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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Return to the Globe

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Originally written for The Stage.

By now it is a truism that Shakespeare’s plays explore universal themes, but the Globe has taken this idea further than most. From its riverside base in London, the theatre has increasingly attempted to live up to its name and showcase Shakespeare’s work on an international level, both by touring its own productions and bringing in companies from around the world.

The pinnacle of the theatre’s international ambition to date was the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, which invited productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in different languages, performed by companies from all over the world. Festival director Tom Bird describes the feat as a “huge, ambitious and difficult thing to pull off”.

The first challenge was to decide which countries and languages to include, which Bird and his team tackled by choosing to focus first and foremost on communities living in London. The other starting point was the desire to make the programme as varied as possible – “we always wanted to mix it up”.

The resulting festival attracted a diverse range of audiences, made up of regular visitors to the Globe and a huge influx of new theatregoers who came to see Shakespeare performed in their native languages. Bird quotes the astonishing figure that 81% of Globe to Globe audiences had never been to the Globe before, far exceeding the festival’s targets. The programme also “confounded expectations of what we think we can do with those plays”.

Following the festival’s success, the Globe has made a commitment to continuing this international strand and is once again bringing back three Globe to Globe companies this year: Indian company Arpana, Fundación Siglo de Oro from Spain, and Deafinitely Theatre, whose work uses British Sign Language.

Sunil Shanbag of Arpana, who will be bringing back their Gujarati version of All’s Well That Ends Well, describes the chance to perform at the Globe as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – or twice in a lifetime, in their case.

“It’s a very giving space,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where audiences feel welcome; there was a lot of generosity. It’s a very different kind of relationship that you share with an audience at the Globe, so as I keep telling people, it’s very hard to fail at the Globe.”

For Shanbag, the priority was to make the play work for Gujarati audiences, but he has been overwhelmed by the response beyond the Gujarati community, especially from Shakespearean academics. He suggests that Arpana’s version, which drew on popular street theatre aesthetics, worked because “the very powerful emotions that run through Shakespeare’s plays – of love, hate, betrayal, loss – these are elements that are very similar to the elements that you find in Indian storytelling”.

Similarly, Fundación Siglo de Oro’s Rodrigo Arribas notes similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and the theatre of Spain’s Golden Age. After presenting Henry VIII in 2012, this year the company are performing Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, which Arribas says shares Shakespeare’s “profound capacity for dissecting the psycho-emotional nature of human beings with their desires, ambitions, perversions, doubts”.

For Deafinitely Theatre, who presented their version of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the 2012 festival, Globe to Globe brought different challenges. “Our language is very dependent on eye contact and really focusing on each other,” says artistic director Paula Garfield, “but with the Globe you can’t do that. You have to focus on the whole audience, which is surrounding you, so it’s about projecting outwards, upwards, across.”

The company have found that the festival had a positive impact on their audiences, continuing their project of bridging the gap between deaf and hearing theatregoers. They hope to continue this with their new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, which has been chosen to be as accessible as possible.

Never shy of a challenge, the Globe’s latest international project involves touring Hamlet to every country in the world over the next two years, coinciding with the anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. Explaining the impetus, Bird says, “we wanted another huge ambitious project to really get our teeth into and to reflect the relationships we had all around the world”.

The project recently received criticism from Amnesty International for its decision to visit North Korea as part of the tour, but Bird insists that “every single country means every single country”. He explains, “we want to be inclusive and not exclusive and to have conversations with as many people as possible”.

As for Shakespeare’s ability to translate across cultures, can any play be truly universal? “We feel that there’s probably nowhere in the world that won’t enjoy engaging with Hamlet in some way,” Bird says. “The play is such an extraordinary story that we really feel like anyone can enjoy it.”

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

A Trio of Tragedies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In this year’s rep season from The Faction, there are a hell of a lot of corpses. Across the span of the trio of tragedies – Hamlet, Thebes and The Robbers – the body count is staggeringly high. If one were to characterise the company’s third season of work in a few words, dark, violent and bloody immediately jump to mind.

Reductive as this is, there is something about death, both as an abstract idea and a concrete reality, which haunts all three productions. When I spoke to The Faction’s artistic director Mark Leipacher about this new season, he explained that the company did not have any overarching theme or narrative in mind when they put together the programme; their priority was simply to find work that engaged and excited them. Still, the simple placing of these plays alongside one another invites a dialogue between them, a dialogue which is repeatedly preoccupied with mortality.

There is perhaps no more famous theatrical consideration of life and death than Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet’s fame and familiarity are often albatrosses to sling around the shoulders of new productions, all of which must fall under the burden of the play’s reputation. The Faction’s interpretation, directed by Leipacher, suffers a little from this predicament. Compared with previous productions of theirs, there is an uncharacteristic timidity to their approach; few moments match the visual boldness of their best work, and there is the sense that each actor is deeply aware of the weight of the words falling from their lips.

