Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court


In Katie Mitchell’s bleak re-centring of Hamlet, Ophelia is sinking from the start. Before we even see her, projected text and a voiceover tell us about the first of five stages of drowning. And when we do see her, she’s dragged under the waters of misogyny, submerged beneath layer upon layer of clothing. Thrash as she might, there’s no way back to the surface.

There’s a brutal inexorability to Ophelias Zimmer. For a start, we know where this is heading. Mitchell’s piece, created in close collaboration with writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford, trades heavily on its audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. From the moment the house lights go down, we’re anticipating Ophelia’s madness and watery death. More than that, though, inexorability is built into the very structure of Ophelias Zimmer. It plods, slowly, deliberately and relentlessly, towards its inevitable conclusion.

As the title suggests, the entire action (or inaction) of the piece is confined to Ophelia’s bedroom. The events of Hamlet, plotted out meticulously according to the play, all occur around this peripheral point. Most of the time, though, we watch the deadening routine of Ophelia’s life. She gets up, goes for a walk, reads and sews. Flowers arrive every day, every day tossed straight into the bin. Letters – or, as they are reimagined here, cassette tapes – arrive from Hamlet and are listened to, fast-forwarded and rewinded. An occasional cry of “Ophelia” summons her out of the room.


This is choreographed boredom. Tedium distilled. Each scene change, each jump forwards in time, is signalled with a ping as horrible and relentless as the bells that heralded torture in Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. Through it all, Jenny Konig’s Ophelia stares out with a chilling blankness, movements as controlled as the routine that dictates her quiet, contained life. She seems to be obeying the instructions of the intermittent voiceover we assume to be her dead mother, making herself as invisible and inaudible as possible in this rigidly patriarchal world.

Ophelia might be moved to the centre of the narrative, then, but Mitchell pointedly does not offer her a voice within it. As in Hamlet itself, she barely utters a sound. And when she does speak, her words are more habit than expression. “The flowers again,” she dully intones each morning as the maid brings in a new vase. While Hamlet might be robbed of his soliloquies (in a rare touch of humour, Ophelia cuts off his “to be or not to be” by promptly pressing the fast-forward button on her cassette player), Ophelia gets none of her own. Instead, she is confined to a disturbing silence that speaks deafeningly of the misogynistic world of Shakespeare’s play.

But can Ophelias Zimmer really be thought of as a feminist re-framing of Hamlet? It certainly reveals what Mitchell sees as the horrific treatment of Ophelia, including by Hamlet, exposing the careless misogyny of a character who is enshrined at the heart of the dramatic canon and with whom we are so often asked to sympathise. Yet still it restricts Ophelia to quiet, helpless misery, giving her no more agency than she has in Shakespeare’s telling. The whole narrative of the show, meanwhile, is structured around Hamlet and its controlling cast of men. Shakespeare’s play is the scaffolding holding up this piece, its male characters dominating from offstage with their comings and goings and shouted demands.

Hamlet himself is imagined by Mitchell and co as a brooding, moody narcissist, clad in black and wrapped up in his own worries. His messages to Ophelia, progressing from romantic cliché to sexually explicit plea to expletive-filled abuse, are all ultimately about him – his desire, his pain. On one of the few occasions when we actually see him, he bursts into Ophelia’s room brandishing a Joy Division record. He then goes on to play and dance to the soundtrack of his own suffering, wilfully ignorant of Ophelia’s.

Wildly thrashing his limbs to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Renato Schuch’s Hamlet invites an immediate comparison with Ian Curtis, a man tragically obsessed with death and determined to inhabit his own myth, even to the extent of his own destruction. But every act of destruction has its accidental victims, its civilian casualties, of which Ophelia is one. This is Hamlet as careless egotist, focused on his own meandering path to revenge at the expense of all others around him. While he dances, lost in indulging his own emotions, Ophelia sits in a chair and sobs.

This is one of a series of characteristically stunning theatrical moments that break up the monotony of Ophelia’s daily existence. Just as my attention threatens to drift away entirely, I find myself dragged back by a brilliant sound effect or by the slow, terrible seeping of water into the space. As ever with Mitchell’s work, there is an austere precision that can be disengaging, but as soon as one of those moments interjects I’m brought back on board, that knot in my stomach tightening again.

