Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court

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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.

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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.

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1984, Richmond Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel is best remembered for the features that have seeped into our contemporary cultural consciousness: Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police. But perhaps the real key to Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in its final, often overlooked pages. In Headlong’s bracing new version, adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use Orwell’s typically discarded Appendix as a means of re-examining his entire narrative, offering – in what sounds like a perfect instance of doublethink – an extraordinarily faithful transformation of the text.

Orwell’s dry, formal Appendix, entitled ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, begins with the seemingly innocuous words “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania”. Realising, like Orwell, the huge difference contained in a change of tense, Icke and Macmillan latch onto that crucial “was” and hang upon it their entire adaptation. In their nightmarish rendering of this dystopia, past, present and future are slippery, fluid categories, bleeding into one another before our eyes. What we are left with is the blank, continuous present that the Party envisioned, where the notion of history has been all but abolished.

This is achieved through the canny addition of a framing device, which tackles the troublesome Appendix by way of a book group interrogating Winston Smith’s tale. Imagining Orwell’s novel as an artefact, this structural flourish puts Winston’s experiences in direct dialogue with the future he hoped to speak to when starting his diary. And yet, in a conundrum that reveals the central problem of the Appendix itself, this textual artefact is not in fact Winston’s diary, but a third person account of his rebellion and suppression. How, then, has this document survived? Who has written it? And if it really has survived, who has allowed it to survive?

These questions are persistently posed by an adaptation that strikingly reconfigures Orwell’s text in service of a searching examination of what it is doing. Through an unsettling temporal slippage, the future framing of the narrative exists directly alongside Winston’s hatred for the party, his ill-fated love affair with Julia and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Ministry of Love. The world this structure creates is one where no firm foothold can be made on either the past or the future, one where uncertainty is the only constant, one where – most importantly – no document can be trusted.

The theatre, where a kind of doublethink is constantly in play, is the perfect arena for this dizzyingly intelligent interrogation of truth and fiction. Here, we are always caught in the process of accepting that an object on stage is at once one thing and another, a function of theatrical metaphor that Icke and Macmillan’s production repeatedly exploits. Mark Arends’ haunted, disorientated Winston always creates the impression of being both here and not here, dislocated from linear time. “Where do you think you are?” he is repeatedly asked, to which the answer is always bewilderment.

As well as the crossover between temporalities and characters, Chloe Lamford’s inspired set design epitomises this relentless doubling. The first part of the show is contained within a bland office space, all non-descript chairs, wood panelling and boxes of files. This serves as both the setting for the book group and the backdrop of Winston’s existence, demanding metaphor in order to function within the narrative. The only area external to this space is Winston and Julia’s short-lived retreat, which is at once hidden and exposed; it exists off stage, beyond our immediate gaze, but it is revealed to us via video footage on screens, putting us in the position of the ever-vigilant eye of Big Brother. In the final third of the show, meanwhile, this design achieves a breathtaking transformation, stripping away tangible referents in a process that mirrors Winston’s struggle to hold onto memory and reality, yet still refusing to fix itself on just one, determinable location.

And it does not stop with the design. Every last element of this production, from the discordant strains of Tom Gibbons’ sound design to Natasha Chivers’ accomplished lighting, which ranges from the unsettlingly anaemic to the blindingly bright, contributes to a disquieting atmosphere of uncertainty and uprootedness from time. We, like Winston, have nothing solid to grasp onto.

With Chelsea Manning, the NSA and Edward Snowden still dominating headlines, we hardly need reminding of the continued and disturbing resonance of Orwell’s 1949 novel. Headlong’s startling new production, however, suggestsNineteen Eighty-Four’s prescience in another, deeper way. Orwell’s vision, Icke and Macmillan reveal, penetrated beyond the structural framework of surveillance, right down to the disorientating experience of modern life under late capitalism. Like all the worst nightmares, its chill emanates from its uncanniness.

The Events, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“It’s important to turn dark things into light,” says Claire, the anguished figure at the heart of David Greig’s new play, not quite convincing herself. The Events,Greig’s response to his conflicted feelings about the Norwegian massacre committed by Anders Breivik, is driven by a similar desire and tempered by similar doubt. As much as its protagonist, The Events searches for understanding, redemption, hope. What it finds is nothing so straightforward, but it is all the more compelling for the complexity it excavates on stage.

While sparked by a discussion between Greig and director Ramin Gray following the Breivik atrocity, this is not about what happened in Norway in July 2011. Instead, the events of the show have ripped apart a small, unspecified seaside community, where a boy has shot and killed several members of a local multicultural choir. Claire, the leader of the choir and a survivor of the massacre, is searching for answers. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Did the perpetrator have a reason, or must his actions be put down to “evil”?

