by the author).

One thing has been especially troubling me, though. And it’s the matter of Ophelia’s suicide. In the post-show discussion, Mitchell suggested that in Hamlet, Gertrude – who provides our only information about Ophelia’s death (apart from the grave-digging clown) – glosses over the “facts” in order to allow for her son to carry on happily through the play. This sits at odds with another possible reading, which is that since she’s telling the story to Laertes, her speech has two main purposes: firstly – as with the gravedigger’s explanation – to officialise the story that Ophelia’s death was accidental, rather than suicide, so that she can be given a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground. The second reason is – arguably – tact. Laertes sister has just died, horribly, whether accidentally or not. One of the bones of contention in this production is that Gertrude’s description *isn’t how people drown*. But then, probably the last thing Laertes wants or needs, on being told of the death of is sister, is to be sat down and presented with a blow-by-blow account of the reality what death by drowning is actually like. (That a pre-Raphalite then got carried away illustrating this gloss *is* of course problematic, and this piece an important corrective, but I think it also pays to return as much to the source material.) Do we think she killed herself or – simply by virtue of her having “gone mad” (ah! Early-Modern psychoanalysis, where is thy precision?) – it genuinely was an accident? Indeed, is Hamlet, a play so readily associated with suicidal thoughts, a play in which no one actually commits suicide? (Similarly, with Gertrude’s drinking of the poisoned “chalice for the nonce” at the end... Suicide or terrible mistake? I’ve seen it staged both ways, but there’s no real textual evidence in either direction.)

As the length of this “review” attests, Ophelias zimmer is probably the piece of theatre I’ve thought most about this year, and indeed, for some years. Its central premise and the questions it raises are vital and important. And even the aspects I found problematic felt rewardingly problematic. It feels, in fact, as if; had it been a perfect fait accompli, an easily agreed-with rush of excitement, then it would have failed to do what this production does, which is make the facts, issues and thoughts that the piece provokes live with you for months and months. Most crucially, I *hope* that it will reboot future productions of Hamlet. And that directors won’t simply opt for glossing Elizabethan violence with a rush of questionable glamour.

Anyway, I *must* stop writing this and post it so I can write about Forbidden Zone and other things...

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