Immediately after the show, Tom Cornford tweeted that Ophelias Zimmer is “about the katiemitchellest thing you can imagine”. I know what he means: the horrible beauty, the compelling boredom, the pin-point precision, the intellectual rigour, the underlying queasiness, even the foley booth at one side of the stage producing the sounds that underscore Ophelia’s existence. While watching, I was reminded in particular of two other Mitchell pieces: her Schaubühne production of The Yellow Wallpaper – the claustrophobia, the mounting unease, the strange combination of boredom and nauseous tension – and the haunting video installation Five Truths.

The latter was Mitchell’s first take on Ophelia, whose madness was seen through the lenses of five twentieth century theatre practitioners: Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Here, Mitchell adds her own interpretation, and it is utterly uncompromising in its starkness and tedium. I struggle with it in the moment of watching, but I am also completely convinced that this oscillation between detachment and uneasiness is exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. This is a life and death that Mitchell is determined not to prettify or over-dramatise.

As in Five Truths, the climax of Ophelias Zimmer offers an echo of John Everett Millais’s famous painting, but with a bloody twist. In Mitchell’s version, death is not beautiful or romantic or even straightforwardly tragic; it is brutal and ugly, a violent and sudden last resort. No wonder it’s usually kept offstage.


We Want You to Watch, National Theatre


Ever since seeing Alice Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again last summer, I’ve thought of it as the feminist play for my generation. A generation raised with the base assumption of equality into a world we slowly realise has been cruelly mis-sold to us. A generation oddly cautious about the word “feminism”. A generation that briefly thought maybe the battles had been fought and won, when actually we just have to fight ever more insidious forces. For this generation and the ones immediately following it, this is the play that I want other young women – and men – to discover and have their minds blown by. It’s raw and angry and sad and fierce and funny and lost and searching and hopeless and hopeful.

We Want You to Watch is in the same vein. But where Revolt wrestled with everything it means to be a woman today, from the politics of the bedroom to the ever-present threat of violence, Birch’s new collaboration with performance duo RashDash isolates just one issue: pornography. A deliberate provocation, it starts from an extreme position, as Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen’s characters set out to ban all porn – the good, the bad and the ugly. As one of the pair puts it, “we want it obliterated”. Rip it up and start again.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. We Want You to Watch is conscientiously self-aware, problematising its demands at every turn. There are interjections, bathed in sudden, glaring light: “Can we just say we’re completely pro sex”; “This has just been about heterosexual porn – that is a failure. This is not an apology”. Greenland and Goalen’s objections to pornography are met with eloquent defences, turning the argument over and over. What hard evidence is there of a link between violent porn and violent behaviour? How can you control the choices of consenting adults? Isn’t the banning of porn just censorship, pure and simple?

This is all explored in episodic fashion, leaping from one surreal scenario to the next. First, Greenland and Goalen are cops in the interrogation room, trying to prove the connection between torture and murder and the watching of violent porn. Then they’re in ballgowns, petitioning the Queen, then confronting the little boy of today who will be the porn addict of tomorrow. Failure follows failure, while the supply of porn – packaged in value cans, cheap and on demand – constantly renews and multiplies around them in Oliver Townsend’s simple but striking set.

Watching it, I think of the bit in Fleabag where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character clicks joylessly through porn, listing all the different genres with empty, staring eyes: gay, Asian, anal. I think of the ‘Porn Girl’ monologue in Nothing and the speaker’s guilty, scared admission that she was turned on by “the bits where something felt wrong”. I think of Bryony Kimmings in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, plucking out her niece’s eyes to protect her from seeing all the fucked up nastiness that’s just a swipe and a click away at any moment.

All that and more surfaces in the gaudy metaphor of We Want You to Watch. As ever in RashDash’s work, ideas are expressed as much through bodies as through language. As the subject of Greenland and Goalen’s interrogation rebukes their arguments, the two performers buckle to the ground, limbs contorted in defeat. Later, expressing what watching porn feels like, their bodies thrash violently across the stage, the effect vivid and queasy. The pornography that seeps into everything is never seen, but its imprint leaves an indelible stain on the movement. Birch’s words can bruise too, especially in a heartbreaking speech delivered to the next generation.

The further Greenland and Goalen pursue their mission, though, the more strained and stretched the metaphors become. Eventually, they track down a teenage internet hacker, frantically defending their position while responding to ever more ridiculous demands. There’s only so far the dramaturgy of failure can go, and as the piece goes on it verges dangerously close to tedium, its once fierce arguments now weary and sluggish. There’s an aptness in that, of course, but it increasingly struggles to land. Beginning to feel restless, I wonder if the hard-line starting point is as much of a burden as a provocation.