Through the character of Claire, played with compassion and complexity by Neve McIntosh, the play prods at the insistent human desire to understand. Without understanding, Claire’s rage is impotent, directionless. In search of either an object for her hatred or an explanation that might pave the way to forgiveness, Claire hunts everywhere for answers, interrogating in turn the murderer’s father, his schoolmate, the leader of the right-wing political party whose ideology he laid claim to. But the more details are added to the sketch, the more the picture is obscured.

The succession of individuals questioned by Claire in her search for the truth are all played by Rudi Dharmalingam, who also represents the perpetrator of the central atrocity. This canny choice by Greig and Gray can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand, Claire seems to be seeing the face of the murderer in every place she looks, unable to escape him even in the embrace of her lover. The playing of all other roles by one actor also creates an intriguing quality of slipperiness; the killer is both everywhere and nowhere, inhabiting each last crevice of her consciousness while at the same time taunting her with his elusiveness. The ambiguity is enhanced by Dharmalingam’s performance, which meets Claire’s desperation with a refusal to emotionally engage, delivering each line with the same blank, lightly mocking intonation.

The impression we receive is that of a woman caught in a self-constructed labyrinth of questions, finding herself more and more lost with each new turn. There’s a certain disjointedness to the scenes, an apt sense of confusion and dislocation that hints at the incomprehensibility of what Claire is trying to piece together. Claire is a woman unmoored; unmoored from her faith, from those around her, from a previously solid sense of reason and logic. Buffeted by the currents of grief, rage and an utter failure to understand, she is alone in a sea of uncertainty.

Claire’s struggle is reminiscent of certain strands in Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident, both in the subject matter – Thorpe’s play also features a massacre with hints of Breivik – and in its staging. In There Has Possibly Been an Incident, individuals are isolated down to the level of voice, which speaks against the blank, bland backdrop of Signe Beckmann’s minimal design. Here, Chloe Lamford’s set is similarly, masterfully simple. The stage is relatively bare, furnished only with a few rows of benches, a garish orange curtain, a piano, stacks of plastic chairs and tables loaded with teacups. The visual cues that this design offers are all painful reminders of the choir rehearsal room, but more important is the yawning empty space in its middle. In this space, McIntosh’s tormented Claire searches for ways to fill the gap, not just investigating but also acting, playing out different outcomes and solutions.

Sharing the sparsely furnished stage with McIntosh and Dharmalingam throughout the show is a local choir, different every night. This touch, which on paper has the sound of a gimmick, is in fact the production’s masterstroke. On the level of the play’s narrative, their role is one of haunting, suggestive of how something – the soul, God, the accusatory whispers of the dead – can remain present even in its absence. The choir’s presence and the songs they add to the piece also nod towards the potentially redemptive and community building power of music, which at first has a flavour of bitter irony, but eventually sweetens into something like hope.

On the level of the production, meanwhile, the choir does something even more interesting. Arranged on a bank of seating directly opposite that in which the audience is arrayed, the singers act as witnesses; mirroring the audience, they struggle alongside us to grapple with the questions the play poses. Their lack of slickness or preparation also adds a vital roughness, a slightly messy and unpredictable edge that makes the piece all the more truthful and affecting. At one moment during the performance, I notice one of the choir members raise a hand to her mouth, an involuntary but striking movement that focuses my attention on the theatrical dimensions of the event – the fact that we are sharing a public space and collectively processing this effort to understand.

In his introduction to the playtext, Gray writes that “Every act of theatre revolves around a transaction between two communities: the performers onstage and the improvised community that constitute what we call an audience”. His choice of the word community is no accident. The Events is all about communities – or “tribes” – with no small amount of tension contained in that notion. Community in the sense encapsulated by Claire’s choir is overwhelmingly positive, yet it is also in the name of community, or of protecting a certain community, that atrocities like this are committed. Greig’s intricate, finely tuned arguments have a habit of sharply pivoting, challenging our assumptions and once again subjecting everything to knotty ambivalence.

In the end, how these events and their wounding repercussions read is down to each of the individuals in our improvised community, the audience. It is easy to take despairing doubt from what we are presented with, but it’s equally possible to seize on hope. Near the end, a crucial moment in the narrative is suddenly ruptured by the intervention of a choir member, who reads from a script explaining the different between chimps and bonobos. While chimps solve conflict with violence, bonobos prefer sex to aggression, greeting their enemies with embraces. Humans, we are told, share exactly 98% of our DNA with each species. Which, therefore, do we most resemble? The implication, like that of the whole production, is that it for us to decide.

Photo: Stephen Cummsikey