That said, there are some intriguing touches to this Hamlet. The characterisation of the procrastinating protagonist himself is perhaps the most striking departure, as Jonny McPherson plays the Dane less as a conflicted hero and more as a whining egotist. Amidst tentative attempts to wrench something new out of the play, this comparatively brave choice stands out, offering novel and occasionally unexpected resonances to Shakespeare’s words. The ever-compelling Derval Mellett, meanwhile, makes a fascinating and nuanced Ophelia, adding vivid colour to a role that can often feel lightly sketched.

The season really hits its stride, however, with Thebes, Gareth Jandrell’s ambitious attempt to slot together the full story of the Oedipus dynasty from the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. It stands out as the clear highlight of this year’s programme, offering this most famous of classical sagas in a form that makes it feel thrillingly fresh. What adds the sense of urgency and momentum is primarily the production’s shift of focus; as signalled by the title, it is the city and its beleaguered people who become the heart of the narrative. This city is both Thebes and nowhere, The Faction’s non-specific updating dislocating it from time and place and positioning it instead as a potent metaphor for power, corruption and revolution.

Following the template established by McPherson’s moody Hamlet, The Faction are unafraid to highlight the tragic flaws of their privileged but doomed characters, who are increasingly detached from the seething masses they rule. Lachlan McCall brings arrogant swagger to the ill-fated Oedipus, while his two sons are suitably vile, self-centred and ruthless in their competition for the throne. This is an elite who are either blindly wrapped up in their own problems or coldly fixated on power. Cary Crankson – another performer who impresses across all three productions – epitomises this calculated power-grabbing with his Creon, a supremely slippery politician who soothes with one hand as he snatches with the other.

The pulse of the piece, however, lies firmly with the people. In Rachel Valentine Smith’s production, the Chorus are transformed into a writhing, revolutionary mob, variously whispering, sighing and stamping at the edges of the action. When gathered together in this crowd, the ensemble move fluidly as one, exploiting the physical vocabulary that they have developed over years of working together. This is where the muscularity of previous work returns in force, creating a population to be reckoned with and a sparse but captivating visual aesthetic to match Jandrell’s lyrical, punchy script.

Following the epic scope and revolutionary fire of Thebes, the scrappy, overblown drama ofThe Robbers feels like a significant step down. This is a remounted production for The Faction and forms a key part of their project to stage the complete works of Schiller, but it is far from the playwright’s best, lacking the tense political machinations of Mary Stuart and Fiesco, which were showcased in The Faction’s last two rep seasons. Here, instead, the drama is centred on a father and his two sons, the younger of whom attempts to usurp his older brother. It is all blood and passion, heightened to the extent that it frequently tips over into melodrama.

There is still the muscular approach of The Faction’s preferred aesthetic, alongside some inventive visual devices. Chalk is a key material, used first to compose the letters that seal the fate of cast out older brother Karl and later by Karl’s band of rebels to strikingly tally up the men they kill on their numerous rampages. It is in the scenes between these eponymous robbers that the production is at its strongest, once again playing on the group’s strength as an ensemble to build a convincing sense of camaraderie. At their centre, overshadowing conflicted Karl, is Crankson as the cocksure, rebellious Spiegelberg. Yet even Crankson’s undeniable charisma flags in the final scenes, as the bodies stack up and the overwrought emotion becomes wearing in its relentlessness.

After the slightly more cluttered sets of last year, this season wisely reverts to The Faction’s bare, stripped back minimalism, using the New Diorama’s black box studio and their own bodies as canvas and paint. The bare black wall is particularly well used, whether seemingly being held up by the defending soldiers of Thebes or treated as a giant blackboard in The Robbers. In this largely empty space, the brilliant work of lighting designers Chris Withers (Hamlet and Thebes) and Matthew Graham (The Robbers) is crucial in carving up the scenes, skilfully offering both shape and atmosphere. Light spills in from offstage, casting interesting shadows, or glows dimly from a single, dangling light bulb. In line with the morbid subject matter, gloomy visual landscapes abound.

This is now the third year in a row that I have attended The Faction’s annual rep season, allowing a line to be traced through their work over that time. In many ways this year feels like a return to the company’s essential aims and aesthetics, focusing on the kinds of text and staging that most enthuse and inspire them. There is also, of course, the return to one of their landmark productions with The Robbers, but this fails to match up to the best of what they have created since. It is instead in Thebes, arguably The Faction’s most ambitious work to date, that the company’s aspirations and strengths are found in their purest form: a bare but thrilling staging, an approach to classics that makes them feel like they were written yesterday, and an unshakeable faith in the power of the ensemble.

Photos: Richard Davenport.