That said, there’s an appealing boldness in staking out an uncompromising position, in refusing to accept “the shittest consolation prize on the planet”. In the unapologetic yet problematised stance of We Want You to Watch, there are echoes of both Revolt and RashDash’s last show Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, which tussled just as painfully with the idea of romantic love and the suffocating demand to find “The One”. In the tackling of another feminist issue, I was hoping for a collision of those two approaches, each complex and messy and exhilaratingly theatrical. We Want You to Watch isn’t quite it. But like Revolt, it prises these conversations open, using anger and a stubborn refusal to back down as a way of pushing forward its central debate. And even in its failure, it dares to dream of a new start.

Rip it up and start again.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Little Light, Orange Tree Theatre

Cast : Lorna Brown (Alice) Paul Rattray (Teddy) Yolanda Kettle (Clarissa) Paul Hickey (Simon)

Originally written for Exeunt.

Families are made from memories. Soft-focus, hard-edged, ossified by nostalgia. Collections of human beings linked by little more than blood and shared history reconstitute themselves through telling, unfurling mothballed reminiscences over the festive detritus of wine glasses and chocolate boxes. Remember the time your uncle got drunk at that wedding. Remember when granny mixed up the pies for dinner. Remember that year little Catherine sang the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for everyone. With all the actions.

In Little Light, those memories are painfully loaded, groaning under the weight of stultified tradition and unspoken grief. In a house by the sea, a couple make careful preparations for a once-a-year ritual of remembering. Teddy is desperate to let in the light, ripping down staircases and smashing through walls, while Alison clings stubbornly to the shadows. When her younger sister Clarissa arrives, heavily pregnant and with boyfriend unexpectedly in tow, the strange ceremony is ready to begin. But this year it’s not going to plan.

Alice Birch’s play – her first, though not performed before now – is an extended exercise in tension-building. On the evening I see the production I’ve come straight from a screening of Whiplash, which had me white-knuckled throughout its 90 minutes of sweat, blood and cymbals. What writer/director Damien Chazelle does with drumming, Little Light does with the dinner party. It’s a format freighted with dramatic history, but in the hands of Birch, director David Mercatali and the excellent cast of four it feels fresh, fleet-footed and horribly nerve-fraying.

As Teddy, Alison, Clarissa and Simon clink glasses and break bread, they commence a routine that is at once familiar and unsettling. All the codes of a shared family language are there: the repeated anecdotes, the practiced looks, the choreographed passing of dishes and wine bottles. But there’s something far more odd and sinister lurking beneath the repetition. Stories are told with blank eyes and laughs jump cheerlessly from strained throats. Remembrances are aimed like daggers under the ribs; a matted lump of hair turns up in someone’s fish pie.

The effect is one of discomfort tinged with horror. Imagine the feeling of anticipatory dread in a scary film: that extended moment of sickening tension just before you know something bad is about to happen. Now imagine that stretched out across more than an hour. Because Birch and Mercatali manage to leave us groping around in the dark, keeping everything in the gloom until the final minutes. The rehearsed interactions of the characters clearly mean something of horrible importance to them, but we are robbed of the means to decipher them, forced instead to remain puzzled and on edge.

While it may not have the same kind of breathless, rule-breaking, fuck-you audacity as Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again, Little Light still manages to repeatedly trip an audience’s expectations, deploying the same playfully serious manipulation of form. I was reminded briefly of Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, which takes an Ayckbourne-esque domestic set-up and mercilessly rips it apart at the seams, except Birch’s unnerving dinner party gnaws at its own format from within. What looks familiar enough at first glance turns out to be chewing on something a lot more grisly.

The performances, too, keep us guessing. As Alison, Lorna Brown is distant, icy and cruel, until suddenly she’s not. Yolanda Kettle’s Clarissa gulps down the bitter medicine she’s fed by her older sister, the implicit shades of guilt, resentment and reluctant loyalty in her brittle acceptance of the situation suggesting the jagged edges of so many sibling relationships, while Paul Hickey makes an appropriately disoriented newcomer as her boyfriend Simon. And Paul Rattray’s Teddy, hands quivering at his sides, seems forever on the brink of explosion or collapse.

Finally, the play too has to either erupt or crumble with the weight of its building, pervasive menace. It turns out to do a little bit of both. But even climax and catharsis do not unfold as we might expect, offering far more lyricism and far less resolution than the domestic dramas that Little Light takes its lead from. The scab that Birch picks at might finally break loose but, as in so many families, the wound remains open.

Photo: Richard Davenport.